SBJ/February 4 - 10, 2002/Special Report

Sponsors might leave Olympians

These Olympics could
be Picabo Street's
last competition.

The economic downturn and the events of Sept. 11 have conspired to make 2002 a difficult year for Olympic athletes looking for multimillion-dollar corporate sponsorships.

"It's hard to justify spending millions of dollars on an athlete when people are getting laid off," said Nova Lanktree, president of Lanktree Sports Celebrity Network in Chicago, which matches athletes to companies for endorsements.

"Not to mention that spending on athletes was getting a little out of control anyway," Lanktree said. "With everything that's happened or is happening, I don't think we'll hear about a lot of major deals."

Nevertheless, a few athletes are expected to emerge from the Games as corporate darlings, including figure skater Michelle Kwan, bobsledder Jean Racine, ice hockey player Cammi Granato, and skiers Picabo Street, Jonny Moseley, Bode Miller and Eric Bergoust.

"The biggest thing that attracts sponsors, no matter what the sport, is getting the gold medal on the podium," said Dmitri Goryachkin, an account executive with IMG, which represents a number of Olympic athletes. "The winners will always be first in line for endorsements."

Jean Racine waves the
flag for Kellogg cereal.

Some companies will take a chance on a few who don't win Olympic gold, usually because they have an interesting story or a unique quality. Racine has been featured on the box of Kellogg's Crispix cereal with former teammate Jen Davidson, in part because women's bobsled is a new event in the 2002 Games.

"These are [usually] light, tongue-in-cheek ads that introduce some new athletes to the world," said Shawn Bradley, COO of the Bonham Group, a sports consulting company in Denver. "But marketers have to be careful not to overhype them before they do anything."

Kellogg, which scouted more than 100 athletes and photographed eight for potential future sponsorship deals, would have done well to heed that advice. Racine has since dumped Davidson from their World Cup winning sled after the pair racked up about $500,000 in deals.

Another quality that advertisers look for is charisma. Kwan, who won the silver medal four years ago in Nagano, Japan, and Bergoust, who has deals with Coca-Cola, Tommy Hilfiger and Xerox, have it, agents and marketers said, and could stand to reap more millions if they capture their events.

"It's hard to define," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Service of Evanston, Ill. "It's Tiger Woods' competitive personality. It's Mary Lou Retton's smile. It's something about the athlete's personality that interests people."

Breaking through on personality alone is tougher for winter athletes, partly because they're all bundled up. And few have a competitive platform to keep them visible throughout the year. Aside from figure skating, few of these events get any coverage after the Olympics.

"Most viewers can't remember any of the athletes' names a few months after the Games," Williams said. "That's why it really doesn't make much sense for marketing companies to sign big deals with Olympic athletes. Instead, most only sign a few sure-fire competitors right before to carry them through the events."

One thing that could help this year's athletes is greater media exposure because the Games are being held in the United States. That means many events will be on in prime time and American winners will grace newspaper headlines and the TV news.

But because the Games are here this year, some analysts predict marketing companies will focus more on the ideas of patriotism and world peace with their ads than on specific athletes.

"With everything that's happened this year, the event is really more important than the athletes," Lanktree said. "I think you'll see marketers cash in more on these feelings of togetherness and peace."

As for the athletes, it might be time already to look toward the 2006 Games. The idea is that this year's winners will have an advantage next time around, when spending may once again be up.

"Winter Olympic athletes typically have to compete for fewer marketing dollars in a much tighter window," Bradley said. "To make things worse, that window happened to fall in the middle of an economic downturn this time around. They need to prepare for the future and start building a winning image now that will get them the dollars later."

Jim Martyka is a writer in Minneapolis.

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Related Topics:

IMG, Kellogg, Olympics

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