Compete in college or make millions in endorsements? Actually, Sunisa Lee can now have it all
TOKYO - With an exciting gold medal in the women's all-round gymnastics competition here on Thursday, Sunisa Lee has become one of the biggest stars in the world to emerge from these Olympics.
In the past, the 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota should have made a decision.
Become a professional and benefit from the many advertising, sponsoring, lecture and business opportunities? Or refuse the money and, in Lee's case, take part in college gymnastics at Auburn University?
Not anymore, due to the NCAA's new rule that allows athletes to capitalize on their name, image and likeness.
As an all-round champion, the money Lee can make - in seven figures straight away - would probably have been too big to pass on. While recent Olympic gymnasts like Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian have competed in UCLA, the money is different for all-round champions who are suddenly known internationally.
It doesn't matter now. Lee can make millions and go to school.
"The timing is perfect for them," said Jeff Graba, the Auburn head coach. “She wants to be the figurehead of NIL. She wants to prove that you can have it all. "
Sunisa Lee of the United States will perform in Tokyo on Thursday, July 29, 2021 during the all-around finals of women's artistic gymnastics at the 2020 Summer Olympics. (AP Photo / Gregory Bull)
But not only the athletes benefit. The NCAA should do this, too, though it has been fighting against it for years.
College gymnastics will add a big star in the next season when Lee starts competing for Auburn.
"I wish I could have done it," said Jordyn Wieber, the 2011 all-around world champion and 2012 Olympic gold medalist, who is now the head coach at the University of Arkansas.
"The Olympics and college gymnastics were my two big dreams," said Weiber. "Hard decision for a 16 year old."
Wieber decided to become a professional. It wasn't just the money either, although the sponsorship and advertising deals were nice. The lure of incredible experiences such as appearances and travel on a nationwide tour after the Olympic Games, giving speeches and coaching younger gymnasts all influenced the decision.
She ended up going to UCLA ... but had to work as the over-qualified student manager of history.
"I have Jordyn Wieber moving mats over there because of NCAA rules," said Valorie Kondos Field, the former UCLA coach, with a laugh. She also once signed Simone Biles, although she never expected to actually train her. Bile was worth millions.
"We knew Simone was going to turn pro," said Kondos Field. "There was no way."
That was annoying for both coaches and athletes. Women's gymnastics has grown in popularity, particularly at the Southeastern Conference, where attendance has skyrocketed and a regular Friday night slot on the SEC network has drawn fans.
Still, there is plenty of room to grow. Why should a sport challenge its most famous talents? Imagine the TV ratings and ticket frenzy if Biles had actually turned out to be a Bruin from 2016-19?
"Simone Biles would have taken NCAA gymnastics to a whole new level," said Kondos Field.
That is what Graba hopes for from Lee and other US national players. Team USA teammates Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Jade Carey (Oregon State) and Grace McCallum (Utah) will now compete in the Pac-12.
Suni Lee wins gold medal in all-around finals, US swimmers set Olympic records | What you missed
In a competition that was determined by the non-participants, Suni Lee competed and won a gold medal in the women's all-around individual final, while the US men's swimmers Caeleb Dressel and Robert Finke achieved record performances in the pool. In addition, the US rugby sevens team reached the quarter-finals, while Team USA expanded its lead in the total number of medals.
Even if top international gymnastics is a higher level of the sport, attending college actually makes athletes more visible (and more valuable to sponsors). Instead of four or five major competitions per year, they appear in about 15 college meetings during a four-month season in the United States.
The hope is that the gymnast can ride the post-Olympic wave with the Olympians.
"Every four years, gymnastics is one of the greatest sports in the world," said Graba. “Then we'll leave. We don't have to leave anymore. "
Nobody claims NCAA gymnastics will turn into college football anytime soon, but it can't hurt to keep marketable stars - and allow outside companies to promote them too.
"I remember when Kaitlyn Ohashi's routine went viral, people wanted to see her because she was a star," Wieber said of the former UCLA gymnast, whose floor performances became immensely popular online.
"See what happened to Kaitlyn," said Kondos Field, her UCLA coach. “We went to Stanford and it was sold out. They usually have 500 people there. Oregon state. Oklahoma. Wherever we went it was full because of Kaitlyn Ohashi. "
Can Lee do that in the SEC and the others in the Pac-12? Why not? They arrive famous.
"This is the # 1 gymnast to have ever attended a college program," said Graba. “Nobody has ever had a gymnast like this. The sky is the limit. They will all pay attention to the sport, both on TV and in the gym. "
A victory for the athlete. A win for college gymnastics.
Funny how that works.
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In this article:
Valorie Kondos field
American gymnastics coach
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