How an elective turned Florida's Leanne Wong into NIL success story

On3 imageby:Andy Wittry07/10/23


Florida 15-time All-American gymnast and Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics Team USA alternate Leanne Wong has capitalized on her NIL rights to market and sell thousands of units of custom merchandise. Her entrepreneurial spirit, family support and gymnastics success led to her retail success. But the origin story of her burgeoning business also involves a high school elective course.

Wong said when she attended Blue Valley High School in Overland Park, Kansas, she didn’t receive academic credit for physical education for competing in gymnastics outside of school.

Instead of receiving an equivalency credit for gymnastics, Wong said she enrolled in a number of electives. This includes fashion and interior design, where one project required students to design an outfit, then physically create one element of the outfit.

“I feel like the bow is probably the easiest to make out of everything compared to like shoes, leggings or a shirt or something,” Wong told On3. “So, that’s where my first bow came to life. I just started wearing it every day to practice and thought it was really cool.

“But then I was like I should make more colors. Because I’m that kind of person who likes to match from head to toe. So, I decided to make more colors to match every practice (leotard) and competition leo.”

Wong said she has sold roughly 10,000 bows since December 2021, plus nearly 900 units of her three signature leotards from GK Elite.

“I started doing onboardings the last two weeks with our new student-athletes that are on campus and she’s part of that presentation,” said Florida Director of NIL strategy Ben Chase. “I tell her story, and I have our new students guess how many bows she’s sold. They always say 500. You know, 1,200. You should see these new students – freshmen and transfers – when I say, ‘No, over 10,000.'”

The number of units sold is staggering and it speaks to the specific marketability of premier gymnasts who compete on the world stage or for one of the best collegiate programs.

Leanne Wong does her own marketing

Speaking to On3 on a July evening after finishing her exams, Leanne Wong described the time commitments of being a pre-med student majoring in health education and behavior, an SEC gymnast, a gymnast who also competes at the elite level, a hopeful for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and a business owner.

In addition to designing her signature leotards, Wong said she buys the leotards from GK Elite and then sells them on her own website, which she also created. Wong said after releasing her first signature leotard, she started taking pre-orders and ordered extra inventory, while learning what sizes and leotards were most popular.

“I actually had to do all the marketing myself since they weren’t allowed to promote my leos,” said Wong. “I think I’ve just really learned a lot from that.”

Wong has sold bows in person at gymnastics meets and camps, plus through digital avenues, such as Instagram, email and text messages. Her personal Instagram account has more than 54,000 followers. Her business account, where she markets her bows, has more than 7,000 followers.

Chase described the first time he met Wong, recalling how she introduced herself, lit up the room, described her business and at the end of the conversation, she promised to give him one of her business cards the next time she saw him.

“I’ve been really fortunate just to create my own website,” Wong said. “I actually designed it and created it in December of 2021. So, during that winter break, I was just working really hard on that to get it started and I sold bows for the first time while I was home at one of my club gym’s competitions.”

Wong credits her former Florida teammate Leah Clapper, who created a board game and an online community for college athletes called NIL Island, with helping her learn the best practices for establishing a website.

‘My manufacturer is actually my mom’

As Leanne Wong explains it, her business is a family business.

“My manufacturer is actually my mom,” Wong said of her custom bows. “Ever since I started my bow business and wasn’t able to make any more bows she’s really taken over. She’s been able to hand-make all of those bows that we’ve sold. She definitely has a huge role in this business as well.

“It definitely keeps both of us busy. It’s definitely my mom’s full-time job. Sometimes she won’t even go to sleep until 4 a.m.”

Wong’s website – called Leanne Wong Bowtique – offers a variety of bedazzled bows featuring her initials in beads.

“They’re all hand-placed,” she said.

Sometimes her dad and brothers will get called in to help. She sells Fourth of July-themed bows, spring-themed bows, neon bows, mini bows and double bows. The options range from $15 for a mini bow to $37 for a pack of two that are Gators-themed.

“That’s just been really amazing to bring the innovation of my signature, handmade bows that a lot of gymnasts have never worn,” Wong said. “It’s not like a ribbon or something. Just seeing all these young girls wear my bows and knowing that my signature’s on there has been really cool and inspiring them to chase their dreams and achieve their goals.”

NIL has changed career decisions for gymnasts

Leanne Wong is a rising junior at Florida and given the changing landscape of college athletics, she has seen athletes’ career trajectories change.

“From the very beginning, a 16, 17-year-old gymnast could be an international superstar,” Chase said. “They have eyes that are following them way before they get to Florida. Their NIL is valuable before they step on campus.”

Thanks to state legislation that forced the NCAA to implement its 11th-hour interim NIL policy, Team USA gymnasts Sunisa Lee (Auburn), Jade Carey (Oregon State), Jordan Chiles (UCLA) and Grace McCallum (Utah) each competed in college after medaling in Tokyo.

Lee, who competed for Auburn for two seasons after winning the Olympic gold medal in all-around, announced in April that the 2023 season would be her final season with the Tigers.

Wong said it’s important for gymnasts to capitalize on their time while competing, given the nature of their careers.

“I feel like female athletes, especially gymnasts, we’re a little bit different from other sports since some athletes can do their sports for a lot longer time,” Wong said. “But for gymnasts, we can only do gymnastics for so long.”

Wong said she looks up to former teammate Trinity Thomas, who was the 2022 NCAA all-around champion who shares the NCAA career record for perfect 10s with 28.

Wong cites “years of extra time with her,” as Thomas was able to return to Gainesville for a fifth season after the NCAA granted spring athletes an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She said Thomas will join Florida’s coaching staff while also training for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, giving the two gymnasts a third season together in Gainesville.

Wong’s website also offers a T-shirt featuring Thomas and Wong.

Last fall before Florida hired Chase as its director of NIL strategy, he went on a road trip in which he attended 77 college football games. In the opposite corner of the continental U.S., he unexpectedly met fans of Florida – specifically its women’s gymnastics program.

“There were two young women from Washington state – their mom goes, ‘Oh yeah, we love the Gators,'” Chase said. “I think they were five and nine. And I was like, ‘What?’ They go, ‘Yeah, the gymnastics team. We love Gator gymnastics.’

“That just shows that these are powerful, inspiring women.”

Leanne Wong’s plans before Paris Olympics

For now, Leanne Wong said she plans on balancing her academic, collegiate and international goals.

Her father Marco Wong has an MD and PhD in biochemistry and molecular biology. Her mother, Bee Ding, has a PhD in pharmacology. They worked in a lab together.

“I’ve always dreamed of becoming a medical doctor,” Wong said. “So, I really feel like my education is really important. But as a collegiate and elite gymnast, I also have goals set in the elite world. Before college, I was an Olympic alternate and two-time world medalist. But I feel like I just want to achieve more in elite gymnastics and to make the Olympic team for Paris 2024 and then earn some more world medals and international meet medals for Team USA.”

Wong said she has always wanted to follow in her parents’ professional footsteps. As an elite athlete, she has envisioned a career in sports medicine to help athletes recover from injuries.

Last year, Wong experienced the time commitment and training schedule required when transitioning from the college season to the elite season. She helped the U.S. win the gold medal at the 2022 World Championships.

As a sophomore at Florida, she repeated as the SEC’s beam champion while earning three regular-season Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association All-America honors and four All-America honors in the NCAA Championships.

“Right now,” Wong said, “I’m training in the summer for this elite season and then my plan is to compete for Florida again this coming school season. But I guess I’ll just kind of have to go day by day and see how I feel and what I want to do months before the Olympics.”