By David Crary
The Associated Press
VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — For Shaun White, Kim Yu-na, and a few other household names, spectacular triumphs at the Vancouver Games will enhance an already immense earning power. For lesser-known Winter Olympians, cashing in is not so easy.
Sports agents following the games say commercial opportunities for the athletes are more varied and potentially more lucrative than ever, but those who miss out on medals or toil in relatively obscure sports still face an uphill climb.
“The big ones have it made. It’s the small athletes who get hurt,” said Evan Morgenstein, an agent who has represented gymnast Nastia Liukin, swimmer Dara Torres, and other Olympians.
As an example, he cited Johnny Spillane, who became the first American to win an Olympic medal in Nordic combined — a sport with a small fan base in North America.
“Unless there’s a story — an interesting family history, overcoming obstacles, his own health history — when the torch goes out, he better already have hit on something,” Morgenstein said. “You’re not going to see these kids in giant TV ad campaigns after the games.”
By contrast, South Korean figure-skating gold medalist Kim was already a global star before these games, and her record-setting performance last Thursday night could make her one of the most marketable athletes of her era.
Park Young-ok, a researcher at the Korea Institute of Sport Science, estimated last Friday that Kim’s gold medal would be worth $56 million, with fierce competition expected among companies eager to sign her to new deals.
The 19-year-old skater was already pulling in millions in endorsements from South Korea’s biggest conglomerates, including Hyundai and Samsung, as well as Nike and Universal Music.
New commercials airing during the Olympics showed Kim in a Hyundai vehicle with her hair blowing in the wind, as a gangster’s moll on skates for a Samsung cell phone, and as a Bond Girl in a sleek white catsuit for an air conditioner ad.
White, who won gold in the half pipe in the last two Olympics, has a huge worldwide following for both his snowboarding and skateboarding exploits, as well as his charisma and distinctive looks.
While many other athletes get most of their marketing deals with companies linked to their sports, White has signed up with Target, AT&T, and American Express, among others — and experts say his latest gold medal gives him virtually unlimited opportunities.
“Of all of them, Shaun is the one who’s really done a nice job building his brand,” said Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. “That’s one thing athletes have to realize — it’s not just being successful at the sport. With Shaun, it’s his personality.”
Other snowboarders aren’t at White’s level of marketability, but many of them have embarked on new types of business ventures. Gretchen Bleiler has developed a signature line of apparel with Oakley, while Hannah Teter and Alpine skier Julia Mancuso have created lingerie lines.
Mancuso came into the games overshadowed by teammate Lindsey Vonn but increased her profile by winning two medals. “The medal will definitely help with the business,” she said after winning a silver in the downhill. “I have always wanted to design clothes.”
Mancuso is among the athletes who have caught Morgenstein’s eye during the games. He suggested the extent of her future marketability could hinge in part on how potential sponsors assess the tension that briefly surfaced between her and Vonn earlier this week.
Seattle’s own Apolo Ohno scored a lucrative sponsorship deal with Alaska Airlines.
“As one of the greatest U.S. short-track speed skaters of our generation and a Northwest native, we feel Apolo Ohno is a natural fit with our airline,” Steve Jarvis, Alaska Airlines’ vice president of marketing, sales, and customer experience said in a news release.
As for the proliferation of athletes’ own product lines, Morgenstein said many of them are not highly profitable.
Other agents, however, said it’s even easier for the athletes to market their goods now because social media give them a way to sell products without a physical retail outlet.
“In the past, you could have a great idea, but absent a distribution system, you had no value,” said Peter Carlisle of the Octagon marketing firm’s Olympics and Action Sports Division.
“With the proliferation of these platforms, you create your website and there’s your retail store,” he said.
Another significant technological change at the Olympics is the huge increase in the number of hours of competition available to viewers worldwide, over an ever-evolving array of media formats.
Rob Prazmark of 21 Marketing, a consultant and marketer involved in the Olympics since the mid-1980s, said this development enables athletes in second-tier sports to gain more recognition. “Before, if you were an athlete in lesser-known sports, the ability for you to become a well-known Olympian was very slim,” he said. “Nowadays, you’ve got so many other sports producing heroes.”
As an example, he cited the leaders of the Canadian men’s and women’s curling teams.
“That’s a different type of athlete than a Shaun White,” he said. “These are men and women who embody strategy and dedication, which could appeal to some businesses.” ♦