LANE ONE: What if athletes could sell their name-image-likeness and no one cared? USOPC and LA28 are trying to solve this Olympian-sized problem

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As the Games of the XXXII Olympiad get ready to open this Friday in Tokyo, about 11,091 athletes will be in competition, or a few days away from starting their journey as Olympians.

Of these, some 613 athletes – 5.5% of the total – are members of “Team USA,” under the supervision of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, who will look after them carefully during their limited stay in Tokyo. The USOPC will then do the same for the U.S. team for the Paralympic Games that will start on 24 August.

If the predictions are right, more than 100 American team members will win medals at the Games, but most will not. But almost all of them will have been challenged to find enough funding and support to have made it to Tokyo.

Amid the recent news of NCAA athletes being able to cash in on their name, image and likeness, Olympic-sport athletes who are not competing for universities have had this opportunity for years – since the Olympic amateurism rules disappeared in the early 1980s – and have still found funding a major challenge.

The stories of Olympic hopefuls surviving on unemployment payments, food stamps and, more recently, GoFundMe campaigns are legion. But rather quietly, an experimental program is underway to try and help.

It’s called the Athlete Marketing Platform (AMP), introduced by the USOPC in November of 2020. It’s a pilot program, essentially a “digital marketplace” that is designed to connect “Team USA sponsors and licensees directly with athletes, providing incremental revenue opportunities and marketing exposure for Team USA athletes.”

The program was announced as created in cooperation with the USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council and the National Governing Bodies Council, but the implementation is actually in the hands of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Properties (USOPP) joint venture between the USOPC and the Los Angeles 2028 organizing committee.

That makes a lot of sense, since LA28 Chair Casey Wasserman’s own worldwide agency – not the organizing committee – is one of the leading athlete-management, artist-promotion and brand-support firms in the world.

That expertise and the opportunity to do more than athletes can do on their own has attracted attention from almost as many athletes as are on the U.S. Olympic Team for Tokyo: 527 in all:

Olympic sports and disciplines (33/372 athletes ~ 70.6%):
● 47 Track & Field
● 36 Rowing
● 34 Volleyball
● 22 Cycling
● 22 Fencing
● 18 Swimming
● 18 Gymnastics
● 16 Rugby
● 15 Triathlon
● 12 Hockey and Sailing
● 10 Softball and Water Polo
● 9 Shooting and Weightlifting
● 8 Canoe-Kayak and Wrestling
● 7 Diving and Karate
● 6 Archery, Judo and Table Tennis
● 5 Taekwondo
● 4 Basketball, Modern Pentathlon and Skateboarding
● 3 Artistic Swimming, Badminton and Football
● 2 Boxing, Climbing, Equestrian and Tennis

Olympic Winter sports and disciplines (6/58 athletes ~ 10.1%):
● 14 Skiing
● 11 Figure Skating
● 9 Bobsled
● 7 Curling
● 6 Biathlon and Luge
● 5 Speedskating

Paralympic sports (8/97 athletes ~ 18.4%):
● 29 Para Track & Field
● 17 Para Cycling
● 15 Wheelchair Basketball
● 11 Wheelchair Rugby
● 9 Goalball
● 7 Para Swimming
● 5 Para Alpine Skiing
● 4 Para Powerlifting

The first-stage trial is for March 2021 to March 2022, and it works in three parts:

(1) A guaranteed base payment for group marketing rights.

(2) New revenue streams such as royalty fees for consumer products through licensed merchandise.

(3) Potential for incremental revenue via individual marketing deals.

The group marketing rights piece provides a payment of $1,250 – in two installments – for USOPC commercial partners to use an athlete’s name-image-likeness as part of a group to “to show their support for Team USA.” Nothing more than the use of a photo is needed and the fee will be paid even if no sponsor uses the athlete’s image. Easy.

If an athlete who is part of the program has their name, image and likeness on any Team USA merchandise, then the athlete will earn a royalty on all sales. It’s not going to be a lot, but it’s a start.

The great potential in this program is with the “individual marketing” opportunity, where athletes can get involved directly with sponsors or other USOPC affiliates. The program outline states “AMP makes the connection, and the athlete negotiates the payment and terms.”

This direct exposure to sponsors, suppliers and affiliates of not only the USOPC, but potentially also of the National Governing Bodies and the thousands of companies who are not now involved at all in the U.S. Olympic Movement is the break that Olympic athletes, most of whom know a lot about their sport but not as much about branding, media relations and endorsements, are hoping for.

Is this the solution to the financial challenges of U.S. athletes? No, not yet. But it’s an unprecedented move in the right direction and has the possibility to show the way to better match athletes without the wide exposure of an Allyson Felix, Katie Ledecky or Simone Biles to companies that couldn’t afford to sign them anyway.

In many ways, the Athlete Marketing Platform and the new name, image and likeness opportunities for NCAA athletes who aren’t the dominant football or basketball stars are concepts in parallel. Athletes in both groups badly need exposure and the creation of a true marketplace for their services.

Watch for these two “markets” to become more closely intertwined over time, as a merger could benefit both the collegiate and Olympic-focused performers and the local, regional and smaller national brands and companies that could actually find effective promotional options that they can actually afford.

Rich Perelman

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