Winning an Olympic gold medal in the women's all-around competition is the most coveted title in gymnastics. You become the face of the sport, raking in sponsorship deals.
Just ask Simone Biles, who, after her win in 2016, immediately struck deals with Kellogg's, Hershey's, Nike, and Visa. Or Gabby Douglas, who in 2012 got a custom Barbie and deals with Honda, Subway, and Smoothie King.
But the catch is that you have to turn pro—or at least that used to be the case.
Suni Lee is not turning pro. She confirmed this week she still intends to compete as a freshman beginning next month for Auburn University. But the 18-year-old will still be able to cash in on her new status as Olympic gold medalist as result of newly loosened NCAA amateurism rules. The so-called NIL rules that took effect July 1 allow college athletes to strike deals with brands that use their name, image and likeness. The ruling gives way to athletes to leverage their platforms the way influencers do, selling signed autographs, inking endorsements, and by making personal appearances. It will remain in effect until federal legislation is passed or the NCAA creates permanent rules.
While the COVID-induced one-year Olympics delay resulted in a lot of hardship, this is one situation where the pause helped. Because if the Games were held last year, Lee’s earnings potential would have been hurt by the old, stricter rules. Now, four of the six USA gymnastics team members who are attending college this fall will enjoy an entirely new business situation.
Lee “will be a case study for years to come," says Vince Thompson, Founder, and CEO of MELT, a sports marketing and branding agency, adding that now, the sky's the limit for her. “She is America's sweetheart," Thompson says. "America was waiting for this hero," adding that her estimated sponsorship potential right now is above seven figures.