Olympian quest for advertising gold turns to lead
Disappointing Olympics for U.S. team will hurt the endorsement potential for many U.S. Olympians.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Many U.S. athletes have not only been frustrated in their quest for Olympic gold, they could find themselves out of the running for advertisers' gold as well.
Agents and experts in athlete endorsements say that the disappointing showing of many highly-touted U.S. athletes in Turin will leave them with tough sledding in efforts to land lucrative endorsement deals between now and the next Winter Games in Vancouver in 2010.
"If people remember these games, they're going to think back on them as the ones where Americans fell flat on their face literally and figuratively," said David Carter, executive director of USC's Sports Business Institute. "The advertisers are going to be reticent to use these athletes, even the ones who did well."
Advertisers were willing to stick with U.S. skier Bode Miller going into the games, even as he stirred controversy with his comments about skiing "wasted." But he turned out to be the one thing his many sponsors never worried about but should have -- a boring loser.
A medals contender in five different events, Miller ended the Olympics 0 for 5 with a whimper Saturday when he hit a gate near the top of the slalom course, which prevented him from finishing once again.
The athlete who was the center of media attention going into the games may have hurt his endorsement potential with his attitude as much as his accomplishments, or lack thereof, in Turin.
"I don't see winning five gold medals as a positive thing for me," he told NBC Sports before the games. " What am I going to do with the medals?"
Now he doesn't have that worry.
"Miller is a perfect example of the dangers of using Olympic athletes as endorsers," said Bob Dorfman, the author of the Sports Marketing Scouting Report, which tracks athlete endorsements. "The way they've been used is leading up to and during the games. So you're thinking years ahead of time about who you're going to use in Turin. Then, when it comes down to it, he sucks. Worse than that, is his whole attitude about it seemed to be 'So what?' You at least want him to show he cares about sucking."
Two of the other most marketable stars heading into the games -- figure skater Sasha Cohen and snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis -- both fell while competing, blowing leads and ending up with disappointing silver medals in their events.
Jacobellis' tumble came when she pulled what is considered a hot-dog move on the last jump of a race she appeared certain to win by a wide margin.
Even some of the gold medalists, like speed skaters Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis, got more ink for their criticism of each other than for their accomplishments on the ice.
The agents for Jacobellis and Davis insist that their clients were not hurt by some of the controversies about their visits to the Italian Alps.
"She wasn't trying to rub it in anyone's face. It was a pure youthful exuberance moment," said Josh Schwartz, Jacobellis' agent, about her fall. "The way she handled things with the media, they'll see her as a personable, well spoken individual."
Schwartz admitted that some fans might have a negative view of Jacobellis her due to the way she lost the gold.
"Will the older crowd take more time to forgive her for her mistake? Maybe," he said, although he added, "It would have been tough to market to that older crowd anyway."
Davis became the first black athlete to win an individual gold medal in the Winter Olympics, and he also took a silver. But he ended being the focus of some negative coverage due to his feud with Hedrick.
Davis' agent, Peter Carlisle, director of Olympic sports for sports marketing firm Octagon, said he doesn't think the animosity between the teammates will hurt either athlete, nor will Hedrick's charge that Davis should have joined him in a relay race rather than concentrating on individual events.
Carlisle argues the rivalry could help both men keep the profile of speed skating higher between now and the 2010 Olympics.
"To be a compelling individual in a not so compelling sport is tough from a marketing stand point," Carlisle said. "If somehow this rivalry can make it more compelling, it helps not only Shani and Chad, but it'll help grow the sport."
But Carlisle admits Davis' endorsement potential will depend greatly on how he does in television interviews and appearances he expects will take place in the coming weeks.
"The focus now that Shani is done competing is the chance to introduce himself to the public," said Carlisle. "You need the results. But once you have the results, it becomes pretty darn important to have the media coverage to give the marketers an idea of how this athlete will fit their brand."
Michelle Kwan, Shaun White emerge strong
It may be the U.S. Olympian who has the most appeal to advertisers is the one who dropped out the first weekend of the two-week competition -- figure skater Michelle Kwan. She had to abandon her long-time quest for a gold medal due to injury, although she was widely credited for showing class and grace by doing so.
Kwan was selected as the most marketable U.S. Olympian in a pre-games survey of top sports, broadcast and marketing executives by trade publication Sports Business Daily, and even after her departure from the games, Visa continues to air ads using her. But Coca-Cola (Research) pulled ads that showed fans cheering her on, with a spokeswoman saying the spots no longer make sense.
Experts in the field generally point to snowboarder Shaun White as the one break-out star of these games in terms of endorsement potential.
His win gold medal, coupled with his personality, his now famous bright red hair and his memorable nickname, "The Flying Tomato," all give him a great profile. And he wasn't hurt by making appearances on "The Tonight Show" and other programs while the games were still young.
"He did everything right in Turin," said Dorfman. "He was even crying on medals stand. He lived up to the hype. He's clearly comfortable on camera. You'll see a lot of him."
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