Seward swimmer Lydia Jacoby just signed with swimwear company arena — the high school senior’s first deal with a brand since winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
But it wouldn't have been possible even a few months ago. The partnership takes advantage of a new set of rules from the NCAA, the body that governs student athletics.
Before June, student athletes had to choose — play college sports or go pro and sign with companies. It’s a choice Olympic champions like Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky had to make when they were entering college, due to a “name, image and likeness rule” that prohibited college athletes from profiting off their popularity.
That was until this summer, when the NCAA lifted that rule.
"The rules are still very cloudy," said Steve Ozmai, director of marketing for arena. "And what complicates things a little bit is the fact that the rules for the individual athlete are different state to state and university to university.”
Lydia is swimming at the University of Texas at Austin next year. Before signing with her, arena worked with the university to talk through the terms of the contract.
This fall, representatives from arena came to Seward to meet the Jacobys. Lydia’s mom Leslie said the brand felt like a good fit.
“Lydia’s always been surrounded by people that support her and she has a really great team of supporters between her coach and her family and her friends and community," Leslie said. "And I get a really good feeling from the arena group.”
The feeling is mutual. Lydia is the first student athlete arena signed.
“We were just so inspired by what we saw from her in the pool in Tokyo," Ozmai said. "It still gives you goosebumps if you watch the watch party in Seward and all of her fans. And when we were up there and came to visit, we saw the banners on the side of the buildings saying, ‘Go Lydia’ and the stickers on the backs of the cars.”
Lydia is not the only Olympian who’s heading to college under the new rules. And athletes with large social media followings, like football players from Big Ten schools, might have the most to gain.
Travis Thornberry with the University of Alaska Anchorage athletic department said there’s at least one athlete taking advantage of the new rules at UAA — cross-country skier JC Schoonmaker.
Generally, Thornberry said most deals will probably be reserved for Division 1 athletes. He said UAA will handle deals with companies on an individual basis.
Ozmai said the new rules are a game changer for both companies and athletes. Under the old guard, even if Lydia was wearing a swimsuit from arena, the brand couldn’t promote it.
Now, it can.
"Any promotional advertisement materials, whether it’s social media, TV commercials, full-page advertisements, things like that were off-limits in the past," Ozmai said. "And now, this has opened up the opportunity to do that.”
Leslie said life has been a whirlwind since the Olympics, when Lydia swam her way into the hearts of spectators all over the world. When the Jacobys returned to Seward in August, they hired an agent. In September, Lydia joined the U.S. National Team. Just a few months later, she joined her peers in the pool for the state meet in Anchorage.
“We have been learning step by step since Lydia’s success at the Olympics," Leslie said. "We just haven’t anticipated each step. We just didn’t see any of this coming. It’s been a really positive but really busy and wild ride since.”
The Seward Tsunami Swim Club, Lydia’s home team, is also feeling the hype.
Leslie said the club has 82 swimmers signed up this year. She said it’s the most they’ve ever had.