SBJ/September 26-October 2, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

London deals slow to start for U.S. track stars

Jamaican Usain Bolt’s emergence as the biggest star in track and field has made it difficult for U.S. runners to distinguish themselves and land corporate endorsements before the London Olympics, reversing a trend in recent years that saw track and field athletes at the forefront of marketing efforts.

“Usain Bolt is taking the majority of the media attention, and everyone is looking for an American story,” said Paul Doyle, an agent who represents more than 50 track and field athletes worldwide. “There’s a ton going for U.S. athletes, but not a whole lot has fallen into place yet.”

GETTY IMAGES (3)
Decathletes Ashton Eaton and Trey Hardee (top, left to right), hurdler Jason Richardson and Jenny Simpson (above) provided surprising moments during the world championships.
Six months before the Beijing Olympics, U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay had emerged as a clear favorite for endorsements among Olympic sponsors. Omega and McDonald’s both signed agreements with him and featured him prominently in their U.S. advertising and marketing efforts. But brand executives
and consultants looking to add a U.S. track and field athlete to their cadre of endorsees for London 2012 have run into trouble identifying whom to pick.

“Going into Beijing, across all sports, there were clear front-runners, but going into London it’s not that way, especially in the track and field space,” said Courtney Nally, a vice president at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment, who is assisting Kellogg’s in selecting and signing athletes ahead of the London Games. “Agents are having a tough time predicting who will do well in London now, and that makes it tough to go to a sponsor and say, ‘You should sign up X, Y or Z athlete.’”

Mary O’Connor, vice president of Olympics at The Marketing Arm, which works with U.S. Olympic team sponsors Hilton and AT&T, agreed, adding, “Track and field’s a hard one because there are so many athletes, and the recent scandals around the sport and lack of leadership in the sport make it a tough sport to get your arms around.”

Several U.S. Olympic team sponsors are looking to add athletes in the coming months, including Kellogg’s, BMW, BP and Procter & Gamble.

Agents are hopeful that winning performances by several relatively unknown U.S. stars at the recent IAAF World Outdoor Track and Field Championships will help clarify the athlete picture for those brands. Among the performances that generated buzz in track circles were Trey Hardee and Ashton Eaton, who finished first and second, respectively, in the decathlon; Jason Richardson, who won the 110-meter hurdles; and Jenny Simpson, who won the 1,500 meters.

“We’re not there in the men’s 100 or 200 meters because of injuries and the dominance of Bolt, but there are other events worth watching and we saw that at the world championships,” said Adam Lippard, vice president at GMR Marketing, which helps Visa select its athletes. “There’s a refocusing of America’s attention to determine where the real opportunity is and talent is.”

Doyle, who returned to the office from the world championships last week, said he plans to pursue deals for his athletes during the next four months and wants to finalize deals before 2012. He’s working hard on a beverage deal for Hardee and Eaton. He’s looking to target automobile companies and banks for deals with Hardee, who currently has agreements with Red Bull and Nike. With Eaton, he’s looking to wrap up a beverage deal with Powerade and add a video game to his portfolio, which currently includes Nike.

Several brands have turned Doyle down in the past because they don’t want to sponsor an individual athlete who might not qualify for the Games or might have an injury. Brand marketers have told him in the past they prefer sponsoring a team, so Doyle plans to bundle Hardee and Eaton with Bryan Clay, the 2008 Olympic decathlon gold medalist, whom Doyle also represents.

“We believe we can push the three athletes as a unit and almost guarantee success,” Doyle said. “We haven’t had much communication since world championships ended, but I imagine the performance of both those guys is going to help a lot.”

Richardson was USA Track & Field’s youth athlete of the year in 2003, and he competes in one of the most marketable men’s speed events that Bolt’s not in. He also is active on Twitter, which has become increasingly important to sponsors in recent years. He has a deal with Nike, and his agent, Emanuel Hudson, plans to begin reaching out to U.S. Olympic team sponsors this week to explain Richardson’s background. He hopes that Richardson’s interest in becoming a lawyer after he finishes competing will appeal to some sponsors.

On the women’s side, Allyson Felix has had the most success on the endorsement front. The 2008 silver medalist in the 200 meters has deals in place with Nike, Gatorade, Visa and Acuvue.

With hurdler Lolo Jones battling an injury and marathoner Deena Kastor returning after a pregnancy, Simpson may emerge as the second most-marketable female athlete. She won gold in the metric mile at the world championships, becoming the first U.S. woman to win at that distance since 1983. Her agent, Ray Flynn, is hopeful that her performance will appeal to sponsors looking for a female runner competing in a relatively high-profile event. New Balance is her only current sponsor, and Flynn plans to begin to pitch her to U.S. Olympic team sponsors in the coming months.

Despite the success of the U.S. team at the world championships, where it won 25 medals, Nally said she expects most sponsors to take a “wait-and-see approach” when it comes to signing track and field athletes. She anticipates many will be signed after the U.S. Olympic trials are held in June. Doing so would make fitting athletes into marketing efforts ahead of the London Games difficult but would ensure a sponsor has an athlete who will compete in the Olympics.

“Sponsors are being more mindful of the spend they’re doing,” Nally said, “and while everyone is eager to have their roster of athletes lined up by the end of the year, when it comes to track and field athletes, they may wait.”
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