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The Most Marketable Athletes Coming Out of the 2016 Rio Olympics

The Most Marketable Athletes Coming Out of the 2016 Rio Olympics

6 minute read

  • The Olympics provide a platform for athletes to introduce themselves to an international audience. This lift in attention can provide athletes with increased sponsor interest
  • Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak was identified via online surveys of Canadian Olympic viewers as the biggest breakout star of the games
  • Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui demonstrated that it is not only success that makes an athlete stand out but an authentic moment fans can connect with

Over the course of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, many unique stories emerged as amateur athletes became household names. Thanks in part to the Olympic platform, not only can these athletes reach new fans, but the increased attention they have received can also translate into sponsorship interest.

Prior the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt was only sponsored by Puma and a relatively small Jamaican telecom company. However, since his first gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Bolt has been sponsored by several major brands including Visa, Samsung, and Gatorade. This lift in awareness amongst viewers and brands is what MKTG will study as it seeks to identify five of the “breakout” stars of the 2016 Olympic Games. In addition to highlighting the top five most marketable athletes, MKTG ran a survey asking 158 Canadian Olympic viewers to list their "breakout" athletes of the Olympic Games. The clear top two athletes were Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak at 28% and sprinter Andre De Grasse at 22%. See below for more information on each athlete and others from Rio. 

Penny Oleksiak (Canada)

Penny Oleksiak became one of the most talked about Canadian athletes at the Summer Games after winning 4 Olympic medals, including one gold. At only 16 years old, Penny’s talent and early athlete life cycle can make her an attractive endorser for many brands. Oleksiak is also very active on social media, with an increased following since the Olympics. The young swimmer participated in a Twitter Q&A with BuzzFeed Canada after her gold medal win, and has shared her Olympic experience through social media. Her impressive Olympics clearly resonated with Canadians as she topped the MKTG survey as the "breakout" athlete of the Olympics. Although Oleksiak would be a valuable endorser for many brands (MKTG CEO Brian Cooper has said she could command up to a six-figure contract), she may not be available as an endorser, as it would affect her eligibility to compete in the NCAA. With the conclusion of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, Oleksiak will likely take some time to carefully plan her next career steps accordingly.

Fu Yuanhui (China)

China has long been a nation focused on the results of their Olympic athletes. Kids that show athletic promise are often sent to full-time athletic training facilities as young as 8 years of age in order to be groomed for Olympic competition. However, swimmer Fu Yuanhui was able to shift China’s attention away from gold medals - becoming a viral sensation thanks in part to the enthusiasm she displayed in her post-race interview after discovering her race time from a reporter. People from China and around the world connected with her emotion, and that translated to an increased following for the Chinese swimmer. Yuanhui saw her followers increase on Weibo (China’s main social media platform) over 600% to 4 million. Yuanhui demonstrated that not all athletes necessarily see an increase in marketability from elite performance, but rather from genuine moments that people can connect with. Yuanhui’s personality provides a refreshing alternative to the typical athlete interview, and reminds people that the Olympics can be about more than first place finishes. 

Simone Biles (USA)

Appearing at her first Olympics, gymnast Simone Biles became one of the standout stars of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. At 19 years old, Biles tied the all-time record for the most medals won by an American gymnast at a single Olympics. As a result of Biles’ performance, she was chosen to be the flag bearer for Team USA during the 2016 closing ceremonies. Biles continued to gain attention even after her competition as she was highly active on social media throughout the Olympic Games – notably documenting a surprise visit from actor Zac Efron. Being social media savvy, Biles has over 4,300,000 followers across social media (Facebook + Instagram + Twitter) and posts frequently to her social channels. Despite the success and attention Biles has received, marketers should be aware that gymnasts typically have a short window to compete at a high level. During the last Summer Olympic Games in London, Gabby Douglas received similar attention for her success in gymnastics, but was unable to sustain the same level of success in Rio. 

Fiji Rugby Sevens Team (Fiji)

With a population of just 900,000, the country of Fiji has traditionally not seen much success at the Olympics. Despite appearing in every Summer Olympic Games since 1968 (except the 1980 boycott), no Fiji athlete has never won a medal. That changed this year, when Fiji won the gold medal in the newly introduced Olympic event, Rugby Sevens. The victory shut down the nation’s banks and shops as people took to the streets to celebrate. The Prime Minister of the country issued a public holiday on the day after the team arrived back in the country. Digicel, a local telecom-company and sponsor of the Rugby Sevens team, offered free calls to all customers after the gold medal match to mark the occasion. With such an important moment for a country where the sport is widely played, any member of the team (or the team as a collective) can provide a valuable endorser for Fiji brands. Non-Fiji brands could also leverage the team in marketing as the story of the team could provide a compelling narrative for a sponsor to tell. 

Rafaela Silva (Brazil)

On the third day of competition, Brazilians were able to celebrate as local Judo athlete Rafaela Silva became the first Brazilian to win gold at the Games. Silva grew up in Rio and credits Judo with keeping her way from trouble in her neighbourhood. Prior to the 2016 Games, Silva competed at the 2012 London Olympics where she was disqualified for an illegal hold, and faced notable racism online which almost forced her out of the sport entirely. However, Silva remained with the sport and captured gold, becoming one of the most recognized Brazilian athletes from the Games. Silva has over 220,000 Instagram followers and has documented her post gold medal celebrations throughout the Olympics. Silva’s story and victory can give brands an ability to tell a story with significant national pride. Much like when the Olympics were hosted in Vancouver, the Silva’s performance and the Games itself united the country’s citizens and raised national pride.

Honourable Mention: Andre De Grasse (Canada)

De Grasse is included as an honourable mention due to his past profile by MKTG on the “Most Marketable Athletes Coming Out of the Pan Am Games” blog. Last year, the Canadian sprinter captured gold in both the 100m & 200m events at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto. However, while the Pan Am Games may have introduced De Grasse to Canada, the 2016 Rio Olympic Games introduced him to the world. De Grasse’s three medal performance and much publicized friendship with Usain Bolt gained significant media attention. At only his first Olympic Games, Andre De Grasse was competitive in all three of his events. De Grasse also scored well with Canadians in the MKTG survey, ranking as the second most popular "breakout" athlete. Having turned professional in December 2015, De Grasse has already signed endorsement deals with Puma, Gillette, and Pizza Pizza. With his impressive showing at the Olympics, and Usain Bolt likely to retire, De Grasse will have the opportunity to become the next face of sprinting – opening him up for additional sponsorship interest.

The Rio 2016 Olympics provided marketers with a new crop of potential endorsers. As the competition has concluded and the athletes have returned home, sponsorship marketers will be busy at work on securing the breakout endorsers coming out of the Rio Summer Games.

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