Compete in college or make millions in endorsements? Actually, Sunisa Lee can now have it all

TOKYO — With a thrilling gold-medal performance in the women’s all-around gymnastics competition here Thursday, Sunisa Lee has become one of the biggest stars in the world coming out of these Olympics.

In the past, the 18-year-old from St. Paul, Minnesota, would have had to make a decision.

Turn pro and cash in on the many endorsement, sponsorship, speaking and business opportunities? Or turn down the money and compete in college gymnastics, in Lee’s case, at Auburn University?

Not any longer, due to the NCAA’s new rule that allows athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness.

As an all-around champion, the money Lee can earn — seven figures immediately — would have likely been too great to pass on. While recent Olympic gymnasts such as Kyla Ross and Madison Kocian have competed at UCLA, the money is different for all-around champions who are suddenly internationally renowned.

Now it doesn’t matter. Lee can make millions and go to school.

“The timing is perfect for her,” said Jeff Graba, the head coach at Auburn. “She wants to be the poster child for NIL. She wants to prove you can have it all.”

Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the floor during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Sunisa Lee, of the United States, performs on the floor during the artistic gymnastics women's all-around final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Thursday, July 29, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Yet it’s not just the athletes who benefit. The NCAA, despite fighting this for years, should, as well.

College gymnastics will add a massive star next season when Lee begins to compete for Auburn.

“It is something I wish I had been able to do,” 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,” Weiber said. “Tough decision for a 16-year-old.”

Wieber chose to turn pro. It wasn’t just the money, either, although the sponsorship and endorsement contracts were nice. The lure of incredible experiences like performing and traveling on a post-Olympics nationwide tour, giving speeches and coaching younger gymnasts factored into the decision.

She wound up attending UCLA … but had to work as the most overqualified student-manager in history.

“I have Jordyn Wieber over there moving mats because of NCAA rules,” Valorie Kondos Field, the former coach at UCLA, said with a laugh. She also, at one point, signed Simone Biles, although she never expected to actually coach her. Biles was worth millions.

“We knew Simone was going to go pro,” Kondos Field said. “There was no way.”

This was infuriating for both the coaches and the athletes. Women’s gymnastics has risen in popularity, especially in the Southeastern Conference where attendance is way up and a regular Friday night time slot on the SEC Network has drawn in fans.

Still, there is plenty of room to grow. So why would a sport push out its most famous talents? Imagine the television ratings and frenzy for tickets if Biles had actually gotten to be a Bruin from 2016-19?

“Simone Biles would have taken NCAA gymnastics to a whole new level,” Kondos Field said.

That’s what Graba, among others, hopes that Lee and other U.S. national team members can do. Team USA teammates Jordan Chiles (UCLA), Jade Carey (Oregon State) and Grace McCallum (Utah) will now battle it out in the Pac-12.

Even though elite international gymnastics is a higher level of the sport, by competing in college, the athletes will actually be more visible (and more valuable to sponsors). Rather than four or five major competitions a year, they appear in 15 or so college meets across a four-month season, all in the United States.

The hope is gymnastics can ride the post-Olympic wave with the Olympians.

“Every four years gymnastics is one of the biggest sports in the world,” Graba said. “Then we disappear. We don’t have to disappear anymore.”

No one is suggesting NCAA gymnastics is about to become college football, but retaining marketable stars — and allowing outside companies to promote them as well — can’t hurt.

“I think about 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.

“Look what happened with Kaitlyn,” said Kondos Field, her UCLA coach. “We went to Stanford and it sold out. They usually have 500 people there. Oregon State. Oklahoma. Wherever we went it was packed 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 No. 1 gymnast to ever go to a college program,” Graba said. “Nobody has ever had a gymnast like this. The sky’s the limit. All of them are going to bring eyeballs to the sport, both on television and to the gym.”

A win for the athlete. A win for college gymnastics.

Funny how that works.

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