When the 2020 Tokyo Games were postponed to 2021, a new opportunity presented itself for many amateur athletes: the ability to sign endorsement deals without risking their college eligibility. Those changes to NCAA rules around name, image and likeness (NIL) happened in July, just in time for the Summer Games. But NIL has afforded this year’s Olympic sweethearts—like gymnast Sunisa Lee, an incoming freshman at Auburn; viral sensation Lydia Jacoby, the state of Alaska’s first Olympian swimmer and a Texas commit; and double gold medalist Bobby Finke, who will be a senior at Florida this year if he returns—something even greater: choice.
College-eligible U.S. athletes combined to win more than a dozen medals in Tokyo, but their USOPC podium payouts no longer have to be the end of their Olympic earnings. They now have the option to compete in college and pursue potentially lucrative endorsement opportunities, which many of their predecessors did not. Simone Biles, for example, had committed to UCLA before the Rio Summer Games. Her success in 2016 catapulted her career and came with lucrative endorsement deals in the aftermath, which she pursued instead of an NCAA career. Swimmer Katie Ledecky did the opposite, choosing to attend Stanford for a period rather than cash in on estimated $5 million per year in endorsement deals.
“The beauty of NIL is that you don’t have to choose,” Lindsay Colas, executive vice president of women and The Collective at Wasserman, said in an interview. Colas represented three members of the gold-winning Team USA 3×3 women’s basketball team in Tokyo and swimmer Simone Manuel.
Women’s gymnastics all-around champion Lee, for example, likely has $1 million dollars in endorsement and sponsorships in her immediate future. She’ll still be able to do those deals when she heads to Auburn this month to start college. The opportunities for someone like the 18-year-old Lee, Colas said, would still be the same as if she were to turn pro.
“You’re still thinking about building a sustainable business, where an athlete’s Olympic success is the bones of a long-term plan, but you just get to start that plan sooner,” Colas said. “For someone coming out of a moment like this, the strategy can look very much like it would have had they traditionally turned pro. The one caveat is just time. When you do choose to go to school, you are a student athlete. That means that you have to carve out time to be a student, so that probably [lends to] a ‘fewer, better’ approach.”
While time-intensive endorsement deals may be off the table for some of the college-bound athletes, Colas is confident many will be able to earn almost—if not equally—as much as college athletes as they would as pros. The opportunity is particularly ripe for female athletes, she said, who tend to see the spotlight more during the Olympics. Lee, for example, was a centerpiece of NBC’s primetime Tokyo broadcasts for the last two weeks.
Lee now has more than 1.3 million followers on Instagram—over a million more than she did before the Games and her gold, good for a 1,321% jump, according to Tagger, an influencer marketing platform and social tracking tool. The Olympic champ, who was featured in the Peacock docuseries Golden: The Journey of USA’s Elite Gymnasts, also saw spikes on her TikTok account (where she has 1.2 million TikTok followers and racked up more than 90 million views in the last two weeks alone on her Tokyo-created content) and Twitter.
Several of her fellow college-bound teammates also benefited from the spotlight. With so many endorsement deals today tied to social media, those followers can be worth thousands of dollars in an influencer marketing industry that could close in on $14 billion in 2021, according to Influencer Marketing Hub.
Victor Matheson, a sports economist and professor at Holy Cross, seconded the notion that female athletes in particular are poised to make the most off NIL deals tied to the Olympics.
“Obviously, the person who plays in front of 70,000 fans every Saturday or in front of 10 million fans on TV has a big leg up on the women's volleyball player—except for right now,” Matheson said. “The Olympics really are a great leveler; the one time every four years we watch sports outside of the big few. It certainly has a much more balanced male-female [ratio] than we typically see in college and in the biggest professional sports leagues.”
The follower spikes weren’t exclusive to gymnasts. Other female athletes, and male standouts like Finke (whose following on Instagram more than doubled from his first swim in Tokyo to his last), who don’t typically see the spotlight outside of the Olympic cycle, experienced the same. Stanford commit Regan Smith earned three swimming medals this summer and saw a 105.56% jump in her followers. Now with 75,000 fans to advertise to, Smith has already signed her first endorsement deal with swimwear manufacturer Speedo.
While Jacoby still has another year of high school ahead, the 17-year-old star has a newfound public following of 65,000 on Instagram. Her future Texas teammate, Erica Sullivan, who also swam in Tokyo, will head to Austin with 30,000 fans of her own after finishing second to swimming Ledecky in the 1,500-meter freestyle.
The next challenge is keeping those audiences engaged as these Olympians continue through college—a dilemma athletic departments are better-suited to support today than they were last summer when the Games were supposed to take place. Schools have since invested in social and brand-focused resources as a result of NIL. In-house photography and videography departments have grown; social media software partnerships are popular; and branding educations courses are commonplace.
“How often you are out there, whether it's digitally on social media or making appearances, matters,” said Jim Cavale, CEO and founder of content delivery and social media management company INFLCR. “Every day that goes by is a day further from when you won that medal, so the ability to now capitalize on it sooner than later is huge. Colleges like Auburn [for Lee] or UCLA and Utah for [gymnast Jordan Chiles] and [Grace McCallum] are going to really help them make the most of it.”