Social maker

Brand play is a source of income for some Olympic athletes

Andre De Grasse does not claim to be a connoisseur. But he says wine brings people together, and that’s something the Olympic gold medalist knows well.

The sprinter’s latest partnership with Pillitteri Estates – which released a limited edition called 19.62, at the time of his 200m victory at the Tokyo Olympics last summer – adds to a range of business deals including GoDaddy, Gatorade, Puma and Peloton.

“When someone wants to work with me, it’s always an amazing feeling,” De Grasse said this week. “It’s truly a blessing to be able to know that all of your hard work has kind of paid off, and that people love you and adore you and want to partner with you and do special things with you.

“So for me, it never gets old…because I want to be known not just as an athlete.”

De Grasse’s success in translating sporting excellence into dollars is relatively rare among Canadian athletes whose biggest competition takes place once every four years. That’s why last week, on the same evening the André De Grasse Family Foundation held a fundraising gala and wine launch at Casa Loma in Toronto, dozens of Canadian athletes were connected to a webinar to learn how to stand out – and hopefully make the money out of it.

“The funding the athletes receive from Sport Canada is arguably the bare minimum to be able to survive,” said retired Paralympic swimmer Camille Bérubé, board member of AthletesCAN, the National Team Athletes’ Association of Canada. “One of the goals of this webinar is to provide athletes with the tools…to get out there and sell themselves in a way to like-minded companies and organizations.

“The landscape is certainly changing.”

Sports marketing experts agree that social media, the rise of influencers and brands seeking more direct engagement with consumers have opened up lucrative avenues for Olympic athletes. But those most likely to get those deals are still the most successful, which usually means medals at more than one Games, and are already in the public eye.

“We know that Canadian athletes have a hard time after that halo (effect) after the Games or after the medal to get sponsorships unless you are that one or percent that everyone knows and everyone wants to do part,” said Cheri Bradish, director of the Future of Sport Lab at Metropolitan University of Toronto. “We also know that generally a lot of sponsorships have gone to men, and probably to athletes who are or have also been professional athletes. So male (Olympian) hockey players do well…you see them on cereal boxes.

At this point, last year’s TSN/IMI International study, which rated Canada’s most marketable athletes at home and abroad, found soccer star Alphonso Davies, who plays for Bayern Munich, topped the global list. Each athlete in this world top 10 was a professional widely broadcast on television. Only one, tennis player Eugénie Bouchard, was a woman.

As for marketing in Canada, De Grasse ranked fifth after four NHL players, followed by Bianca Andreescu (tennis, sixth), Penny Oleksiak (swimming, seventh) and Christine Sinclair (soccer, eighth).

“I see a big opportunity for the Olympians, but they really have to do well and do well more than once,” said Don Mayo, managing partner of IMI International, a marketing consultancy.

De Grasse is Canada’s most decorated male Olympian having won six sprint medals in two cycles, while Oleksiak is the country’s most decorated Olympian of all time with seven medals in the pool of Tokyo and Rio 2016. Sinclair competed in four Olympic Games and helped Canada win three medals, the last gold.

According to marketing experts, the Achilles heel of most Olympic athletes is that they compete much less often than pros in major sports and get less coverage when they compete. But social media offers increasingly important new avenues to generate a following and stay in the public eye, tapping into interests outside of sports.

Two-time Olympic pole vaulter Alysha Newman is a perfect example. She’s created an online presence and brand that spans fashion, nutrition and training with over 600,000 Instagram followers – far more than De Grasse.

“In this new marketing paradigm, she really understood and captured an audience and eyeballs socially,” Bradish said. “For women in particular…social media has been a real driver for their business success.”

Mayo agrees that Olympic athletes “can provide tremendous value if they are prepared to be great spokespersons and are, in fact, good spokespersons.”

But that’s easier said than done.

“They’re so used to being — and taking so long to be — great at one thing, and that doesn’t necessarily translate to negotiating with brands or presenting,” said Redblacks wide receiver Nate Behar. ‘Ottawa. who founded FireWork, a technology-based matchmaking service that connects athletes to brands.

FireWork has partnered with AthletesCAN on webinars to help athletes feel more comfortable with branding and monetizing these brands. The key, says Behar: “Knowing who you are and being consistent with that. There is an avenue for every athlete. Whether you’re the biggest name or just someone stepping up, you can make money.

For the vast majority, this won’t lead to multimillion-dollar deals like the one De Grasse signed with Puma during his 2015 season. When Behar asks athletes what brands they want to work with, “it’s always Nike , Under Armour, Adidas. Of course, but what is the reality? »

Behar urges Olympians to build a brand the same way most of them have built their athletic careers, from the bottom up. Create great content for a small business or local business, he says, and go from there. Entry-level offers can include getting free vitamins or half the price of a car rental, plus valuable experience and exposure.

But many Olympians are clearly discouraged by the difficulty of securing the traditional sponsors they covet.

After finishing on the podium at the World Athletics Championships in July, 30-year-old Canadian high jumper Django Lovett expressed his disappointment: “If you don’t win a medal, you’re not sponsored. I still live like a college kid.

Walker Evan Dunfee and Canada’s eight women’s rowers added that even winning Olympic medals was not enough to find sponsors. Canadian Damian Warner, Olympic champion in the decathlon, was sponsored by Nike. But after winning gold in Tokyo, he was without a sponsor until Canadian clothing manufacturer Lululemon joined him this year.

While social media has created more opportunities to earn money, it also takes time.

“It’s intimidating,” Behar says. “Athletes are very aware of how much work it is and of a kind of necessity.”

That’s because building a personal brand isn’t just about making a living while competing. It is also about paving the way for a smoother transition to life after sport.

“I would say the whole question of being an Olympian and (especially) being an Olympian after the Games, after the competition, has become much more sophisticated,” Bradish said.

It’s something even a star like De Grasse is already thinking about.

“Running fast is good, and I like it,” he said. “But I try to explore my talent in different ways, whether it’s acting or shooting a commercial or giving an inspirational talk or doing community-gathering stuff… to broaden my horizons and see what’s in store for me. when I finish my career.”

JOIN THE CONVERSATION

Conversations are opinions of our readers and are subject to the Code of conduct. The Star does not share these opinions.