After winning five medals at the 2016 Olympics, Katie Ledecky will be heading to college. But experts say that although the teen is giving up sponsorship opportunities, it may not cost the Team USA swimmer as much as you think.
"Yes [Ledecky's] leaving money on the table, but I think she's done a calculation," said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University. "She can afford to lose that money because of what she gains in other areas."
The 19-year-old athlete will start at Stanford University later this summer, and will swim at least one NCAA season. Although she will be receiving a scholarship, by staying amateur she won't be able to accept sponsorship deals or celebrity appearance fees.
It's hard to peg exactly how much Ledecky could have made by going pro, but several experts put it in the million-dollar range versus the approximately $60,000 per year it costs to attend and live at Stanford. Ledecky's teammate Missy Franklin, for example, turned down a reported $5 million in deals to go to University of California, Berkeley. She turned pro after two years at the school.
"From my perspective it's a shame it's an either-or situation," said Luke Bonner, sports and entertainment marketing manager at agency GYK Antler. "From an athlete's perspective really, the only people who can benefit financially from the college athlete's marketability is the NCAA and the NCAA sponsors."
Burton said there's something to be said for the actual experience of going to college. Ledecky could get more experience competing as a college athlete. Plus, she'll get life experience going to college — something that most people (and brands) admire.
There's also the fact that swimming isn't a team sport and isn't highly televised outside of the Olympics, which means sponsorships aren't as lucrative. A college degree could create a better earnings potential.
"It's not like a team sport like basketball and hockey and the like," Burton said. "There are endorsement deals, but they're tied to swim gear — the goggles the swimsuits — and appearances."
Still, swimmers like Michael Phelps have become highly sought-after pitchmen. Bonner also noted that athletes' agents have been better at structuring more long-term deals in order to maintain cash flow.
And, if Ledecky decides to compete in the next Olympics in Tokyo, she could still get the attention of brands if she wins. "Older" swimmers have been able to take home Olympic medals. The 31-year-old Phelps won five golds and one silver at this Olympics, while Anthony Ervin, 35, won the gold medal for the 50 meter freestyle 16 years after he won his first gold in Sydney. Dana Vollmer, 28, won three medals this year
The Tokyo games are just four years away, and Ledecky will just be 23. Bonner estimated that Franklin, 21, made $8 million during her Olympic run this year thanks to her sponsorships. He believes Ledecky has that potential household name power.
"There's a community there if you are the niche leader — you can see the benefits to be had," Bonner said. "She certainly could, even if it was off this one cycle."