Penny Oleksiak goes from anonymous talent to marketing dream

A week ago, swimmer Penny Oleksiak was just one of the many anonymous athletes about to embark on her first Olympic Games. She's now a national hero being touted as a Canadian Michael Phelps, a fresh-faced star with seemingly limitless potential.

'She's doing everything right,' says sports agent

Canada's Penny Oleksiak holds up her gold medal after her first-place finish in the women's 100m freestyle finals during the 2016 Olympic Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

A week ago, swimmer Penny Oleksiak was just one of the many anonymous athletes about to embark on her first Olympic Games. Seven days and four medals later, she's a national hero being touted as a Canadian Michael Phelps, a fresh-faced star with seemingly limitless potential.

She's a marketing dream, experts say.

"She's doing everything right," said sports agent Kris Mychasiw of Sprint Management, who represents Canadian Olympic champion bobsledder Kaillie Humphries.

    Mychasiw likened her journey to that of Phelps, the American superstar with 22 swimming gold medals to his name. While he also made his Olympic debut as a teenager, Phelps left the 2000 Sydney Games empty-handed. His breakout came four years later in Athens, the Olympics that made him a household name and the face of many brands.

    The 16-year-old Oleksiak may be on a faster track. The Toronto native has won two bronze, a silver, and on Thursday night, captured Canada's first gold medal of the Games. She still has a shot at another relay medal.

    So could her face soon be the one on the Wheaties box?

    Penny Oleksiak, right, of Canada and Simone Manuel of United States hug after they tied for the gold medal in the final of the women's 100m freestyle at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (Ian MacNicol/Getty)

    The poised and articulate teen appears to have everything marketers are looking for.

    "If you win gold or silver but you're dry, boring as wallpaper, then you're not going to be a good athlete for a sponsor," said Monica LaBarge, a marketing professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

    LaBarge, whose expertise is in sports sponsorships, says companies are not only seeking Olympic champions, but athletes who are dynamic and can make a connection with their customer base.

    But while the sponsors could come knocking, they may have to wait. If the high-schooler decides to delay turning pro to attend college in the U.S., NCAA rules prohibit earning money from sport. Phelps chose to forgo his college eligibility and turned pro when he was 16.

    Companies targeting millennials are likely to be attracted to Oleksiak, who already has a large following on social media and is no doubt capturing the imagination of Canadian kids.

    "The country is warming up to her," said Mychasiw.

    'Blowing up'

    After winning silver earlier in the week, Oleksiak recalled checking her phone, saying it "keeps buzzing for like five minutes straight" when she turned it on.

    "It's just blowing up with a bunch of Facebook messages, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, everything," she said Monday. "It's a little overwhelming. Sometimes the apps will crash and stuff."

    Her social media audience has grown exponentially over the past several days. By Friday morning, she had more than 26,000 Twitter followers after entering the Games with about 700, while more than 30,000 were following her on Instagram. According to Twitter Canada, her handle had the most mentions of anyone on the Canadian team, even ahead of social media darling and tennis star Eugenie Bouchard.

    "Social media allows certain athletes to have a personality that people find cool or endearing to stay relevant," said Cary Kaplan, founder of sports marketing firm Cosmos Sports. "If you have a lot of people who are listening to what you say, companies look to that."

    Her humble demeanour also endears her to the public, said Mychasiw. She has surprised even herself in Rio, admitting she was targeting the 2020 Games as her big moment.

    "The athlete has to be confident and approachable, personable," he said.

    Compelling story

    Canadian brands like Hudson's Bay Company, Canadian Tire or Tim Hortons are looking for athletes who are relatable to the average spectator.

    Oleksiak has that in spades, along with a compelling personal narrative.

    "She's got this great story behind her," Mychasiw said.

    Canada's Penny Oleksiak celebrates her gold-medal win with family, including her brother, Dallas Stars' Jamie Oleksiak, second from right. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

    Oleksiak's father Richard was a multi-sport athlete and mother Alison a swimmer. Six-foot-seven brother Jamie is a Dallas Stars defenceman and five-foot-10 sister Hayley a Northeastern University rower.

    Penny's coach calls her "gifted more than most people."

    Mychasiw said what's also impressive is the way she's managed to keep performing, despite the glare of the spotlight.

    Being a swimmer also works in Oleksiak's favour as advertisers usually look to endorse those in traditionally popular Olympic sports.

    But companies can often see past that for an individual athlete.

    For instance, this year's Canadian flag-bearer, trampolinist Rosie MacLennan, became a media darling after she was the only Canadian to win gold at the 2012 London Olympics. On Friday, MacLennan won Canada's second gold medal in Rio as she successfully defended her title.

    "Authenticity in who these athletes are and letting people in as much as possible, that seems to be what shines through," said Dustin Brown, managing director at Original, a digital video branding company in Toronto.

    Brown said athletes have the most currency with advertisers right after a win, or if they are able to embody an image of a memorable patriotic moment at the Olympics. Think soccer star Christine Sinclair after leading her team to a hard-fought bronze medal in London.

    The pressure to not only excel at a sport at an international level, but also to secure a deal to help fund continued training following the Games, may be too much for some athletes — especially the first-timers, says Kaplan.

    "The problem is that it can negatively affect performance," he said. "They've worked four years to get to the Olympics where they get to be high-profile athletes, and they're focused on other things that can be detrimental."