Welcome back to UPROXX’s Athlete Heat Index, where sports marketing executive and self-described “brand geek” Michael Ehrlich ranks athletes by the strength of their personal brands. The latest ranking is inspired by the Tokyo Olympics kicking off with competition
already under way and the Opening Ceremonies on Friday.
With more than 11,000 athletes taking part in the Games across 33 sports, we focused on individual sport athletes. So you won’t find big name team sport personal brands like Kevin Durant, Megan Rapinoe, Damian Lillard or Sue Bird on this lis, but instead the athletes who compete on their own and leverage the Olympics stage to drive their ongoing career and brand trajectory.
The Games are a unique platform because every four years (five in this case), athletes have a small window of opportunity to build their brand and tell their story. Traditionally, Olympic sports do not receive consistent mainstream media or fan attention in non-Games years therefore it’s imperative for these athletes to leverage the time leading up to, during and after the Games to connect deeper with fans and potential sponsors to set them up for consistent brand success in non-Olympic moments.
Here are few U.S. Olympic athletes with the strongest personal brands ahead of the Games:
Sha’Carri Richardson, Track & Field
Unfortunately, Richardson is technically not an Olympian but there couldn’t be a list of top personal brands without mention of her incredible trajectory over the last few weeks. Despite not being allowed to compete in Tokyo, she is absolutely a case study how to authentically build a genuine brand, especially during challenging times.
Her story – dominance at the Olympics Trials, failed drug test and ultimate suspension from the Games – are all well documented, but it’s how the 21-year-old handled the rollercoaster of a Summer that distinguishes her personal brand. Fans and media fell in love with Richardson’s personality during her success at the Trials – her dominance on the track, her confidence in interviews, combined with a heartfelt family backstory resonated with so many people and made her an early favorite for the most popular U.S. Olympian.
However, when news broke of her failed drug test and suspension, she didn’t run and hide, instead taking it all in stride while remaining true to her authentic self, only further connecting with fans, media and even future brand partners. Richardson opened up to The Today Show about why she failed the test, providing context as to the personal challenges she’s been dealing with and reiterating the fact that although she runs faster than most, she is still human. This genuine narrative extended as celebrities, athletes, fans and her main sponsor Nike showed love and support via social media and a “Let Sha’Carri Run!” fan petition quickly garnered close to its goal of 600K signatures.
Although she was still barred from competing in Tokyo, Richardson continued to own her story as she made her first public appearance at The ESPYs, where host Anthony Mackie included support for her in his opening monologue. The continued momentum for her skyrocketed her notoriety, social media footprint and ultimate interest from future brand partners.
Her personal brand fully crossed over into pop culture when she starred in a surprise commercial from Beats by Dre that premiered during the deciding Game 6 of the NBA Finals and highlighted the “Live Your Truth” message that resonates so authentically with Richardson. The spot featured a new Kanye West song and announced his highly anticipated new album was launching two day later. Richardson being associated with one of the most polarizing personalities in West and connected to one of the strongest brands in Beats took her narrative to new heights.
She will no doubt remain one of the most talked about athletes at the Games even without being in Tokyo and her next race in August should set viewership number records as she has plans for “putting on a show.” The stage is set for a major comeback on the track, but her personal brand is already in top shape for continued success as Richardson just scratches the surface of a long career.
Christina Clemons, Track & Field
You might not know Clemons by name (yet), but you’ve probably seen photos of the U.S. hurdler who qualified for the Olympics while wearing mini Cool Ranch Doritos earrings. The organic placement – Clemons forgot to pack earrings for the Trials, so she grabbed a few pairs at a local store – and how she engaged with Doritos on social media, is a lesson for all public figures on how to create your own authentic brand partnership. She quickly jumped on a unique opportunity to engage with a brand and leverage the short window of momentum to capitalize.
After qualifying for the Olympics, Clemons took to Twitter to celebrate her achievement with a few photos showing off her excitement, unique earrings and asking fans to “blow Doritos mentions UP.” Of course, her earrings earned massive editorial and social conversation and the chip brand quickly responded, setting the stage for an authentic reactive partnership. A few days later, “Cool Ranch Clemons” received a personalized bag of Doritos featuring her face and a congratulatory message from the brand. The continued media coverage of Clemons all included mention of her earrings and the seeds were planted for a formal partnership with Doritos.
