How women in the Olympics are building second careers as influencers

March 28, 2024
Emmy Liederman
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Olympic gymnast Suni Lee has scored deals with brands including Crocs, Free People and Lego. 

Olympic swimmer Bella Sims is candid about how professional sports have left her little room to explore an outside identity. Throughout her new video series "Bella Sims Needs a Life," the 18-year-old is on a mission to find sources of joy that have little to do with her performance in the pool. The series, which was produced by the branded content company Portal A, captures Sims as she tries out volleyball, uses a pottery wheel and heads to prom.

In the first episode, an unpolished Sims sits in front of the camera covered in Starface pimple patches and shares that at least once a week after getting home from the 2020 games in Tokyo, she would offer up the reminder, "Hey Mom, your daughter is an Olympian."

After a few initial conversations with Sims, Jacob Motz, Portal A’s director of original projects, knew he wanted to capture the social and personal sacrifices that Sims has made throughout her athletic career to maintain a competitive edge.

"Here was this really incredible person, doing nearly impossible things, but she had to miss out on a lot to get to that place," he said. 'It’s not something people generally think about with people they admire, and we loved exploring that idea." 

Brands are undoubtedly ramping up their partnerships with women in sports—sponsorship deals for women in professional sports have increased more than 22 percent year over year, according to data platform SponsorUnited. As evidenced by Sims’ partnership with Portal A, the structure and discipline that professional sports demand leave room for an untapped digital presence. Beyond reaching athletes at the peak of their careers or in the context of their sport, brands are helping them build multidimensional identities while hanging onto a dedicated fanbase.

"Athletes do really well as influencers because their audience has a lot of trust in them," said Madison Smith, co-founder and COO of  talent agency SMITH&SAINT. "We’re helping them design their own businesses from the ground up." 

Scoring golden placements

Smith, alongside her co-founder and partner Britt St. George, founded their talent agency after recognizing a gap in digital career opportunities for women in professional sports. After meeting Nastia Liukin in 2018, the 2008 all-around champion gymnast at the Beijing games, they committed to guiding female athletes into new stages of their careers.

While Liukin and other agency clients like Olympic gymnast Suni Lee post a healthy amount of sponsored content, these brand deals are paired with organic posts of the athletes in action. Their captions include "Three things I learned from gymnastics that made me more confident" and "To the little girl who practiced on a homemade balance beam and believed that nothing was impossible: you were right. I’ll forever be an Olympian." 

"Nastia is 15 years out of the games and just has an incredible fan base who loves and supports her," said Smith. "These athletes have a built-in fan base who have supported them throughout their athletic pursuits, but there’s so much more to share about them as individuals. That was a niche that we wanted to go into headfirst." 

Shaping long-term influence

On a world stage where audiences deeply associate talent with their sport, St. George recognizes the importance of selectivity when it comes to brand deals. Instead of considering how a piece of creative will perform independently, the agency must consider how it contributes to the fragile and newly expanded identity of an athlete.

"When talent changes their content from solely sharing what they’re doing as an athlete to sharing skincare products, they're going to lose a certain amount of their following," said St. George, stressing that a follower drop-off can come with the hidden benefit of deeper loyalty among those who remain. "It takes time to rebuild that audience to the point where they are active, engaged, and supportive." 

According to Smith, taking a delicate approach to this transition is an investment in career sustainability that is untethered to one platform or content category.

"It’s so easy for them to fizzle out, and beyond getting brand deals, it’s about building a business and saying, ‘If Instagram or TikTok went away, what would we have left?’' said Smith.

Owning, and sponsoring, a liberated voice

Since garnering a fan base from the 2020 Olympics, Lee has focused on partnerships with purpose. She has partnered with Lego to promote equality in women's sports and was attracted to the Free People brand for their fundraising for Girls Inc, which funds after-school programs and leadership opportunities.

While professional athletes who delve into sponsored content may take a hit to their following, Smith stressed that brands have a distinct opportunity to tie their names to a thoughtful and selective transition.

"Suni was able to say ‘I want to craft this partnership this way, and I want to be able to give back to this community,''' said Smith. "Athletes are so used to being coached and told what to do, but this is the first time that we’re giving them the reins to control their own narrative.'"

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