Jessica: After the gold rush

Jessica Ennis
Jessica Ennis
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She was the golden girl of Team GB and the London Olympics, so can Jessica Ennis go on to rival Brand Beckham? Sarah Freeman reports.

Jessica Ennis is currently unavailable. Her management team at JCCM have switched their phones to voicemail and various emails go unanswered. The screening of requests is hardly surprising. Since their number one client lived up to expectations and delivered Olympic gold in the heptathlon, potential sponsors have been desperate to bask in a little of a glory and willing to pay big money for the privilege.

It’s easy to see why. Those companies have been hanging on to her coat tails since she won a bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 2006 are now reaping the rewards. Take Ennis’s recent trip to a beauty salon.

A few days after the heptathlon medal ceremony, she swapped her Team GB tracksuit for a pink dress and high heels as she was given a post-competition makeover. After putting in the performance of a lifetime at the Olympic Stadium, no one could resent Ennis a little down time, but as it turned out the salon was run by P&G which owns beauty company Olay, which just so happens to sponsor the heptathlon. These days, even manicures have a corporate seal of approval.

Not that the relentless interest seems to have affected Ennis, who lives in a relatively modest three-bed Sheffield semi.

Despite the inevitable offers from the glossy magazines, the 26-year-old has insisted her forthcoming wedding to construction site manager Andy Hill will be an intimate affair and while in the run-up to the Olympics she popped up on various panel shows, she also turned down a chance to appear as a guest on The Jonathan Ross Show because it clashed with her training schedule.

However, back then Ennis’ success was merely a possibility. Now it’s a reality, her life is unlikely to be the same again and her gold medal has raised the sponsorship bar.

Ennis already has deals with the likes of BP, Omega, British Airways, Powerade, Jaguar, Aviva and Adidas. The latter alone is understood to be worth up to £230,000 a year, but that figure could well be dwarfed by a new series of offers.

“Jess has a four-year window now before the next Olympics to increase her earning power,” says Nigel Currie, director of sports marketing agency brandRapport. “Some have suggested it could amount to £5m a year, but I suspect it will probably end up around the £3m mark.

“Aside from the sponsorship deals, there will also be payments for personal appearances and of course she’s got the wedding coming up and the likes of Hello! will be willing to pay a substantial amount for exclusive photographs.

“The Olympics do bring something new to the table. Footballers might not be quite 10 a penny, but they are a lot of them and they are all quite similar.

“This Games has delivered a 54-year-old showjumper who came back from a broken back, a 19-year-old working class girl from Leeds who made boxing history and, of course, Jess.”

While Ennis has an opportunity to make hay while the sun shines, can GB’s poster girl really rival the likes of Brand Beckham. According to the Sunday Times Rich List David and Victoria added £25m to their combined worth last year bringing their fortune to £190m and like them, Ennis represents a pretty safe bet.

“Sportswomen tend not to earn as much as men, sadly that’s just the way of the world and those that have been up there like Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova, tend to fit a very narrow blonde hair, blue-eyed stereotype,” says Simon Chadwick, professor of sport business strategy and marketing at Coventry University Business School.

“However, Jess ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to a successful endorsement. She has real personality, she speaks eloquently and she’s attractive. There aren’t many iconic female sport stars in Britain so she fills a very big gap.

“Aside from that, research we did into why Tiger Woods became the first sportsman to make more than £1bn from endorsements showed that his multi-ethnic heritage played a big part. It meant he had much wider appeal. Jess has that too and better than that, there hasn’t been a whiff of scandal.”

While the Olympics dominated two weeks of the summer, athletics still has a long way to go before it rivals the likes of football or indeed tennis.

“The heptathlon doesn’t have the same global exposure. The really high profile events only take place a couple of years and while we have all be on a high following the London Olympics that will fade.

“Jess and her management know that, but in the rush to exploit as many opportunities as they can, they will have to be careful.

“Normally, these commercial contracts require an athlete to spend five days a year engaged in corporate activity. Jess already has half a dozen sponsors, so already that’s a commitment of 30 days.

“Clearly she’s going to be taking some time out from sport and will be able to take on more requests, but once the training starts again those outside pressures can’t be allowed to dominate.

