The 2016 Endorsement Olympics

The Olympics are both a sports and marketing event and for some athletes the two were closely intertwined in Rio. Gold medals can be the springboard for lucrative endorsement deals from brands seeking to leverage Olympic values and an athlete’s celebrity status. Marketers know that athlete endorsers sometimes become a liability (see: Ryan Lochte) but the potential value they can create for a band remains a powerful elixir.

Many marketers do not wait for Olympic results to identify athlete spokespersons. Instead they sign up marketable athletes with medal potential far in advance of the Games to represent their brands. For brands with limited budgets this can mean hitching their wagon to an up-and-comer rather than a recognized – and more expensive – star.

Marketers often incorporate their Olympic spokespersons into media advertising campaigns timed to the Games. This strategy has been on display over the past 2-3 months, leading up to and through the Rio Games which ended on August 20th.


Which U.S. athletes have been backed by the largest amount of sponsor ad spending in these Olympic campaigns? To find out, Kantar Media identified all advertising creatives featuring a current or past Team USA member which ran from June 1st- August 19th in TV, print, radio or online. Some ads had a single athlete while others were ‘cast commercials’ with multiple endorsers. We took the spending for each creative and allocated it evenly to each featured athlete. We then tallied the total investment behind each athlete and have awarded our own Gold, Silver and Bronze medals to these top endorsers:

Olympics Endorsement Winners 

Most of the companies in the above list are official Olympic sponsors and followed the traditional playbook of incorporating Olympians into their ad creative. Prior to 2016, only official sponsors could run ads with Olympic athletes during a four week blackout period around the Games.

The rules were loosened a bit for Rio to give non-sponsors a narrow path to use Olympic athlete endorsers in their ad campaigns during the blackout period. The requirements were still a difficult hurdle to clear and non-sponsors with Team USA endorsers generally sat on the sidelines during Rio. A good example is The Honest Company, a marketer of household products. It ran a visible ad campaign throughout July and on the four days of July 23rd-26th it aired a $2 million burst of TV testimonial spots featuring Kerri Walsh Jennings, the beach volleyball player. The timing was dictated by the advertising blackout period which started on July 27th.


Each of these top endorser athletes except Simone Biles came to Rio as a previous Olympic champion and Biles was already Olympic pedigree, having won three consecutive world championships and earning solid name recognition. It’s an obvious point: mass market brands opting for an athlete endorser are inclined to align themselves with well-known proven winners.

Now that Rio 2016 has wrapped up, advertisers that continue leveraging the appeal of Olympic athletes have a narrow pool to choose from. Names like Phelps and Biles have staying power after the Games are over. Lesser known medalists have a limited window before their names no longer resonate with the public. For brands and athletes that are able to team up, the right combination can be a win-win situation for everyone involved.

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