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AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell
Audiences adore the bubbly 16-year-old.
THE HUMAN EMOJI

Laurie Hernandez doesn’t have the medals of Simone Biles, but she’s marketing gold

By Ashley Rodriguez

Some athletes celebrate major wins by going to Disney World. Others celebrate with champagne. But when US gymnast Laurie Hernandez returns from the Rio games, she’s heading to a Wawa convenience store. At least that’s where her brother Marcus promised to take his gold-medal-winning sister as soon as she lands in her home state of New Jersey.

The US East Coast convenience-store chain did not reply to our request for a comment, so we don’t know if Wawa plans to seek an endorsement from the gymnast herself. But if it’s not, it should be. The bubbly 16-year-old is a marketing juggernaut in the making.

Simone Biles, who clinched the women’s all-around gold in Rio, is the star of this year’s US gymnastics team. And Aly Raisman, who won the silver, is the captain. Surely, neither of them will want for endorsement opportunities. But Hernandez, no slouch herself in competition, is attracting serious attention from the marketing world with her charisma and team spirit.

“She’s everything you want to see positive coming out of the Olympics,” said Erin Weinberg, head of the US Olympic business at United Entertainment Group, a sports and entertainment marketing agency. ”She’s a great athlete, she’s young, she’s adorable, she’s positive…People are curious and interested to learn more about her, which is what you want.”

Hernandez, who is rarely seen without a smile on her face, grabbed the attention of many when she became the first US-born Latina to earn a spot on the women’s gymnastics team since 1984. The youngest member of the team was the breakout star of the Olympic trials. And she won over more fans when she graciously accepted that she wouldn’t have a chance to qualify for the individual all-around finals, even though she bested most of her teammates during the trials.

She has affectionately become known as “the human emoji” because of her animated facial expressions: She gave the judges a silly wink before nailing her floor routine during the team all-around finals, and herself a little pep talk before jumping on the balance beam.

She also always supports her ladies.

Weinberg, who is currently in Rio, said she’s hearing some buzz about the young athlete from agents and marketing folks, who may be looking to sign deals with her when the Olympic blackout period ends on August 24.

“She almost lines up perfectly for virtually any brand,” said Kevin McIntyre, executive vice president and general manager for partnership at sports marketing agency Leverage USA. “She’s got a lot of personality… And she’s Hispanic-American which is a huge demographic that’s only growing and advertisers want to reach.” (Hernandez’s grandparents are from Puerto Rico.)

Hernandez’s marketability could be especially potent with families and the coveted 18-to-24-year-old crowd in the US. And as more of an emerging talent than a bona fide star, her endorsement will likely be more affordable than that of her more experienced teammates.

“She’s probably a better value coming out of the games,” said Weinberg, “but has not quite as much in the bag as Simone and Aly do because they’ve been consistently winning.”

Brands that are interested in Hernandez would probably want to sign her through the 2020 Tokyo games, so they have some security if she does well there. That means she has to stay healthy and on her game for the next four years.

Meanwhile, the young athlete has put herself in a position to pounce on any endorsement deals that may arise when she returns from Rio. Days before the games, she announced that she would go professional and commit to elite gymnastics for the next four years. (Reportedly she had previously planned to attend the University of Florida and compete in the NCAA after she graduates high school in 2018. Professionals are not eligible to play in the NCAA, which has strict rules around compensation and sponsorship for athletes.)

Long term, Hernandez’s success with endorsement deals will largely depend on whether she solidifies a name for herself beyond her team win, as other members for the Final Five have done. That’s not easy to do in a sport that only garners significant attention once every four years, during the Olympics.

“Her story is yet to be told,” said Steve Rosner, partner and co-founder of agency 16W. ”Winning a gold medal in a team competition is not enough to say that she’s a surefire endorsement winner at the Olympics.”

Hernandez will have her first and only shot at an individual title in the Rio games on Monday (Aug. 15), when she competes in the individual women’s balance beam final.

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