Jeff Graba, Lee’s future coach at Auburn, made sure to highlight in his remarks after Lee won the all-around that historically gymnasts who win this title would have to turn pro because they wouldn’t be able to make money going to college. “Obviously she’s going to have to work with an agent at some point here…. We’re just preparing for anything that’s possible,” he said, regarding her NIL potential, according to reports.
And plenty will be possible, including book deals, brand endorsements—and if she chooses to start a gymnastics academy, she could put her name on it, “Suni Lee,” Thompson says.
Also, Lee and her teammates competing in college could join Biles in an ad for Athleta and profit from it as long as it doesn’t violate the confines of the trademark of their respective colleges. (Biles, who turned pro in 2015, has an endorsement deal with the Gap-owned brand.)
Overall, Thompson sees Lee and her teammates’ decision to attend college a win-win for both brands and the athletes. Jade Carey will attend Oregon State, Jordan Chiles will start at UCLA, and Grace McCallum will go to Utah.
The gymnasts will continue to have a presence on TV and streaming services through collegiate conference networks, staying relevant with the viewers and brands, Thompson says.
In the past, the only option brands had to associate with college-bound Olympic gymnasts was to sponsor entire college athletic departments—a move that often did not align strategically, Thompson suggests. But now they can work directly with the athlete they want without making a massive investment in the entire collegiate program.
Lee could now potentially get a branded doll or clothing line, as long as it doesn’t incorporate Auburn in the design. Of course, Lee could still turn pro, but going to college might be in her best interests long-term, suggests Damian Benders, general manager of B Code, a digital media company connecting with Black audiences across digital platforms.
“This is actually a potential success story because she doesn’t need to leave college in order to continue to have a presence on the national stage and reap the rewards of that from a financial standpoint,” Benders says.