Ledecky to Sponsors: Pay Up

Editorial content is the opinion of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of SwimSwam.

In many pro sports the ‘contract year’ is a well known phenomenon. Athletes in the last year of their current deal have extra motivation to perform so that their next contract will be a big one. Contract years often lead to career best seasons. This isn’t the sort of thing that usually comes up in swimming. High level athletes have their target meets (Olympics, World’s, NCAA’s etc.) and they tailor their training so they peak at those meets. One meet not on most swimmer’s list of target meets: the Indianapolis stop of the Pro Swim Series.

Katie Ledecky absolutely tore up that meet this weekend. She set the world record in the 1500 and the US Open record in the 400 free. Her times in the 400, 800, and 1500, were faster than at the 2017 world championships and her 200 was within a quarter second of her finals time from worlds.

Ledecky’s finals times at recent major meets and this weekend:

2015 Worlds 2016 Olympics 2017 Worlds This Weekend
200 1:55.16 1:53.73 1:55.18 1:55.42
400 3:59.13 3:56.46 3:58.34 3:57.94
800 8:07.39 8:04.79 8:12.68 8:07.27
1500 15:25.48 15:31.82 15:20.48

It’s hard to ignore the timing of this performance. This was Ledecky’s first meet as a pro. She doesn’t yet have the huge list of sponsors a swimmer of her stature should able to attract. It’s a reasonable assumption that she is negotiating with several companies at the moment-she wore suits from several different companies at this meet (TYR, Speedo) and blacked out the logo on her cap. A big meet here can only help her in those negotiations. Maybe the timing is a coincidence, but if so, it’s a pretty convenient, profitable coincidence.

My interpretation of this weekend’s results is that this meet was her ‘contract year.’ This was a statement meet to potential sponsors (whether that was in fact her intention, the effect is the same). While it may not seem like a swimmer of her stature needs to make any kind of statement, since the 2016 Olympics she has seemed increasingly mortal. In the lead up to and at the 2016 Olympics swimming observers could call her ‘the best swimmer in the world’ without batting an eye, but in the 2 years since, she has been better described as ‘one of the best swimmers in the world’.

In Olympic sports there’s a huge difference between those two things. Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt made millions while most of their closest competitors made orders of magnitude less.

A big part of Phelps’ and Bolt’s popularity was that their dominance was so easily understandable to even the most casual fan. Bolt was so good he could showboat his way to victory in the most prestigious foot race in the world. Phelps won so many medals.  No one needs that explained to them; the amazing is obvious. This allowed them to transcend their sports and become mainstream celebrities.

Ledecky has the potential for that same type of crossover appeal. A single image of Ledecky beating her competition by half a pool is enough to explain her greatness to someone who knows almost nothing about the sport.

Industry insider David Arluck brought up this point in his interview with SwimSwam about swimmer’s earning potential. “Ledecky, at 20 years old, is already a sports icon…Phelps was dominant, but Ledecky simply crushes her competition.”

However, until this weekend, she hadn’t put up a transcendent, dominant performance a la Phelps or Bolt in several years. Without those types of performances, her marketability is significantly lessened (it’s still huge, but when the bar is Phelps, standards are pretty absurd).

At last year’s world championships, Ledecky lost an international final for the first time when she was beaten by Federica Pellegrini in the 200. Her 1500 was 6 seconds slower than at worlds 2 years earlier. Her times in all three of her Olympic individual events (the 200, 400, and 800) were slower than in Rio. Her signature ludicrous margins of victory were narrowed. After winning the Olympic 800 by over 11 seconds, Ledecky beat 15 year old Li Bingjie of China by only 3 seconds at 2017 worlds. Her winning margin in the 400 went from 4.8 seconds in 2016 to 3.2 in 2017.

By the end of the 2017 world championships Sarah Sjostrom had made a pretty solid claim to the title of best women’s swimmer in the world. Sjostrom’s individual medal count at worlds (3 golds and a silver) matched Ledecky’s. Sjostrom holds 4 long course world records (to Ledecky’s 3), 2 of which she set last year, and Sjostrom has arguably the strongest world record, men or women, in any event with her 24.43 50 fly.

At Ledecky’s biggest meet so far this year, NCAAs, she again under performed. Her times in all three individual events were slower than her mid season and conference times, and she was beaten by teammate Ella Eastin in the 400 IM. It wasn’t a catastrophic performance-she split a jaw dropping 1:39.8 on the 800 free relay-, but it also wasn’t vintage Ledecky. For the second straight year, someone else was named NCAA swimmer of the year. After Rio, Ledecky entering the NCAA seemed like Lebron James deciding to try his hand in the Euro League, but after two seasons Ledecky left having never been named the best swimmer in college.

