Olympic superstars such as snowboarder Shaun White, swimmer Michael Phelps, or gymnast Gabby Douglas probably don't have to worry much about money. They have massive sponsorship deals and worldwide fame, and they might even get on a Wheaties box now and then.

That's not the case for most Olympians, however. Not every athlete achieves that sort of fame. Nor, obviously, does every athlete get a gold medal. And some sports just aren't as marketable as others.

As three-time Olympic fencer Tim Morehouse tells Inc., "For every White or Phelps or Douglas, there's 100 athletes who don't make anything near that sort of money."

Morehouse's case--that of a lesser-known athlete looking to build a career in a lesser-known sport--might strike small-business leaders a little closer to home than tales of stars like White launching a clothing line destined to succeed because his name is attached to it.

A Quest to Do Things Differently

The Boston Globe recently reported on some of the financial travails facing some of this winter's athletes. The costs of training and traveling to an Olympics can run deceptively high--from the costs associated with training to those associated with travel.

Meanwhile, the money that ultimately comes from the U.S. Olympic Committee can be broken down in uneven tiers; although high-profile athletes in high-profile sports are heavily supported, that's certainly not the case for everybody. And agents and sponsors don't flock to low-publicity sports and its competitors in the same way they might other sports. 

Fencing would qualify as a low-profile sport. So, like many Olympians, Morehouse dug deeply into his personal expenses during to get to his first two games, in 2004 and 2008. Like many Olympians, he held a job with Teach for America while training in off hours during those two Olympiads. And like many Olympians, he wanted to find a better way to finance his next trip.

Morehouse's approach to that problem--that it's tough for fencers to find sponsors--was to try and solve it. 

"The nature of the entrepreneur is you have to do something that hasn't been done before," he says.

So after the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, in which he won a silver medal, Morehouse set out on a mission that would work twofold: First, it would net him a sponsor for the 2012 London games. Second, it would seek longer-term solutions by ultimately creating a better economic environment for U.S. Olympic fencers.

Business Model Innovation

Morehouse has essentially built an organization devoted to growing awareness of and participation in the sport of fencing. The first leg of this journey involved putting on a world-class consumer-facing fencing event, something he had found lacking in the U.S. His Fencing Masters competition has since been held twice at the Hamerstein Ballroom, once in 2010 and once in 2012. The events have attracted a small consortium of sponsors and have been broadcast on TV.

Morehouse has seen most of his outside-the-games success, however, in another branch of his work. During the Olympiad between Beijing and London, Morehouse took inventory of his "assets" as an Olympian. Among them: the ability to leverage himself as a role model through his athleticism.

This, combined with his previous experience as a teacher, led him to launch the self-explanatory Fencing in the Schools. The organization works with schools to get young athletes participating in fencing and has thus far wrangled up 10,000 participants, with a larger goal of one million child fencers by 2023.

It should be noted that Fencing in the Schools is a nonprofit, not a company. However, the lesson from his experience translates across organizations. Morehouse used his own strengths and leverage points to direct his founding mission--to expand the sport of fencing--into what he found to be the most viable area to do so: schools. He has continued to explore other avenues, which include authoring the book American Fencer: Modern Lessons From an Ancient Sport and motivational speaking.

Morehouse was also able to attract that corporate sponsorship he was after. In addition to signing up to sponsor Fencing Masters and Fencing in the Schools, Sabra Hummus represented Morehouse at the London Olympics.

The mission has extended outside the latest games. Although the idea for the organization was originally hatched to help him find a sponsor, Morehouse now has an organization on his hands that will take him well past the end of his own fencing days--and it's an organization with the mission of making getting to the games all the easier for future Olympic fencers.

Other Routes

Morehouse's story is illustrative of one branch of Olympian entrepreneurism. It is similar to that of skier Ted Ligety, who co-founded a ski equipment company in 2006.

But other stories hit on other notes. For instance, the Jamaican bobsled team this year crowdfunded its way to Sochi. Some crowdfunding sites, such as RallyMe, exist exclusively to crowdfund athletic endeavors.

The more traditional route is for athletes to connect with a company and represent them in exchange for the needed funding. But this isn't a cakewalk; many athletes go without sponsors, and even those that find them are forbidden from representing brands during the games if they are not official sponsors of the International Olympic Committee.

This has been the touchstone of a still-burning debate, as athletes would probably have an easier time getting sponsors if they were allowed to, say, wear their brand on their ski suits or mention them in thanks on Twitter accounts after a given event.

Published on: Feb 13, 2014