SBJ/February 20 - 26, 2006/Marketingsponsorship
Can he fly like Hawk?
Published February 20, 2006
In the chaotic days preceding the first Winter X Games in 1997, a woman approached event general manager Chris Stiepock on the slopes in Big Bear, Calif. Beside her stood a bony 10-year-old, snowboard in hand.
|Shaun White rode into the spotlight by
winning halfpipe gold at the Torino Games.
Stiepock was dumbfounded. Before him stretched snowy challenges closed to the public that included a 70-foot jump over a pool of water which needed to be tested before the competition. But he agreed to the run. “He strapped in and shot down the course unfettered,” Stiepock said. “We’ve always known he was special.”
Indeed, Shaun White has long been regarded as special in action sports circles and seen by many as the next great icon. With his gold-medal performance in the snowboard halfpipe at the Torino Games, many action sports industry veterans believe the 19-year-old Californian will transcend the boundaries of their insular world and become a household name.
“This is going to take him into a whole other stratosphere,” said Wade Martin, general manager of the Dew Action Sports Tour, where White has competed as a skateboarder. “He can be as marketable, or more marketable, than anyone we’ve seen in action sports, including Tony Hawk.”
But the barrier between action sports and the mainstream sports consciousness hasn’t been broken yet. Executives from advertising and sports marketing agencies have expressed reservations about investing clients’ money in an athlete such as White, and some say his appeal will be limited to a narrow, teenage demographic.
White’s tearful embrace of his father after he won the snowboarding halfpipe event on Feb. 12 may have been the most endearing television moment of the first few days of the Olympics, but sports marketers hesitate to extend the same embrace to the idea of the long-haired, saw-toothed teenager being the next face of corporate America.
“Everyone now knows who he is,” said Woody Thompson, executive vice president of Octagon’s corporate consulting unit. “He’s an interesting personality and he comes across as extremely genuine. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a 19-year-old snowboarder who says ‘stoked’ a lot.”
Whether it’s a case of orthodoxy over opportunity, or there are real drawbacks to attaching a brand to the X Games and Olympic champion, many corporate marketers would rather follow the pack than lead when it comes to the new brand of young athlete that White personifies. Thompson said for White to reach the level of marketability of a Tony Hawk, he will need the crossover exposure that only a major brand beyond the traditional action sports sponsors can lend. And it remains to be seen who, or if any such brand, will throw their full weight behind White.
Advertisers feel pressure to promote someone who is instantly recognizable, said Danielle Korn, executive vice president of the McCann Erickson advertising agency. “He is after the Olympics,” she added, “but after the next few months, I’m not so sure if he can stay out there.”
Public awareness of White has risen significantly in the last week. He leaped from a 3.5 percent awareness level among adults in December to 28 percent on Feb. 15, according to the Davie-Brown Index, a new tool used to determine celebrity marketability based on surveys of a 1.5-million-member research panel. Among adults age 35-54, he went from 2 percent awareness levels to 32 percent. The rise moved White from the bottom of the index’s celebrity pool of 1,500 individuals to the 50th percentile, said Bill Glenn, vice president of analytics at The Marketing Arm, the Omnicom agency that conducts the poll. “The magnitude of the jump he has made by virtue of winning a gold medal speaks volumes,” Glenn said.
Those numbers may rise even further as White continues to make media appearances. He’s already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated and visited “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” on Feb. 16.
But skepticism abounds even within the company conducting the awareness survey.
“He can dominate the 12-to-22 demographic,” said Scott Sanford, a senior account director at Davie-Brown Talent, the unit of The Marketing Arm that specializes in helping corporations sign celebrity endorsements. “I don’t know if he can reach an older demographic, and to truly become an icon in sports, you have to expand on your reach.”
Rob Callender, trend director at Teenage Research Unlimited, doubted the Olympic gold medal would propel White into the top 10 of recognizable athletes, data the company tracks. “Teens are interested in the Olympics,” he said, “but not obsessed by it.”
