Great Britain's Olympian Victoria Pendleton in a recent Pantene ad campaign
Great Britain’s Olympian Victoria Pendleton in a recent Pantene ad campaign

Credit: Courtesy of Pantene.

(WOMENSENEWS)–The 2012 Olympic Games are over and now the competition for post-game endorsements is playing out in earnest.

Typically, U.S. female athletes vastly underperform in this arena but that could be changing this year, said Andrew Reid, chief technology officer and co-founder of SponsorHub, a New York City-based company that helps connect consumer brands with athletic sponsorship opportunities.

"There is as much interest, as measured by social media, in certain female athletes," Reid said in a phone interview with Women’s eNews. "The future for female athlete endorsements is extremely bright."

Reid said female athletes in the past have generally earned about half as much as male athletes, but he expects that pay gap to get smaller over time.

Top male athletes, however, will still attract the biggest endorsements.

Olympic swimming star Michael Phelps and basketball phenomenon LeBron James will out-earn top female contenders such as tennis players Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.

But the increasing use of social media is helping female athletes. That’s because these athletes tend to have large followings on Twitter and Facebook and these are increasingly used as indices of influence, Reid said.

Gold-medal gymnast Gabby Douglas, who became the first black woman to win the all-around competition, has more than 700,000 Twitter followers.

Over the next four years, Douglas is expected to bring in $10 million. She recently signed an estimated $1 million to $3 million deal with Kellogg’s, the Battle Creek, Mich., cereal maker.

Those are large sums, but consider the pay-offs for male Olympic superstars.

Phelps, who won his first gold medals in Athens in 2004 and has gone on to become the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, has been endorsed by swimwear giant Speedo, ATandT and Visa. He is expected to earn $100 million over his lifetime.

A High Bar

That’s a high bar for Douglas to hope to ever match.

Douglas’s teammate Aly Raisman, the team’s captain, is expected to pull in $4 million over the next four years, according to Boston Business Journal. Raisman just landed a job with Maine-based Poland Spring, though terms were not disclosed.

Swimmer Missy Franklin, a high school senior in Aurora, Colo., is also getting big offers. The four-time Olympic gold medalist and world record holder in the 200-meter backstroke has given up more than $2 million in endorsement offers to keep her eligibility for college sports, according to her father.

So far, no endorsement deals have surfaced for players on the gold medal-winning U.S. women’s basketball team.

Some endorsement campaigns use not just one, but several female Olympic athletes in their promotions.

Last month, Pantene, the Switzerland-based hair products company, rolled out such an ad campaign. "Healthy is the New Beautiful" featured 11 female athletes, 10 of whom competed in the London games, including U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin and Great Britain’s Victoria Pendleton, a newly retired powerhouse in track cycling.

"Pantene and its beauty ambassadors are helping to raise awareness for the relationship between sports and health," said Kathryn Olson, CEO of the New York-based Women’s Sports Foundation, in a press statement.

U.S. Olympic beach volleyball players and silver medalists, April Ross and Jennifer Kessy, meanwhile have donated their time and public images to spread a positive, pro-sports message.

They joined with the philanthropic sports apparel company, 4POINT4, which aims to bring athletics to underprivileged children in Haiti and Thailand. In exchange for the women wearing 4POINT4-designed uniforms during the competition, the company ran Olympic volleyball games in Cite Soleil, Haiti, a U.N. designated red zone area. Red zones are considered the country’s most dangerous regions.

Long Way to Go

If some of this year’s female Olympians are reaping unusual financial payouts, female athletes in general have a long way to go before they catch up to the top earners.

The 2012 Sports Illustrated list of 50 highest earning U.S. athletes did not include a single woman. The top male earner, boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., brought in $85,000,000 in 2012, which did not include any endorsement money. The second top male earner was Phil Mickelson, who earned more $60 million; $57 million of which was from endorsements.

Female athletes are earning in the seven figures as well, but still fall behind their male counterparts. Maria Sharapova is the top earner with $27.1 million; a huge figure that is nonetheless dwarfed by that of boxer Mayweather, according to the Forbes list of top 10 highest-paid female athletes.

American companies also use fewer female athletes as spokespeople, according to an August report from the Journal of Brand Strategy. And when they do it’s not successful.

John Antil, a study co-author, describes it as a cycle of failure. "The way female athletes are being used as endorsers negatively impacts their effectiveness and reduces wider opportunities for other female athletes."

The study attributes the problem to two underlying problems.

First, outside of the Olympics, female athletes have low public visibility. That translated into low recognition, so sponsors get less bang for their buck.

Second, authors found that the advertising strategy of sexualizing female athletes doesn’t work. Pointing to a 2009 "Got Milk!" ad of bikini-clad Olympic medalist Dana Torres, it reported that women – usually the targeted demographic with a female athletic endorsement – didn’t respond positively.

Deena Shanker is a writer and attorney living in San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter.

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