Road To The Olympic Games

Money at Play

Olympic medals may be priceless, but athletes don't get rich

Winning an Olympic medal is a priceless experience. But let's not mistake priceless for financially valuable.

Variety of factors determine value of Olympic success

Canadian teenager Penny Oleksiak is a sudden star after collecting a gold, a silver and two bronze medals at the Rio Olympics. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Winning an Olympic medal is a priceless experience. But let's not mistake priceless for financially valuable.

Without fail, once the Olympic stand-out performance happens (see Penny Oleksiak in Rio or the Dufour-Lapointe sisters in Sochi), the media speculates on how much those medals will be worth in sponsorship dollars. What these articles fail to mention is the reality of how Olympic sponsorship actually plays out, including the factors that play into the value of each of those medals.

Remember, the IOC doesn't award prize money to winning athletes. So outside the Canadian Olympic Committee's Excellence Fund ($20,000 for gold, $15,000 silver and $10,000 bronze), the financial value in a medal stems from the athlete's ability to attract corporate sponsorship. Unless that athlete is winning a medal in a sport that attracts a global audience (ie. the men's 100 metres or any professional athlete competing for Olympic gold), those corporate dollars are from Canadian marketing budgets. 

For those wondering, Canadian marketing budgets are much smaller than global marketing budgets and smaller than those in the U.S. (insert Katie Ledecky/Penny Oleksiak sponsorship worth comparison here). 

Simply put, the sponsorship pie is smaller here in Canada compared to the U.S., unless you are an athlete that has the power to become a global brand.

Marketing budgets are only one factor influencing the value of an Olympic medal in Canada.  Numerous other factors also contribute:

Timing

The vast majority of sponsorship investment is in the lead-in to the Olympic Games, not after. Win four Olympic medals and become Canada's most successful Summer Olympian ever? The value in those medals will be at its highest the year before the next Summer Olympic Games, not exiting these Games. 

Sponsors spend on athletes just prior to the Games in order to generate hype before and during the Olympics (does anyone else love the Brianne Thieson-Eaton and Ashton Eaton Visa ad?). 

Leaving Rio, most Canadian companies will be starting to consider who to sponsor and how to activate around the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympic Games, not picking up athletes from the Rio 2016 Games.

Sport matters 

The more popular the sport is, the more people watch. The bigger the audience watching, the more valuable the sport becomes to sponsors, and the more leverage for the athlete to profit on a win. The reason Andre De Grasse can get sponsorship deal worth millions? The men's 100 is the marquee event of the Olympic Games. 

In Canada alone, 6.9 million viewers tuned into to watch De Grasse on CBC when he squared off against sprinting legend Usain Bolt. That is nearly double of any other event to date (Thursday's 200 final could change that). 

In other events where Canadian marketing dollars dictate the value of Canadian Olympic medals, the popularity of the sport in Canada matters. Some sports are more popular in Canada than they are internationally and vice versa. Take diving, table tennis or badminton. In China, these sports are more valued by the Chinese than they are in North America, therefore winning becomes more valuable to those athletes than an athlete in Canada.

Canadian success, value

The more medals Canada wins, the less financially valuable each medal becomes. Hard to believe right? There are only so many dollars to go around. 

Other factors

The number of Olympic medals won, Olympic experience, timing of the moment, gender and personality of the athlete are all key factors too. Some athletes are just more comfortable owning the spotlight than others. The weight of each factor will be different with every athlete.

Now don't get me wrong – an Olympic medal is still an Olympic medal. It signifies being the best in the world on the grandest stage. The highlight of a life-long journey to greatness. But each athletes' life-long journey doesn't equate to the same financial pay-off. The simple truth is, not all medals are financially equal.

About the Author

Deidra Dionne is Director, Business Affairs at Rogers Media. Her unique outlook on the business of sport stems from her experience as a two-time Olympian and Olympic medallist in freestyle skiing aerials, and from her education and experience as a lawyer in the sport and entertainment industry.

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