Advertisers going to X-tremes
Sports like snowboarding and freestyle skiing much more popular with fans -- and advertisers -- at this year's Winter Olympics.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Michelle Kwan is gone. Bode Miller failed to win even a bronze in his first event. What's a U.S. advertiser at the Winter Olympics to do?
The answer, even before this past weekend's difficulties for the two most marketable U.S. Olympians, can be found on the moguls and half pipes of such non-traditional sports as freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
Experts in the field say this is this appears to be the year that both the older Olympic fans and advertisers really discover those more extreme Olympic sports.
Long seen as a way by some sponsors to reach Gen Y or perhaps Gen X fans, these sports could start seeing far more attention from mainstream advertisers this year.
A survey of top sports, broadcast and marketing executives by Sports Business Daily found that 11 of the top 24 athletes mentioned in the survey compete in either freestyle skiing or various snow board events. That's more than the traditional endorsement-rich sports like alpine skiing and figure skating combined.
"Snowboardcross is the most exciting new medal event to hit the Olympic Games in a long time and we know that it will be a breakout event in Torino," said Michael Lynch, Visa USA's senior vice president of sponsorship marketing, which has deals with snowboarders Lindsey Jacobellis and Seth Wescott. It had already used Jacobellis in spots leading up to the Games.
Part of advertiser interest in these sports is the desire to reach the younger viewers who might not be the typical Olympic viewer -- only 10 percent of those who watched the Salt Lake City game were under the age of 18.
"Michelle Kwan will show up in name recognition surveys well before a snow boarder," said Peter Carlisle, director of Olympic sports for Octagon, which markets and represents athletes and has six snow boarders on the Sports Business Daily's survey of the top 19 athletes. "But if your target market is Gen Y, then action sports and snowboarding is a much more direct and credible way to reach those kids."
It helps that the U.S. team is dominating these events. Shaun White and Danny Kass won the gold and silver in the men's half-pipe event in snowboarding Sunday, while Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler won the women's gold and silver in that event Monday.
Even before the win White was ranked as the No. 6 most marketable winter Olympian by the Sports Business Daily survey and Teter had been the subject of the only story on the front page of the New York Times' Olympic preview.
The development of better known personalities in these sports -- the red headed White is known as "Il Pomodoro Volante," or the "flying tomato" in Italy -- is one of the reasons that advertisers are more comfortable turning to these athletes, said Gary Pluchino, senior vice president with sports, entertainment and media firm IMG.
"You've got some more up and coming personalities now as the sports mature," he said. "Stars are being born and personalities are being born. You can market the athlete as opposed to just marketing the sport."
Freestyle skier Jeremy Bloom is No. 5 on the survey of most marketable Olympians. He's gotten a fair amount of attention for his legal challenge to NCAA rules that stopped him from playing football for the University of Colorado and getting endorsements he needed to support his skiing at the same time.
He hopes to be drafted by an NFL team this spring. He's also blessed with male model good looks, and those looks have been highlighted in some of his earlier advertisements.
And looks do matter. Experts say that it will be a while before the snowboarders and freestyle skiers are quite as popular with sponsors as the figure skaters, traditionally the Winter Olympians most sought after by sponsors. Part of that is due to how much more bundled up those extreme athletes are forced to be during competition.
"Simply in watching the event, it won't be as easy to see a snowboarder as it is a figure skating," said Octagon's Carlisle. "You really do feel you get to know the skaters. It's something (snowboarders) have to overcome."
Carlisle said that although top snow boarders can bring in endorsement dollars between the mid-six figures to seven figures even in non-Olympic years, most freestyle skiers still are struggling to bring in big dollars.
Derek Feagans, agent for Shannon Bahrke, the first American to win a medal at the 2002 games when she won a silver in freestyle skiing, said his client still had to work part-time jobs as she trained for this year's game. And while she has deals with Sprint and Home Depot, none of them are even six-figure deals.
"Freestyle moguls skiing is gaining exposure, but it's not a household name," he said. "The window for Olympians who are not with the anchor sports is still small."
Things can be enough tougher for the athletes not in one of the hot sports, even ones that Olympic viewers have been watching for years.
Carlisle said he had to tell 2002 gold medal bobsledder Jill Bakken that there was virtually nothing he could do to get her endorsements a year ago, forcing her to essentially finance her training efforts with her credit card. She did not make this year's team.
"It's heartbreaking but marketability for an athlete in bobsledding or many of these other sports is totally dependent on it being an Olympic year," he said.
For a look at how Bode Miller's controversial comments haven't scared away advertisers, click here.
For a look at NBC's rating challenges, even with strong viewership for the Olympics, click here.
For more on the business of sports, click here.
For a look at SI.com's Olympic coverage, click here.