Marketing experts on how the Pyeongchang gold medalist can become a pop culture sensation and fight off chauvinists who think the snowboarder is just a “hot piece of ass”
Michael Phelps. Shaun White. Simone Biles. Chloe Kim?
The 17-year-old snowboarder, who brought home the gold in the women’s halfpipe event, is Team USA’s breakout star at the Pyeongchang Winter Games. With her air of relatability and social media savvy, Kim has won the hearts and minds of both Americans and South Koreans— her parents were born there —and earned comparisons to her fellow Californian Shaun White.
White, who holds the record for most Olympic gold medals as a snowboarder, isn’t just a top athlete. He’s also a businessman and pop culture figure with his own band and video games. His fiery red mane is so recognizable that he’s also made cameo appearances in a handful of movies. Forbes has named him the tenth most valuable brand in sports and estimates peg his fortune at anything from $20 million to $40 million. (That reputation has been marred as allegations of sexual harassment have resurfaced.) So the question isn’t just if Kim can beat the 31-year-old White’s medal haul— she has plenty of time —but if she can outdo him in the broader stakes.
“The athletic ability gets you in the conversation. But then, it’s your personality and traits that makes one athlete more marketable over the others.” says David Schwab, an executive vice president at sports marketing agency Octagon, who has overseen deals like Serena Williams’ IBM Watson endorsement.
Industry observers say Kim, who’s already appeared in Vogue and inked endorsements with Mercedes, Target and Nike, can join the likes of White and Simone Biles as Olympians who transcend sports. “It’s hard to sustain celebrity, especially for an athlete that rolls around only every four years,” says marketing guru Chuck Welch, founder of Rupture Studio. But she’s “young, diverse of South Korean heritage, tech savvy and carefree. With the marketing muscle and investment behind her that she’s going to get, I wouldn’t bet against it.”
Of course with the territory comes haters and creeps. After Kim’s win, a host at Barstool Sports, called the teenage champ a “little hot piece of ass.” And historically, Asian American athletes and women have drawn the short end of the straw when it comes to commercial endorsements. Not a single woman ranked among the top 50 in Forbes’ most recent list of the world’s best paid athletes. (Serena Williams, at #51, was the highest ranking woman; the top-ranking Asian was tennis star Kei Nishikori, whose fortune is primarily built on winnings and not endorsements.)
“My wish is that she becomes an emblem of a new age in terms of equal pay and treatment,” says Ellen Staurowsky, a sports management professor at Drexel University, who compares Kim’s potential impact to that of tennis legend and sexist-slayer Billie Jean King. “At the same time, that’s an open question. We’ve a long way to go toward leveraging a female athlete to full capacity” financially.
Yet, Kim is uniquely poised to benefit. Firstly, she’s come to prominence in the first of three consecutive Olympics held in Asia; the 2020 summer games are in Tokyo and the 2022 winter event will be held in Beijing. Her fluency in Korean opens up potential endorsements in South Korea, while her tightness with her family has already earned glowing tribute from Asian observers.
Kim’s athleticism and frequent tweets about food also position her as a role model for body positivity at a time when female empowerment is omnipresent in the national conversation. “I can see merchandise like dolls and books marketed for young girls who are confident and empowered,” says Schwab, who also expects her to appear on a television show like “Dancing with the Stars” at some point in her career. “She’s someone that young girls can look up to and that parents can trust.”
A star athlete like Kim can expect offers ranging from $50,000 deals to multi-year contracts in the multi-millions at this stage of her career. “But she needs to decide if they’ll help her in the long run,” Schwab says. “She doesn’t need quick dollars, but rather should try for opportunities where the brand puts marketing efforts behind her to separate her” from other celebrities. That may mean, for instance, delaying a memoir book deal until later in her career.
“She should do exactly what she’s been doing,” Schwab says. “Compete at the highest levels and make herself open to the public and media. She doesn’t need to fake anything. That’s what’s made her very attractive.”
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