For most athletes competing in the upcoming Olympic Games, winning a gold medal would put them at the pinnacle of their sports. But translating that success in Beijing into endorsement dollars back home could prove to be the greatest challenge of all.
While Olympic athletes enjoy great exposure during the two weeks of competition and pageantry, a relative few have maintained and cashed in on that visibility afterward, according to sports business and marketing experts.
“It’s a very small window,” said Scott Sanford, a senior client director with Davie Brown Talent, a group that matches companies with celebrity endorsers. “After three or four months, the awareness dips down below what it was before or close to it.”
Olympic athletes struggle to achieve long-term commercial success because the games occur every four years, Sanford and others said. In most cases, it’s a matter of days before other sports, such as the major league baseball playoffs and the start of the NFL season, extinguish the Olympics’ buzz. Also, only a small number of Olympic athletes are household names before the games start.
The Davie Brown Index, which rates an athlete’s marketability, said Olympians generally score well in most key categories except for public awareness.
Swimmer Michael Phelps, one of the most high-profile American athletes in Beijing, scored a 33 on a 100-point awareness scale. Most All-Stars in basketball and baseball rate higher than 60. Sprinter Tyson Gay, who will compete for a gold medal in the 100 meters, scored 8.7, and reigning 400-meter gold medalist Jeremy Wariner a 5.8.
“I think it’s a lot tougher for Olympic athletes because it’s once every four years,” said Jim Lackritz, associate dean and professor of sports economics at San Diego State’s College of Business Administration. “There’s nothing perpetually keeping them in the public eye. Once the games are finished, if there’s not a lot of opportunities to get exposure, there are not a lot of endorsement opportunities.”
There are some exceptions. Sprinter Michael Johnson signed a six-year, $12 million deal with Nike after he won gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters at the 1996 Atlanta Games. Several American figure skaters, including Scott Hamilton, Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi, have had post-Olympic success, as have gymnasts, including 1984 all-around gold medalist Mary Lou Retton.
Recently, a handful of Olympians have boosted their visibility through appearances in television and movies.
Yamaguchi, the 1992 figure skating gold medalist, raised her profile earlier this year after she won the reality show competition “Dancing With the Stars.” And 1976 decathlon gold medalist Bruce Jenner has appeared in game and reality shows, most recently as stepfather to socialite girls on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”
“You may have a few endorsements inside of your sport, but overall the endorsement stuff is more talk than action,” Greco-Roman wrestler Rulon Gardner, gold medalist at the 2000 games in Sydney, Australia, said in a online chat last week on washingtontimes.com. “For example, you see a guy like Michael Phelps, he’s big during the Olympics, but then you don’t hear about him for four years.”
Of recent Olympians, Phelps has become one of the more successful pitchmen. The six-time gold medalist at the Athens Games in 2004 has multiyear deals with Powerbar, Visa, Omega watches, Speedo and AT&T. He is seeking a record eight gold medals in Beijing.
In the case of top Olympians, sponsorship deals are struck months or even years before the games. Companies said these deals allow them to create broad, ambitious campaigns around an athlete’s quest for gold.
“Olympic athlete campaigns are challenging for some companies given the limited window of attention,” PowerBar marketing director Chris Ota said. “Fortunately for PowerBar, we have a very important and credible role with our sponsored Olympic hopefuls that can start years before the athletes actually compete at the games.
“As their ongoing training partner, PowerBar proudly features sponsored athletes in year-round marketing efforts to showcase the role of sports nutrition on their quest for personal performance goals.”