Photographer: Franck Fife/AFP via Getty Images

Olympic Sponsors’ Latest Gambit at Rio 2016: Hiring Olympians

  • EY plans to hire nine Rio 2016 athletes after the Games
  • Visa also hiring Olympians as companies target athletes

Rio 2016 sponsors are taking an extra step to prove their commitment to the Games and forever marry their brands to the Olympic rings: they’re hiring Olympians.

Audit and professional services firm EY plans to hire nine female Olympians at the end of the Games, their names to be disclosed at the time. Visa Inc., the official payment card and system of the Games, is running an announcement on its website: "Help wanted: Hiring Olympians & Paralympians at Visa."

The companies insist the initiatives are more than just publicity stunts, and they’re serving an important purpose, to be sure. Beyond marquee athletes like Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, many Olympians struggle to save money during their sporting lives and see few paths toward traditional careers, save for coaching and broadcasting.

The hiring initiatives also make Visa and EY, formerly known as Ernst & Young, look good, according to Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing specialist at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

"It’s a great PR story," Dorfman said by phone. "In addition to all the other marketing avenues that you’ve got -- TV, social, point of sale, logos on uniforms -- I think it’s a great way to promote good will for your brand."

Beth Brooke-Marciniak, EY’s global vice chair of public policy, said the career transition is even harder for women athletes, who rarely make as much as their male counterparts and come to the end of their professional sports lives with little built up in the way of a rainy-day fund. Stepping in to help them transition is generally a win-win, according to Brooke-Marciniak, a former Purdue University basketball player.

"Women aren’t going to earn any money in sports, it’s stunning," she said. "Women have no choice but to pivot. They have to have a next chapter."

The women it hires will go into the advisory business, similar to the entry-level jobs it recruits for from top colleges and universities, according to Brooke-Marciniak.

If specifically targeting female Olympians is a novelty, companies from Wall Street and elsewhere have been taking notice for a while now that athletes make good employees. Carly Drum-O’Neill, who founded an athlete-focused unit at executive search firm Drum Associates, said success in sport often goes hand-in-hand with drive to succeed and the kind of confidence that allows great sales people to command a room.

"These Olympic athletes have hands down proven that they have those core skills that make you successful in the working world today," said Drum-O’Neill, a former Penn State University tennis player.

Efforts to hire Olympians have met with varying degrees of success over the years. Home Depot Inc., the home-improvement retail chain, ran a program for years to employ active Olympic athletes, effectively subsidizing their careers with a full-time salary and benefits, even though they worked fewer hours while training. The company ended the program in 2009, saying it would focus on different initiatives. The International Olympic Committee has its own career program for athletes, in partnership with staffing agency Adecco, to prepare athletes for life after sports.

Visa has also started a financial education program for Olympians to teach them about things like money management.

"Most people, when they graduate from university, take a job and start a 401(k), for example, or an IRA or a retirement account," said Angela Ruggiero, a former ice hockey player who is an ambassador for the Visa program. "Athletes, their first career is sports, and they’re not always developing some of the life skills that they’re going to need for when they retire."

Some athletes like gymnasts have had a nearly singular focus on sports from as young as the toddler years. Even the EY executive Brooke-Marciniak, who described herself as having been a good student in high school, said she essentially went to college focused on basketball and without any sense of what she would do afterward. She credits a Purdue counselor with putting her on a sustainable course early on.

Tim Crow, chief executive officer of London-based sponsorship agency Synergy, said hiring athletes as part of a broader plan also helps promote a sponsorship initiative internally.

"A lot of brands have athletes on staff," he said. "The overall trend here is brands are recognizing the internal value of sponsorships are very high if you get it right. They make your staff feel great."