It’s easy to find historical comparisons with negative implications for Ledecky’s future. One of Ledecky’s closest historical analogs, Janet Evans, set her last long course world record at 18. Evans won tons of races after 18 (including the Olympics), but the headline grabbing world records sponsors love never returned. Missy Franklin, after an all time 2012 Olympics at age 17, has struggled to regain her form after a 2014 back injury. Since turning pro, Franklin has failed to produce results that come close to her days as an amateur. The vast majority of women’s world records in distance events have been set by teenagers. Ledecky is 21. The list of world beating teenagers who found little success after 20 is endless (Dagny Knutson, Diana MacManus, Jilen Siroky to name a few examples)

There are plenty of reasonable explanations for a short term dip in Ledecky’s performance. New coach, starting college, new training environment, post Olympic hangover. All perfectly normal, but the accuracy of a ‘Ledecky is already on the downswing of her career’ narrative wasn’t particularly important. What mattered was that suddenly it was possible to make that argument at all. There was creeping doubt. Doubt that didn’t exist two years ago. Had she started to decline, even if only a little? Is she the next Phelps or the next former teenage phenom? Any savvy potential sponsor is asking themselves these types of questions before committing big money to her. And there is big money on the line. Arluck estimated Ledecky’s earning potential at $5-$10 million dollars annually.

This weekend should go a long way to assuaging potential sponsor’s fears. Any doubts about her ability to return to (or surpass) 2016 form have been erased, because she’s back there now. This was classic Ledecky. It’s a return to normal and in her world, normal is being absolutely ridiculous.

Now we enter the territory of wild speculation. The timing of this meet as her first as a professional is extremely convenient. Did she rest? Maybe. It certainly looks like she did. (Worth noting, swimmers are always incentivized to say they are less rested than they actually are) She was better at this in season meet than last year’s world championships.  If she did rest, it looks like a power move to potential sponsors. “You think there’s even a chance I’m washed up? Could a washed up swimmer do this?” Even if she was unrested and this incredible performance is a complete coincidence, the message is the same: “Show me the money”

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Oldswimguy
4 years ago

Nice negotiating ploy. That swim meet probably made her north of $5MM in the next couple years. Non-swimming corporations aren’t going to take a chance on a swimmer, unless they are pretty sure there is going to be a big payoff at the next Olympics. Swim suit companies lost any leverage they might have thought they had.

As an aside, there are folks trying to push through a “right to use image” exemption for NCAA athletes that would allow said athletes control of their image and ultimately sponsorships. This is mainly for football and basketball players, but it could also help swimmers. I have often thought that any woman swimmer that is pre-college and has a great Olympic meet, should… Read more »

MVDG
4 years ago

I would say that the decision probably wasn’t predominantly about money or sponsorships but that it probably did factor into the decision. I would guess that the big driver here is the timing with gearing up for the 2020 Olympics. Remember that Ledecky did take a gap year before college to train full time in 2016. I think going pro frees her from spending time training for SCY and gives her the chance to spend her winters competing at the international level. Perhaps she has her eyes set on gold medals in atypical events for her (specifically, I’m thinking 400 IM. the 200 free is also always a close race), and training full time for LCM and racing full time… Read more »

Kelsey
4 years ago

I think this article is a strong opinion piece. Personally yes, I think Ledecky rested a bit and targetted this meet. She strikes me as someone who would preplan the assault on pro-earnings. Do I think her results assuage any nerves on her performance in 2 years time, no. Yes the 1500 was a world record but how often does she race it long course? Her other times were great but still not her best. Her 400 IM unsure the point of it seems likely to progress little, certainly no domination of it. Do I think she is untouchable? No. As an Australian maybe I’m biased but I think if Titmus continues the way she is Ledeckey has a clear… Read more »

Kelsey
Reply to  Kelsey
4 years ago

Ps. When you think of Phelps he is the guy who used the 8 to make swimming famous in the US where it wasn’t really well known and to support water safety. When you think of Thorpe he used his marketability to raise money for charities and pursue the inequality in the indigenous communities together with what interesting things could come his way so he wasn’t another cashed up bored star. When you think of KL what do you see? Personally I think Simone Manuel is someone you can see better marketability behind.

Yozhik
Reply to  Kelsey
4 years ago

There are several different markets. Some people are ready to pay for Missy Franklin’s smile and her stories about her surrogate birth not carrying at all that she doesn’t swim anymore. Some people are ready to pay for Simone Manuel after her two great times that coincided with extremely lucky circumstances. Why? Because as she put it she feels responsible for so many lives now. Some will invest in Katie Ledecky because it is the most popular name for the army of young swimmers worldwide and not only swimmers. Because her achievements and dominance make many people not only get amazed but also to review the level of their own achievements. Because if she was chosen among the most influential… Read more »

Jim C
Reply to  Kelsey
4 years ago

It is ridiculous to claim that Ledecky’s performance does not ease any concern about her performance in 2020. Even if she focused on this meet, it was her 2nd best meet ever after Rio–and there is no way she focused on this meet as much as she did on Rio.

Yozhik
4 years ago

It is not a question if new pro status brings new motivation to the Katie’s life. For sure it did. And the father it goes it will determine more and more in her approach to swimming competition. I don’t think that such things as “breaking the world record at high school competition” or “breaking the world record in prelim races” will happen again just because, as Bruce Gemmell put it, she feels like that. Her meets will be well planned. And this last meet is the first step in this direction. But this meet is a little bit controversial.
If to put aside possible commercial considerations I would look at it same way as at meet in Austin in… Read more »

Jim C
Reply to  Yozhik
4 years ago

I suspect she went less than all out in the 400IM to save herself for the 200m later in the session and the 800m the next day. If she wants to try the 400IM internationally, this would be the year.