Then again, White also won two gold medals at the Winter X Games in January. He’s tied with Shawn Palmer for the most snowboard X Games medals at six. He’s also a rare crossover athlete who competes in the summer X Games as a vert skateboarder, an event in which he won a silver medal in 2005.
“He has the ability to do what very few can do well and excel at two sports,” said Steve Astephen, who once represented White with The Familie, now a part of the Wasserman Media Group. “There’s Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders, who’ve done everything well. I think that’s what Shaun is.”
|“He’s an interesting personality and he comes
across as extremely genuine. But it doesn’t
change the fact that he’s a 19-year-old
snowboarder who says ‘stoked’ a lot.”
— Octagon’s Woody Thompson
Within action sports, White has emerged as an ambassador, particularly for snowboarding, a sport enjoyed by more than 6.3 million Americans. His sponsorships and prize winnings this year alone are estimated to exceed $3 million, according to industry insiders.
His deals include Pepsi-Cola Co.’s Mountain Dew, Sony’s PlayStation and Target, as well as signature apparel and eyewear lines with Burton Snowboards and Oakley, respectively (see chart, this page). He also has skateboarding deals with Adio shoes, Volcom street wear and Birdhouse skateboards. And starting last May, he appeared in a Pepsi ad with Alex Rodriguez, Jeff Gordon and Freddy Adu.
“If there’s any indication of someone transcending action sports, that’s it,” said Mark Ervin, White’s agent at IMG. “That’s good company to be in.”
Ervin said the next steps for White will probably involve some acting, ownership in companies and working with brands that put him in front of much wider audiences
“In general, Shaun has a very strong entrepreneurial spirit, so having an ownership position in some capacity is a goal of his,” said Ervin, who also represents U.S. alpine skiers Daron Rahlves and Lindsey Kildow. “It goes back to aligning Shaun with the right sort of brands. Ultimately we want to create enough brand equity to where there’s a myriad of licensing applications that extend beyond the time period that he competes as a professional.”
Longevity is one standard, but potential agreements also have to meet an even stricter criteria of authenticity — that he won’t get teased about them.
“Ultimately, I think his litmus test is if any use of image, name or likeness by a sponsor subjects him to ridicule amongst his peer group,” Ervin said. “He won’t let it happen. I think that’s valuable for the brands as well.”
White’s most important deal may be his most recent agreement to create a signature snowboarding video game with Ubisoft. The French company, which would not reveal any financial details of its agreement with White, is one of the world’s largest video game publishers and plans to release the game in 2007 for existing and new gaming consoles.
It presents an opportunity for White to expand his reach beyond his core demographic, said Issa Sawabini, a partner at the youth marketing firm Fuse. “From a gaming standpoint, there have been successful games in the past, but they’ve never reached the scale of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater,” he said, referring to the Activision series that reportedly has generated more than $1 billion in retail sales, and netted a cool $20 million advance for Hawk on top of royalties. “Shaun has the ability to bring his name and stamp and signature and take snowboarding gaming to the next level,” Sawabini said.
In the future, it may be White’s work off the slopes and ramps that extend his marketability. He enjoys acting and spent hours in front of cameras through appearances in the Pepsi ad and the movie “First Descent,” which was released this year and documents the history of snowboarding. He also has appeared on MTV’s popular “Cribs,” “Punk’d” and “TRL” shows.
Ultimately, White’s personality may give him the major brand exposure some say he will need to enter the realm of a major sports icon. Jimmy Siegel, formerly vice chairman of BBDO ad agency, said White’s mix of “nerdism and cool” is charming and could inspire creative use in an advertisement for a company outside his traditional demographic. He compared it to a creative he worked on, the use of Yao Ming in a Visa spot.
White “won’t be the spokesperson for a conservative company,” Siegel said, “but he might make a spot within an existing campaign, because there’s something about him.”