When asked about the social media groundswell with Doritos, Clemons told The Washington Post, “I didn’t expect it. I was just being, you know, I’m just being me.” This authenticity is what all brands look for so it was no surprise that Doritos quickly made things official with a formal partnership, a tongue in cheek press release they posted on Twitter and a gold pair of earrings they sent to Clemons to
commemorate the deal. Now as “Cool Ranch Clemons” heads to Tokyo with a new nickname and brand partnership, all eyes will be on her earrings to see what Doritos she’ll be wearing.
Allyson Felix, Track & Field
Entering her fifth Games and only one medal away from being the most decorated Olympian in women’s track and field history, Felix is the ultimate case study for sustaining success over time. Through the years, global competitions and ridiculous number of medals, Felix’s
personal brand has continued to evolve and her influence off the track will remain long after she hangs up her spikes.
It has been her personal challenges though – especially a frightening premature birth of her daughter that put them both in danger – that led to her greatest impact. Indeed, in typical Felix fashion and just 10 months after giving birth, she won her 12th and 13th gold medals at the World Championships eclipsing Usain Bolt’s previous record and making her the most decorated athlete in World Championship history. But it was her testimony before Congress about racial disparities in maternal care and providing women of color with more support during their pregnancies that set the stage for Felix’s greatest accomplishments.
Felix challenged her longtime sponsor Nike in a New York Times op-ed for not supporting pregnant athletes, ultimately leaving the brand to join women- focused Athleta as their first athlete partner and setting the pace for Simone Biles to do the same recently. Through Athleta, Felix has been able to continue to support working moms in new ways. Together, they created the Power of She Fund, which will help cover childcare costs for athlete moms. The first recipients who are competing at the Olympics will receive $10,000 each towards childcare.
Further innovating on the brand front and creating new opportunities for women, Felix founded her own footwear company Saysh, designing sneakers for and by women. Her Saysh One lifestyle shoe made an iconic appearance alongside Felix in a recent TIME Magazine cover story that tracked her career journey and lasting impact on society. Felix will likely make Olympic history in Tokyo, but her legacy extends well
beyond the track.
Simon Biles, Gymnastics
The GOAT of GOATS, Biles easily earns the Gold Medal for strongest personal brand ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and with her expected success in these Games, she will cement her legacy even further. She already has four gold medals to her name (in addition to 25 world
championship medals) and could take home five more in most likely her last Olympics. But at just 23-years-old, Biles has an even longer career ahead of her outside of Olympic competition.
Although the window for Olympics athletes to build and sustain their personal brands is limited, Biles extends her narrative better than anyone else. In the lead up to these Games – in conjunction with her U.S. Trials performances going viral as she made gravity-defying routines look easy – she graced covers from Health Magazine to Sports Illustrated to Wall Street Journal Magazine to Glamour while
giving fans an even closer look at her life through a Facebook Watch series, “Simone vs Herself.”
From a marketing perspective, she’s been the focus of NBC’s Olympic coverage promotions that lean heavy into her GOAT label and has stared in commercials for such brand partners as Visa, Oreo and Uber Eats. Her recent move from Nike to female-focused Gap sportswear brand Athleta earned massive coverage and conversation, joining Allyson Felix in a “Power of She” marketing campaign highlighting the brand’s message of female empowerment and success through unity.
But it’s her bubbly personality and extreme confidence – in a petite 4’8 frame – that resonates most with fans and brands around the world. Tom Brady or Michael Jordan might be known as GOATs in their respective sports, but neither has ever worn a literal goat logo on their uniform like Biles. During the U.S. Trials – while landing moves never done by women before and inventing her own signature routine – Biles debuted a leotard featuring a bedazzled goat plus matching post-performance goat slides, to “hit back at the haters” who doubted her continued greatness. The confidence and fun but more than anything the accuracy of this GOAT title, truly separates Biles from the pack.
In the days leading up to the Games, Twitter launched a new GOAT emoji – wearing a red leotard with a gold medal around its neck – specifically for #Simone and #SimoneBiles. She’s the first Olympian to receive this social media execution and the first woman, following Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes earlier this year.
In a recent Morning Consult study, Biles jumped 95 spots from 2020 to be among America’s top five most popular sports figures in 2021 – trailing only Brady, Jordan and LeBron James. It’s no surprise that in another Morning Consult poll, the most popular Olympic sport for U.S. fans ahead of the Games is gymnastics. Not only is she building a historic personal brand, but she is literally carrying her sport to new heights and will cement her legacy as the GOAT of GOATS not just in these Olympics but moving forward in her future endeavors. Biles transcends
her sport and the Games overall, continuing to etch her name in the history books as one of the strongest personal brands of all-time.