Yozhik
Reply to  Jim C
4 years ago

Maybe. But my question was why to include this event at first place and not to swim under 1:54.8 sec the 200 race getting #1 ranking at this event as well. It would be better for increasing her marketability (if it was the purpose of this meet), it will increase the intimidating pressure on her young competitors. What was the reason to swim. 400IM and to lose it to Eastin in LC as well? I see no logic in this her decision. Maybe it’s something personal of trying to conquer something that has been escaping constantly the accomplishment. She succeeded with 200 event, she achieved her goal in something that stands that far from 1500 as 100 race, making silver… Read more »

gregor
4 years ago

If she were male she would have even more offers, the inequality in the sexes still exists today.

Kelsey
Reply to  gregor
4 years ago

So using this example Serena Williams isn’t as marketable as Federer? If you’re going to use the argument for big stars you need supporting evidence. Normal swimmers sure it’s likely they might not get paid the same. But in this instance it’s apples v apples and you get apples.

James
Reply to  gregor
4 years ago

In a sport like swimming, I think males and females have generally similar levels of marketability. I think the equation was thrown off due to Michael Phelps, but quite frankly he is a once in a generation (possibly once in many generation) type swimmer) talent who commanded a much wider audience over multiple Olympic years. I think Missy Franklin had a good chance to become a much more “Phelpsian” level athlete if she could have carried her dominant performance in London over to Rio. It’s not easy to stay on and compete at the top year after year, which makes Ledecky a rare commodity – and likely to become even more so if she stays on top through 2020.

Josh Davis
Reply to  gregor
4 years ago

In my 22 years as a pro swimmer, all things being equal, females have always made more. If there was a female version of Phelps, she would make more.

swimmer
Reply to  gregor
4 years ago

Men are faster than women and people want to see fast swimming. Id rather watch Sun Yang dominate the 1500 by 50 seconds in the olympics than Katie Ledecky win by 20 in the 800.

Sum Ting Wong
4 years ago

If I were a potential sponsor I uld be checking with my insurance company . They would do a risk assessment. In her background KL is from the club of a charming successful lately convicted coach with high levels of support in the US swimming community . Each coach she has has had would be getting a thorough review .

Insurance companies are bearing the overwhelming share of the MSU ( so far) 1/2 billion bucks . With the above example of Kukors who can blame them for being nervous of female swimmers?

Togger
Reply to  Sum Ting Wong
4 years ago

Even taking this on the premise you have some meaningful base for what you’re saying (which, to be clear, it seems you don’t), why would a sponsor need to take out insurance against such an issue?

If Coach A, an employee at the time of Any Town Swim Club, abuses Swimmer X, why does that pose an insurance risk to Swimmer X’s eventual sponsor, Swimsuit Corp, which has no connection to Coach A, the wrongdoer?

Sexual abuse of young swimmers is disgusting regardless of their gender and any abused swimmrer should be entitled to answers, an apology and compensation from culpable clubs and regulatory bodies, but it has absolutely nothing to do with a professional swimmer’s sponsors or prospective sponsors.

Sum Ting Wong
Reply to  Togger
4 years ago

The discussion ongoing in US Gymnastics circles is that the insurance companies are paying the bulk of claims for MSU . Some see it as a good thing as reforms may come via limits imposed just as they are in other insurance schemes . These may modify behaviour & increase compliance . For example they may direct that medical issues be treated entirely outside of them or their club .

Companies can buy insurance on their sponsored athletes/ ambassadors & are compensated should they cause damage to the brand . If they did not before , they will now . The fact is kL spent years at a club owned by a disgraced coach . I like your confidence that… Read more »

ElvisVB
4 years ago

The stands are empty when she swims and TV goes to commercial. Sponsors aren’t stupid.

MVDG
Reply to  ElvisVB
4 years ago

I still think that Ledecky has the most name recognition of any female swimmer right now, both within and outside the sport of swimming. Even if people aren’t watching the entirety of her 1500 free, the parts that they are seeing are very marketable – when the announcer calls her name for being the top finals seed and the crowd sees her warm up apparel pre-race, when she does post race interviews on and off deck wearing sponsor apparel, and even if she does commercials for her sponsors.

swimmer
Reply to  MVDG
4 years ago

Just face the facts. Nobody cares about distance swimming. I am a distance swimmer and Ive accepted it.

PatinNYC
4 years ago

I think this article makes a lot of good points. Katie is one smart cookie and I’m sure she’s getting loads of great advice. I do wonder how comfortable she will be with the non-swimwear sponsors that are wanting perky Missy type spokespeople for their products. I almost think that Simone has the advantage here personality-wise.
Phelps was never a great actor but he has no problem selling everything from sandwiches and jerky to watches. Even now in retirement, he’s pulling in more endorsements than all of the rest of US swimmers combined.