LONDON (Reuters) - Not every athlete who wins a gold medal at the London Games will strike it rich. Most will return home to a good pat on the back and a part-time job, scratching out a sporting career.
American Gabby Douglas will not be among them.
The 16-year-old American gymnast, nicknamed the “Flying Squirrel”, arrived in London as an unknown commodity and will leave with her stock soaring - rebranded as the newest Olympic sweetheart, with millions in sponsorships and endorsements awaiting her at home.
Armed with a cute nickname, a megawatt smile, a compelling back-story and two gold medals, with maybe more to come in apparatus finals, fame and fortune await the perky teenager who only five months ago was an outsider to make the U.S. team.
The race to lock up deals with the Flying Squirrel will rival any at the Olympics stadium.
Cereal maker Kellogg Co, a U.S. Olympic Committee sponsor, was among the first out of the starting blocks, getting Douglas’s smiling face on Corn Flakes boxes on Friday just hours after she had claimed gymnastics’ biggest prize - the Olympic all-round title.
It marked the second consecutive Summer Games Kellogg had gotten the jump on the competition. It scooped swimming great Michael Phelps after his eight gold medal performance in Beijing in 2008, spoiling rival General Mills Inc’s tradition of putting the Games’ biggest star on Wheaties.
“We’re fickle, but right now she is absolutely the story,” Bill Sutton, a former-vice president of marketing for the National Basketball Association and head of the sports and entertainment management program at the University of South Florida, told Reuters.
“Her athletic ability, her age, the event gymnastics, the number of people who watch gymnastics, the high women’s audience, the fact she is a role model for young women... She’s awesome, it’s perfect.”
If social media numbers are any gauge, the world has been captivated by the Flying Squirrel.
Wildfire, a leader in social media marketing software recently acquired by Google, has analyzed which athletes and countries are dominating social media with regards to the Olympics and reports that Douglas has seen a 378 percent growth in page likes over the last week, coinciding with U.S. President Barack Obama’s call to congratulate her (“you just tore it up ... Stay cool.”)
Four of the five most recorded Olympic moments on Thursday on the video service TiVo were of Douglas’s winning the all-round crown. Only Phelps, who won his 20th Olympic medal, denied her a clean sweep, coming in at number four.
Douglas has also seen an explosion in Twitter followers, going from close to 200,000 to nearly 400,000 overnight.
American swimmer Dara Torres, who competed in five Olympic Games and won 12 medals, was among Douglas’s thousands of Twitter followers who had messages for the double gold medalist.
“Congrats to @gabrielledoug, incredible performance...get ready for the ride!” tweeted Torres.
“She’s probably one of the world’s most recognizable athletes at this point so her potential for endorsements is obviously very strong,” said Neal Pilson, head of media consulting firm Pilson Communications Inc, in Lennox, Mass.
“Clearly she’s an extraordinarily interesting, attractive, fun young lady and I think she’s going to have a lot of proposals to choose from.”
Pilson did not want to put a number on Douglas’s earning potential but some experts have pegged it at between $5 million and $10 million over the next four-year Olympic cycle.
The subject of a pre-Games article in Time magazine, Douglas shared the cover of Sports Illustrated’s Olympic edition with her “Fierce Five” team mates but the first African-American to wear the all-round crown looks ready to emerge from the Games as a marketing dynamo.
“The gold medal alone doesn’t get you to first base in marketing - it’s the persona that goes with it,” said Lynn Lashbrook, a Portland, Oregon-based sports agent. “I can’t think of another person in this category: female, young, articulate, great smile, this is unique.
“This will be off the charts.”
From Soviet Olga Korbut in 1972 and Romanian Nadia Comaneci in 1976 to American Nastia Liukin four years ago in Beijing, each Summer Games seems to introduce a new precocious talent, an irresistible charmer who commands the Olympic spotlight leaving spectators spellbound by her gravity-defying antics.
While Douglas seized her moment in the arena, so must the men and women who will represent her as they try to capitalize on the fame that can be fleeting in the sport of women’s gymnastics.
Four years ago, Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Alicia Sacramone were the anchors of the U.S. team. When they all failed to earn a spot in the London squad, their moment in the limelight was gone.
“I think she will get a lot of endorsements but it will be short-lived,” said Brad Adgate, senior vice-president of research at Horizon Media. “She’s got everything going for her as a product endorser.
“She’s got the qualities Madison Avenue look for and there has been a very long history of Olympic athletes working as product endorsers. But these things are not evergreen. You don’t see Mark Spitz doing ads anymore,” he added.
“There could be a 12-year-old out there somewhere right now, who is a young phenom, the Gabby Douglas of 2016.”
Additonal reporting by Melvin Backman and Phil Wahba in New York; Editing by Mark Trevelyan