Olympic gold equals big money for athletes

gold_medalists.gi.top.jpgVancouver gold winners from left to right: Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, and Bode MillerAaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Winning gold could mean even more money for the Winter Olympics' superstar athletes. Of the top earners, experts say Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White and Bode Miller stand to gain the most.

Vonn is first in line to to reap the biggest rewards for a number of reasons: The alpine skier has a story to sell, having overcome a shin injury to win her first gold in the downhill; she was already a star, earning up to a reported $3 million in 2009; and her physical appearance didn't hurt either, landing her a spot in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit Issue, wearing a bikini by sponsor Under Armour (UA).

Other sponsors include Red Bull, Head skis, Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500) and Rolex. All Vonn needed was that first gold medal to grow that list and double her earnings for 2010, according to Bob Dorfman, endorsement expert and executive creative director at Baker Street advertising and marketing agency.

"She got a little bit of flack for posing in the swimsuit edition," he said, but "winning a gold for her really legitimized her as an athlete and as a marketable commodity. That gold is probably worth more to her than it was to Shaun as a market asset."

Marketing the halfpipe

Dorfman is referring to Shaun White, who is photogenic in his own right. The snowboarder's long red mane, which earned him the moniker "Flying Tomato," is a highly recognizable trait that has become an important part of his product branding.

"He's not just a household name," said Dorfman. "He's a household face."

White, who earned close to a reported $9 million last year, is one of the highest earning U.S. Olympic athletes. His sponsors include Burton snowboards, Oakley goggles, AT&T (ATT) and Red Bull, which built him a halfpipe in a remote section of Colorado. He has his own clothing line at Target (TGT, Fortune 500) and his own video game from Ubisoft.

"He's got the sustainability, because he has all of these tentacles that go out from the Shaun White brand," said Matt Delzell, director with Davie-Brown Entertainment, an entertainment branding strategy company.

Delzell noted that White is also a skateboarder, which allows him to stay in the spotlight even when winter snow is long gone, as well as during those four-year stretches between Olympic games.

White won his second gold medal at the 2010 Olympics after winning his first in 2006. Experts say his toughest challenge now is growing his bankroll significantly, but that's only because he already makes so much money.

White might have added up to $2 million to his earnings potential by adding another gold, and by showcasing a complicated new stunt, dubbed the "Double McTwist 1260," according to Delzell.

"Most people would go down and do a safe run and take the gold," he said. "He goes down and does a new move that only he does -- and it's a very difficult move and it's risky -- when he doesn't need to do it. That's a reflection of the people who follow him: a little edgy, take some risks."

The ghost of Olympics past

Other U.S. gold medallists from the 2010 Winter Olympics include figure skater Evan Lysacek, speed-skater Shani Davis, mogul skier Hannah Kearney, snowboarder Seth Wescott and alpine skier Bode Miller.

Of this latter group, experts point to Miller as having the biggest potential cash-in for his first gold, though he's still haunted by a hangover from four years ago.

Miller was a letdown in the 2006 Winter Olympics when he failed to win gold and was taken to task for his bar-hopping. As a result, he lacked hype going into 2010, compared to Vonn.

But then he made a comeback, winning the gold for his run in the downhill super combined. According to Delzell, Miller's gold medal could double his earnings from 2009, which totaled more than $1 million according to experts.

Like Vonn, Miller has a story of overcoming adversity that he could tell during paid speaking engagements to corporations, according to Delzell.

"The guy was drinking too much and having too much of a good time," he said. "He matured, then set his goal, set his mind to something, dedicated himself to it, and achieved it. Bode's going to have some good success."

But Steve Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations, the Q Scores Co., said that Miller's past antics could block him from kid-friendly sponsors like Gatorade and Cheerios, who bank everything on a wholesome image.

"The problem with Bode Miller is that his recognition comes with baggage," said Levitt, whose company evaluates positive and negative recognition. "Look at the uphill battle that you've got with a personality that gets more people turned off than turned on." To top of page

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