Ad agents eye Olympic medallists

  • Business
  • Wednesday, 25 Aug 2004

NEW YORK: For millions of Americans, gymnast Paul Hamm’s fame began only when the broad-shouldered Olympian shrugged off a fall in the vaulting competition last week and made an inspired comeback to win gold. 

So was credit card giant Visa U.S.A. just lucky that it’s been featuring his face for months inside its customers’ billing statements? 

Hardly. A new generation of Olympic athletes is just starting to enjoy its proverbial 15 minutes in the spotlight. But for the competitors – and agents and marketers – trying to capitalise on the short-lived glory achieved in Athens, it is increasingly about signing contracts months or even years before the games began. 

Visa signed swimmer Michael Phelps - who won eight medals in this Olympics - to a marketing and sponsorship contract 2 1/2 years ago, when he was just 16 and virtually unknown. Well before any medals were awarded, US softball pitcher Jennie Finch had signed deals with Bank of America and Bolle sunglasses and gymnast Carly Patterson had agreed to endorsements for AT&T Wireless and McDonald’s. 

“The general window for the Olympics is fairly short to begin with, but it is pretty clear that your ability to leverage these athletes and build excitement up toward the games has become an important part of the marketing strategy,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. 

“I think most of the athletes that are competing today grew up in an environment where they witnessed the success of ... the post-1984 generation of Olympic stars and want a piece of that, and understand that it’s going to take some good marketing,” he said. 

In the days since the Athens games began, a growing roster of athletes have captured attention that could propel them into lucrative roles in television ads, public appearances and on the speakers' circuit. 

But while a few are real surprise stories, many are the very athletes that marketers identified before the games as most likely to succeed in the competition for dollars. When The Sports Business Daily, a trade publication, polled sports and advertising executives in June, Phelps was picked as the most marketable Olympian, with Finch, swimmer Natalie Coughlin, wrestler Rulon Gardner and Patterson next on the list. 

All but Coughlin had already signed endorsement deals by that point, a sign of how things have changed in the way that Olympic marketing stars are made. 

“Back in the days of Bruce Jenner and Carl Lewis you kind of had to perform and you had to win the gold and then you racked up the endorsements afterward,” said Bob Dorfman of Pickett Advertising in San Francisco, who authors a newsletter analysing athletes’ marketing potential. “These days most of the big endorsements that these kids are getting are leading up to the games and during the games.” 

Nobody exemplifies that better than Phelps, who has been featured since June in commercials for Visa and is the subject of a credit card, issued by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co, with his likeness on it. 

“We do this (sponsor athletes) often times years in advance and the quid pro quo is that they give us the right to use their image and story line in our members’ marketing,” said Michael Rolnick, director of corporate relations for Visa, speaking by telephone from Athens.  

“Our Olympic marketing is designed to build just before the games.” Despite the shift to solidifying endorsements well before the games, Dorfman still believes that a gold medal can be worth US$10mil to some athletes with the right mix of star quality and marketing savvy. But it’s difficult to assess the worth of Olympic stardom. Visa, for example, won’t disclose details of its deals with athletes. 

The challenge for corporate sponsors is pairing up with athletes with broad appeal. For athletes, the key is to renew that appeal by leapfrogging off promotional all-star tours and future Olympics to renew their image with consumers. 

“What you’re looking for in athletic deals is athletes who can transcend their sports,” said Kevin Adler, a vice-president of Relay Sponsor-ship and Event Marketing, a corporate sponsorship consulting firm in Chicago. So who has that special appeal? Phelps’ All-American good looks and compelling story make him a natural, observers say. 

Patterson, too, is likely to do well, although probably not to the extent of say, Mary Lou Retton, the 1984 gymnastics gold medal winner whose smile and force of personality has her back in ads again this year. Hamm and his twin brother, Morgan, have a great story to tell, but some marketing experts say the gold medal winner’s nasal voice could make him a tough sell. 

Then there are a handful of female athletes likely to do well by tapping into sex appeal – Finch and swimmer Amanda Beard are the ones most often cited. 

It’s not yet clear which of these athletes, if any, will be featured on the Wheaties box. The folks at General Mills Inc, which makes Wheaties, say they’re paying close attention to what’s happening in Athens but won’t disclose whom they’re interested in. 

But Adler, the Chicago marketing executive, is confident we’ll be seeing plenty of at least a few of these athletes. “I’m sure the phones are ringing,” said Adler, whose corporate clients don’t currently have endorsement contracts with athletes. “You’re certain to see a handful of deals coming out of Athens.” – AP 

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