When China's heavily hyped and widely marketed track star Liu Xiang limped away from the starting blocks earlier this week, his legions of fans weren't the only ones let down.
For marketers looking to capitalize on a newly crowned champion, the wounded hurdler will likely go down as the Beijing Olympics' biggest disappointment. An injury to his Achilles tendon not only ended this year's gold medal chances for a man being dubbed China's Michael Jordan, it also hampered his marketability for current and future sponsors.
But despite extensive coverage of Liu's failure and its impact on his marketing potential, he's far from alone. When it comes to Olympic athletes — and the companies looking to cash in on their success — the window of opportunity is small and the requirements enormous.
Unlike tennis players or golfers who have regular and highly visible opportunities to win championships, most Olympic competitors, be they runners, swimmers or gymnasts, have a chance only once every four years to get the public's attention and gain the sponsorship opportunities that come with it. What's more, without a gold medal to show for that Olympic performance, those endorsement opportunities are hard to come by, if attainable at all.
Among the Beijing Games' other disappointments: American sprinter Tyson Gay. Following an injury-plagued summer, the widely hyped track-and-field star failed to qualify for the 100 meter final, much less medal, throwing marketability into question.
"From a marketing standpoint, it's a colossal disruption to his future," says Premier Management Group President Evan Morgenstein, who counts Olympians Nastia Liukin, Jason Lezak and Dara Torres among his clients, of the sponsorship opportunities squandered by Gay.
In addition to hurting his ability to score new endorsement deals, Gay's falter will likely impact those he already has. By not providing a gold-medal performance to tout in future advertisements, the significant upside that might have been from sponsors like McDonald's, Omega and Adidas will most likely disappear.
When endorsers sign gold-medal hopefuls, they are banking on the increased attention and visibility that comes with Olympic success to promote their brands. But since that sort of success is hardly guaranteed, the ramp-up to the competition is very often where companies get their benefits. After all, in the month-plus leading up to the Olympics, every athlete can be marketed as a gold-medal contender.
Still, being able to capitalize on a gold-medal win is most appealing, which is why global brands try to hedge against the potential of injuries (U.S. gymnast Paul Hamm) and falters (U.S. gymnast Alicia Sacramone) by enlisting a slew of athletes rather than relying on just one. The hope is at least one will bring home gold.
Of course, when it comes to endorsement opportunities, not all gold medals — and for that matter, not all gold medalists — are created equal. Instead, everything from the sport to the persona to the backstory factor into an Olympic champion's marketability, according to marketers and sports agents.
What makes swimming sensation Michael Phelps a marketer's dream is that he encompasses it all. The affable athlete entered the games with the potential to win eight races, a feat that would make him the most decorated Olympian in history.
"There's never been an athlete whose been as well-positioned to leverage his success in the Olympic games as Michael Phelps," says Howard Bloom, who teach sports management at Ottawa's Algonquin College and has worked with several Olympic athletes.
Bloom believes there's a potential $50 million deal to be had with Nike — assuming Phelps doesn't renew his recently sweetened contract with Speedo — among many other sponsorship opportunities.
There isn't the same sort of general consensus on the marketability of a silver- or bronze-medalist, however. While some argue a gold is critical to land sponsorship contracts, others believe the two don't always have to be so closely aligned.
Simon Wardle, senior vice president of insights and strategy at sports marketing firm Octagon Worldwide, argues that fan affinity toward an athlete can and should prove just as important as medal standings, particularly at the Olympic games.
"You're playing in very different emotional territory with the Olympics," he says of a heavily covered two-week event packed with scene-setting and emotional tales of the athletes involved. The way Wardle sees it, it's not crucial that the athletes walk away with gold medals, because the emotional connections fans have built with them become more important than their performances.
Take swimming's silver medalist Dara Torres, whose much-covered personal history — a 41-year-old mother competing against women half her age in her fifth Olympic Games — makes her both a remarkable and marketable fan favorite, with or without a gold medal dangling from her neck.
In fact, her agent argues this is the rare case where winning the silver medal may actually make her more appealing to marketers: "If you're a 41-year-old mom and you win the 50-meter freestyle, which is the crème de la crème of speed," Morgenstein says, "it takes too much attention off of why you did what you did and what you hope to do with it and makes it just about the performance."
© 2012 Forbes.com