“The reason companies want to align themselves with Jess is because of her sporting success. It’s a really delicate balance to maintain that while making money from endorsements.”

When Kelly Holmes returned from Athens in 2004 as a double Olympic champion, she was the subject of much the same stories now circulating around Ennis. As she bought a bungalow for her mother, financial pundits attempted to predict how much money the middle-distance runner would make from the Games. Most of the estimates were wide of the mark.

“I got more sponsors and the sponsors I had became long-term partnerships,” she said recently. “I’ve had a few that have lasted quite a few years and they certainly made a huge amount of difference to how my life was before. It was a massive change, but those rewards came through after years and years of dedication.

“I moved house and bought another house, which was nice, and I could buy better cars. But Olympic sports people don’t get what people assume. We don’t become instant multi-millionaires. It’s a different world. Of course I did get a lot more because of the exposure I’ve had, but equally I’ve worked really damn hard for it since then as well. I do motivational speaking, I go to events, I do a mentoring in education programme. It’s not like it’s just handed to me.”

For Ennis, watching her bank balance tot up is one thing, but there are a hundred cautionary tales of athletes whose heads have been turned by fame and whose personal relationships have been ruined by money.

“The environment in which she lives and trains has provided Jess with a good grounding,” says Dr Jeff Breckon, reader in sports and exercise psychology at Sheffield Hallam University. “She exudes a sense of normality and that’s partly because of the legacy provided by the World Student Games.”

Financially, those 1991 Games were a disaster for the city. Funded by the council, the event ran up a debt of £658m which will not be fully repaid for another 12 years. However, the facilities built for the championships did provide Sheffield with a foundation for attracting world class sports stars and it was at Don Valley Stadium where a 10-year-old Ennis was first introduced to athletics.

“Some athletes are forced to go abroad to find the best training facilities and that can mean they end up isolated from the outside world,” says Dr Breckon. “Jess hasn’t been in a cocoon. The English Sports Institute in Sheffield where she trains is open to the public and 70 per cent of the youngsters who use that facility have probably seen her train.

“Part of the reason why she has become such a figurehead for the Olympics is because we identify with her, she’s one of us and that down-to-earth attitude should stand her in good stead for the future.”

While Jess has said her “mind is all over the place” at the moment she will have time to think about her future on her daily walks with chocolate labrador Myla. She has said she wants to compete in Rio in 2016, but when she reflects on the difficulty of repeating the success in four years time, she might yet have second thoughts.

“Coming back from that stress fracture which put her out of the Beijing Games was an incredible achievement, but I don’t know whether she will feel a single gold medal is enough reward for all the hard work she has put in during the last four years. It may be that she feels there is still unfinished business,” adds Dr Breckon. “There are still targets she can set, whether that be passing the 7,000 point barrier in the heptathlon or transferring over to a new challenge like the 200m, but the adulation and huge sponsorship deals which come with success can affect desire. People cite Steve Redgrave, who won golds at five consecutive Olympics, as an athlete who was untouched by success and the plaudits which followed. However, you have to remember that back then rowing didn’t attract the kind of funding it does now. Certainly for his first two Games there was a sense of competing and triumphing over adversity.”

When retirement from athletics does come, should she want it there will likely be a place reserved for Ennis on the pundits’ sofa, but the transition from competing to commentating is often a difficult one.

“When injury unexpectedly brings an end to someone’s career, it can be incredibly hard to adjust, but even for those who retire on their own terms life after competitive sport is not easy,” says Dr Breckon. “Nothing can replace the buzz you get from competing at the highest level and Jess will never be able to replicate the atmosphere of 80,000 people in a stadium all willing her on.

“However, we are much more skilled at helping athletes prepare for retirement and for Jess I have no doubt there will be new opportunities and new challenges ahead.”

In the coming weeks and months, there are likely to be more appearances from Ennis at beauty salons, red carpet premières and the glamorous photo shoots will continue. As many have already noted, it’s refreshing to see athletes with genuine achievements getting the attention normally reserved for reality TV contestants.

So go enjoy Jess, but to borrow a line from Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones don’t let celebrity change you, we love you “just the way you are”.