Ledecky turned professional after two collegiate seasons, which opened up her training schedule and a fire hose of income possibilities. Katie Ledecky Inc. — formally registered as KGL Sports LLC — is thriving, her marketing appeal almost unmatched among American athletes in Tokyo.
Ledecky picked up her first gold of these Olympics on Wednesday morning in Tokyo, cruising through the 1,500-meter freestyle race and helping ease any frustrations lingering from a second-place finish in the 400 and a surprising fifth in the 200. She then added a relay silver, toppling the mighty Australian squad, and had one more Tokyo event on tap Saturday.
“She always will be a champion. She’ll always be a [six-time] gold medal winner. She’ll always be one of the greatest American swimmers ever,” said Rick Burton, sports marketing professor at Syracuse University and the former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee. “I don’t think she loses any appeal if she doesn’t win every single gold medal during these Olympics. She’s personable; she’s articulate; she’s a lot of things that sponsors and endorsers want.”
For Olympians, endorsement deals are typically signed well ahead of the Games — years earlier in many cases. While some contracts might have incentives based on performance, most of Ledecky’s do not. When Ledecky turned professional in March 2018, there was no shortage of companies eager to work with her. She was able to be selective and took on some deals that extended beyond the Tokyo Games.
In Tokyo, gymnast Simone Biles is in her own stratosphere in terms of endorsement deals and sponsorship opportunities. But Ledecky is at the top of the next tier, prominently featured during prime time on NBC and a familiar face from the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, where she won four gold medals. And she is still near the top of her game. She’s still likely to pick up one more medal in Tokyo in the 800-meter freestyle. She holds the world record at that distance and has posted the top 24 times in history.
“She was guaranteed to be one of the biggest names of the Games,” said Dan Levy, her agent at Wasserman, “not just on what she’s accomplished but who she is as a person and all that she brings to the table, her journey to Stanford, graduating, someone who cares about making the world a better place.”
Ledecky witnessed many aspects of sports business firsthand growing up in Bethesda, Md. Her uncle, Jon Ledecky, partnered with Ted Leonsis to purchase the Washington Capitals and a share of the Washington Wizards. Jon since has sold his shares and now is the owner of the New York Islanders. While she was at Stanford, Katie Ledecky’s celebrity status put her in contact with a wide range of corporate executives, from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki to Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani.
Her biggest partnership is with TYR, a swimwear company, and runs through the 2024 Olympics in Paris. According to two people familiar with the agreement, Ledecky earns at least $1 million annually from the deal, and because of the contract length, it is believed to be the most lucrative endorsement deal ever signed by a swimmer, male or female.
Matt DiLorenzo, the company’s CEO, said “partnering with an athlete of her caliber has been transformative” for TYR.
“The reality with swimming is there’s only a few swimmers that are household names,” he said. “And even some of the more popular are generational: [Michael] Phelps and [Ryan] Lochte. Katie is the star of this generation and will go on to be, if she’s not already, the greatest female athlete. So when it comes to being recognizable as a swimmer, she doesn’t have an equal right now. … There’s only so many swimmers that have that global notoriety.”
In all, Ledecky has 10 endorsement deals with a wide range of companies — from Ralph Lauren to Adidas. Each was deliberate, Levy said. There were products and brands that were a part of her childhood or training: Hershey (the candy her family passed out at Halloween), American Girl (the toy dolls she collected) and chocolate milk (her preferred post-race drink). While she felt personally connected to those products, Panasonic also helped Ledecky launch a STEM education program for school-aged children with a special emphasis on young girls.
“It was really important for her, as she put together the business of Katie, that the companies she worked with did a lot of good but also really connected with her on a deeper level,” Levy said. “It was nonnegotiable. She wasn’t going to partner with companies that she didn’t believe in. Most athletes feel that way, but this was different. This was a hard red line. There was a lot of great stuff that came to her, but it didn’t necessarily fit.”
Ledecky’s initial appeal to potential partners might have been sheer dominance and competitive success. But as she has grown older, she has established some familiarity with viewers who first met her as a teen and have watched her personal narrative evolve. They’ve seen her win and lose — and this week bounce back to win again.
Some of her biggest deals, such as TYR and Panasonic, run well beyond the Tokyo Games, and while Ledecky has said little about her plans, most expect her to continue swimming through the Paris Games.
Regardless of her final medal count in Tokyo, she is likely to leave these Games similar to how she arrived: a highly visible champion with an unmatched athletic résumé, an appealing spokesperson for corporate America and one of the few active Olympians who has managed to become a household name.
“I think the next frontier for Katie is to be even more marketable outside of the world of sports,” Levy said, “reminding people of her greatness but also letting them know her in a way in which she becomes even more marketable — certainly beyond swimming and the Olympics but beyond sport, too.”
Barry Svrluga and Julie Tate contributed to this report.