Penny Oleksiak is famous — now what?
Endorsement money awaits, but could jeopardize collegiate eligibility
By Jamie Strashin, CBC Sports
Penny Oleksiak seems to think her life will be the same when she returns home from Rio.
"I hope so. I don't really want everything to change. I don`t want it to be super overwhelming," Oleksiak told the CBC. "It would be nice to be able to go home and chill out with my friends."
There may be time for that. But after winning four medals in Rio and capturing Canada's attention, the 16-year-old swimmer's life will undoubtedly change. She has made the rare transition from anonymous teenager to sought-after sports hero.
That transformation will bring challenges and hard choices about how she goes about capitalizing on her new-found fame.
There is no doubt Oleksiak will be coveted by companies looking to associate themselves with her, says Rob Mackay, a client manager at Landmark Sport Group, which represents a number of Olympians including swimmer Emily Overholt.
"[Oleksiak has] an authentic spirit. It's very pure and innocent," he says. "You saw that in her reaction when she won gold [in the 100-metre freestyle]. She took eight to 10 seconds without even considering the results. She's laughing, smiling, waving. It's sport in its purest form, which I think has captivated a lot of Canadians."
Oleksiak still has two more years of high school ahead, at which time the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will still be two more years away.
After high school, Oleksiak could opt to continue to train in Canada as part of the national team. Or she could choose to take her talents to the United States, where she would certainly be offered a lucrative swimming scholarship by several colleges.
"It's definitely going to be a family decision," Oleksiak's mother, Alison, told reporters. "It's not just going to be Penelope's decision."
A question of eligibility
The decision could also shape potential endorsement or sponsorship opportunities today.
If Oleksiak decides to strike while the iron is hot, any deal she signs or products she endorses could prevent her from swimming collegiately in the United States.
According to rules set by the NCAA — the organization that polices collegiate sports in the U.S. — athletes can do commercials and endorsements as long as those deals are "not based in any way upon the individual's athletics ability or reputation."
Since an athlete's ability and reputation are largely what makes them attractive to advertisers, the rule basically covers any potential endorsement.
Rik Allen, a former NCAA compliance officer who now advises potential student-athletes, says the question for athletes like Oleksiak is simple.
"How important is it for me to compete on the college level? I might be able to accept some endorsement money, but if I do I won't be able to compete at the college level. But after you have been at the Olympics on worldwide TV, maybe you're not that interested."
In other words, does the value of a swimming scholarship and a college experience at a top school like Stanford (which could be valued at around $250,000 over four years) outstrip potential earnings?
Collegiate eligibility could even be affected by accepting a gift — like, say, free Drake tickets.
It appears Oleksiak and the team around her, including Swimming Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee, are aware of the rules too. After her desire for tickets was answered by the Canadian hip-hop megastar, Oleksiak was thankful but cautious with her tweet.
Yet to accept anything so far but feeling so blessed! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/ohcanada?src=hash">#ohcanada</a> <a href="https://t.co/V2tELKV5Sr">https://t.co/V2tELKV5Sr</a>—@OleksiakPenny
Rules punish athletes
Some of the biggest names in U.S swimming have faced similar choices.
For Michael Phelps, the decision was easy. The once-in-a-generation talent has made millions in endorsements after choosing to turn pro at 16.
Then there's Missy Franklin, who reportedly turned down $5 million US in endorsement deals when she decided to swim collegiately after the last Olympics. Franklin has since turned pro and made millions leading up to Rio.
Katie Ledecky, winner of five medals in Rio, is a few years older than Oleksiak and will head to Stanford this fall. The choice will likely cost her millions of dollars, at least in the short term.
The NCAA says its rules precluding endorsements are designed to increase consumer demand for its sports. But critics say the rules punish athletes, especially young swimmers like Oleksiak.
"I think it's ridiculous," says David Grenardo, an assistant professor of law at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Tex., and a former NCAA athlete. "Take Katie Ledecky. If you allowed her to do commercial endorsements, it wouldn't decrease demand for collegiate swimming, it would increase it.
"If you had an Olympic gold medal winner you would see a bump in attendance at these sports with world-renowned athletes competing."
Should Oleksiak decide to forgo advertising riches, she still stands to collect about $60,000 in bonuses for her Rio medal haul. The Canadian Olympic Committee awards athletes with $20,000, $15,000 and $10,000 for winning Olympic gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively.
But collecting this money could be an issue. The COC warns athletes who are NCAA competitors, or aspire to be, "to determine if accepting the bonus will impact your eligibility and scholarships."
Oleksiak knows how she'd spend the money.
"I already told my parents I would be donating some when I get back home to Sick Kids Hospital [in Toronto] and the Humane Society," she says.
No wonder advertisers are salivating.