Andre De Grasse does not claim to be a wine connoisseur. But he says wine brings people together, and that is something the Olympic gold medalist knows plenty about.
The sprinter’s latest partnership with Pillitteri Estates — which released a limited edition called 19.62, the time of his 200-meter win at last summer’s Tokyo Olympics — adds to a range of commercial deals including GoDaddy, Gatorade, Puma and Peloton.
“When somebody 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 your hard work has kind of paid off, and people love 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 comes around once every four years. That’s why this past week, on the same night the Andre De Grasse Family Foundation hosted a gala fundraiser and wine launch at Toronto’s Casa Loma, dozens of Canadian athletes were logged on to a webinar learning how to brand themselves — and, hopefully, make some money out of it.
“The funding that athletes receive from Sport Canada is arguably the bare minimum to be able to survive,” said retired Paralympic swimmer Camille Bérubé, a board member of AthletesCAN, the association of Canada’s national team athletes. “One of the goals of this webinar is to provide athletes with the tools … to go out there and sell themselves in a way to businesses and organizations that have similar values.
“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 money-making avenues to Olympic athletes. But the one most likely to get those deals remain those who have had the most success, which usually means medals at more than one Games, and are already in the public eye.
“We know Canadian athletes struggle after that halo (effect) post-Games or post-medal to get sponsorships unless you’re that one or per cent who everybody knows, everybody wants to be a part of,” said Cheri Bradish, director of the Future of Sport Lab at Toronto Metropolitan University. “We also know that typically a lot of the sponsorships have gone to men, and probably athletes that are or have been professional athletes as well. So the men’s (Olympic) hockey players do well… we see them on cereal boxes.”
To that point, last year’s study by TSN/IMI International, which assessed the most marketable Canadian athletes at home and abroad, found soccer star Alphonso Davies, who plays for Bayern Munich, topped the global list. Every athlete in that worldwide top 10 was a professional with wide exposure on television. Only one, tennis player Eugenie Bouchard, was female.
When it came to marketability within 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 great opportunity for Olympians, but they have to do real 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 after winning six sprint medals over two cycles, while Oleksiak is the nation’s most decorated Olympian of all time with seven medals in the pool from Tokyo and Rio 2016. Sinclair has competed in four Olympics and helped Canada win three medals, the last one gold.
The Achilles heel for most Olympic athletes, marketing experts say, is that they compete far less often than the pros in major sports and get less coverage when they do compete. But social media is providing new and increasingly important avenues to generate a following and stay in the public eye, by tapping into interests outside of sports.
Two-time Olympic pole vaulter Alysha Newman is a perfect example. She has created an online presence and a brand that extends into fashion, nutrition and training with over 600,000 followers on Instagram — far more than De Grasse.
“In this new marketing paradigm, she’s really understood and captured an audience and eyeballs socially,” Bradish said. “For women in particular … social media has been a real driver for them attaining commercial success.”
Mayo agrees Olympic athletes “can provide tremendous value if they’re willing to be great spokespeople and are actually good spokespeople.”
But that’s easier said than done.
“They’re so accustomed to being — and putting so much time into being — great at one thing, and it doesn’t necessarily translate into negotiating with brands or pitching themselves,” said Nate Behar, the Ottawa Redblacks receiver who founded FireWork. a tech-based matchmaking service that connects athletes with brands.
FireWork partnered with AthletesCAN on webinars to help athletes get more comfortable with branding themselves and monetizing those brands. The key, says Behar: “Knowing who you are and being consistent with that. There’s an avenue for every athlete. Whether you’re the biggest name or just somebody who’s working their way up, you can earn.”
For the vast majority, that won’t lead to multimillion-dollar deals like the one De Grasse famously signed with Puma in his breakout 2015 season. When Behar asks athletes what brands they want to work with “it’s always Nike, Under Armour, Adidas. For sure, but what do we think the reality of that is?”
Behar urges Olympians to build a brand the same way most of them built their athletic careers, from the bottom up. Create great content for a small company or local business, he says, and go from there. Entry-level deals can include getting free vitamins or half-price on a car lease, along with valuable experience and exposure.
But many Olympians are clearly disheartened by how hard it is to get the traditional sponsorships they covet.
After finishing off the podium at the world track and field championships in July, 30-year-old Canadian high jumper Django Lovett spoke about his disappointment: “If you don’t win a medal, you’re not getting sponsored … I I’m still living like a college kid.”
Race walker Evan Dunfee and Canada’s women’s eight rowers added that even winning Olympic medals was not enough to get sponsors. Canada’s Damian Warner, the Olympic decathlon champion, used to be sponsored by Nike. But after he won gold in Tokyo, he was without a sponsor until Canadian apparel maker Lululemon came on board this year.
While social media has created more money-making possibilities, it’s also time-consuming.
“It’s daunting,” says Behar. “Athletes are very much aware of the amount of work this is becoming, and kind of a necessity.”
That’s because building a personal brand isn’t just about making a living while competing. It’s also about paving the way for a smoother transition to life after sports.
“I would say the whole business of being an Olympic athlete and (especially) being an Olympic athlete post-Games, post-competition, has gotten a lot more sophisticated,” Bradish said.
That’s something even a star like De Grasse is already thinking about.
“Running fast is great, and I enjoy it,” he said. “But I try to explore my talent in different ways, whether that’s acting or shooting a commercial or giving an inspirational talk or doing community gathering stuff… to expand my horizon, and see what’s out there for me when I’m done my career. “
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