For track and field fans, Sha'Carri Richardson's signature look is well-known: With fuchsia, pink and gold shiny acrylic nails, she bursts out of the blocks at the sound of a gun with her rustic red hair trailing — serving as fire for her lightning speed.
This week she became known for something else: a sympathetic figure hurt by what many observers see as an outdated drug policy by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. The organization gave her a 30-day suspension when it was determined that THC, a substance in marijuana, was found in her drug test. That effectively ended her chances to compete in the 100-meter dash in the Olympics. And her Olympic dreams were officially crushed when news broke this week that she was not selected for the U.S. 4x100-meter relay team.
The snub robs Richardson of the chance to perform on her sport’s biggest stage, a move that at first blush seems to hurt her sponsors while also damaging her chances to win even more endorsements. However, branding experts say because of how the situation played out, she might now actually be more attractive to marketers.
Part of her appeal reflects changing public attitudes on cannabis use. "Ten years ago you would have seen brands, sponsors, and even fans say, I'm going to give up on her, " says Jim Andrews, founder and CEO of sponsorship consulting firm A-Mark Partnership. "People want to know more about her which is something a brand is looking for."
He drew comparisons to tennis player Naomi Osaka, who maintained broad brand and public support after dropping out of tennis tournaments because of her refusal to participate in press conferences. She cited mental health reasons.
George King, chief financial officer of Alumni Pros Global Sports, a consulting firm for athlete brands and likeness, says that Richardson's overall stock in the marketing space, if anything, has gone up. He credits her for taking accountability for her actions and says brands will gravitate to her because they often latch on to a unique story.
"This has multiple layers to it. In communication terms, it comes down to how she ‘frames’ the issue," King says. "She has chosen to frame the issue as unfortunate [and] she has chosen to allow people (i.e. social media and other athletes) other than herself to point out the irrational inconsistencies that have worked against her in this situation."
King says brands look for partners who show intelligence, maturity, and judgment—and in Richardson's case, she is only 21 years old and has demonstrated all three. Richardson immediately took accountability for her actions, revealing that a reporter told her about her mother's passing just before her race. Still, she knowingly consumed a banned substance which is a violation of USADA policy.
"I apologize for the fact that I didn't know how to control my emotions or deal with my emotions during that time," Richardson said.
Richardson's top endorser, Nike, quickly came to her defense, saying: "We appreciate Sha'Carri's honesty and accountability and will continue to support her through this time."
If other brands adopt that attitude, Richardson’s net worth is set to grow beyond her current value of between $100,000 to $250,000 estimated by Biography Daily. She netted more than $40 million worth of media exposure from July 1-July 6, according to data from Apex Marketing Group, cited by Yahoo Sports.
Richardson’s fame is rising in part because many people who previously had no idea who she was now found themselves empathizing with her situation. Her social media following has ballooned over the last few weeks to almost half a million followers on Twitter and a couple million on Instagram, showing that she has grasped the attention of younger people, which is red meat to advertisers.
In the short term, brands wishing to partner with Richardson won't have to jump through the International Olympic Committee's rules for athletes competing at the games.
According to IOC rules, brands that are not official Olympics sponsors are limited in what they can do with competing athletes during the games.