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Tokyo Olympics offer new sponsorship opportunities for athletes

Tokyo 2020 athletes are cashing in on more personal sponsorship opportunities compared with past Games.

Why it matters: Marketing deals are an important income stream for competitors, nearly 60% of whom say they are not financially stable. 

What they’re saying: Restrictions "unfairly hinder Olympians' ability to monetize themselves at the peak of their marketability,"Patrick Quinn, a 20-year sports marketing consultant and agent, tells Axios.

  • From advertisers and media to agents and the service industry, a lot of money is made from the Olympics — but the people who have the hardest time making income from it are the athletes, he adds.

The big picture: In context of the seismic revamp of the NCAA's amateurism bylaws a few weeks ago, "there's no such thing as an amateur athlete anymore," says Quinn, who was an alternate on the Olympic luge team in 2006.

Catch up quick: The International Olympic Committee has been gradually loosening restrictions around athlete marketing following years of pressure from Olympians and brands.

  • Introduced in 1991, Rule 40 tries to protect exclusivity of the Games for official sponsors by prohibiting Olympians from being recognized by non-official Olympic sponsors during a "blackout" period before, during and after the Games.
  • Under updated rules, the blackout period has been lifted and Olympic athletes, trainers and officials can now “recognize” or thank personal sponsors during the Games on social media up to seven times. They can also be “recognized” by personal sponsors once.

During past games, an athlete like Ashleigh Johnson wouldn't have been able to be recognized by a non-official sponsor during the Games.

Yes, but: The new rules still leave a lot of room for improvement, says Quinn.

  • "Being able to 'thank' a personal sponsor is nice, and a step in the right direction ... but they can’t say something like 'My Nordic Track treadmill helped me become the runner I am today,'" he says.
  • "It really doesn’t do a whole lot for the athlete/sponsor relationship."

By the numbers: The vast majority of Olympic deals that Quinn says he sees are between $30,000 and $60,000. 

  • For context, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee pays medal bonuses of $37,500, $22,500 and $15,000 for gold, silver and bronze, respectively.
  • Professional U.S. soccer players make an average of $75,000 a year (with wide gender disparities).

Unlike professional sports leagues, the Games are Olympic athletes' "one time in the limelight,” says Ishveen Anand, CEO of OpenSponsorship, a marketplace for sports sponsorships.

How it works: Use of traditional media (print, TV, outdoor advertising) is still limited to Team USA sponsors during the rules period.

  • What’s permissible to show and to say on social media posts is still controlled too. 
Example of personal sponsorships that would be allowed or restricted during the "Olympic Games period" of July 13, 2021 to August 10, 2021 and Paralympic Games period of August 17, 2021 to September 8, 2021. (Screenshot credit: USOPC)

Even hashtags are defined in official guidelines.

  • OK: “Thank you @company for supporting my journey #personalbest #gold”
  • Not OK: “Thank you @company #TeamUSA" or "#Tokyo2020”

The COVID factor: If an athlete tests positive for COVID, they can't compete.

  • But Anand tells Axios that COVID clauses have been rare.
  • “It’s very insensitive. It’s like if they get sick … you wouldn’t cancel because of an injury," she says.

What to watch: There’s been “dramatic growth” in the number of companies working with Olympic athletes, says Quinn.

  • The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee launched a pilot program to help athletes land more sponsorships

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