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For winning athletes, future can be golden

Winter X Games 10 Men's Snowboard Slopestyle
American snowboarder Shaun White is one of the potential breakout stars at this year's Winter Olympics.Doug Pensinger / Getty Images file

High-profile athletes like Bode Miller and Michelle Kwan have a lot riding on the upcoming Olympic games, but perhaps not as much as the many lesser-knowns hoping to soar to fame and fortune by winning a gold in Turin.

The odds are against them.

Even in Salt Lake City, where the U.S. team medaled in a winter-record 34 events, only 11 individuals won gold medals. Prior to that the best U.S. winter performance was 13 individual and team medals. Even if the Americans enjoy another record Games, that still means that most of the 211 men and women who made the U.S. team this year will not end up on the podium.

For those who do, a medal can mean anything from a modest income boost to a lifetime of financial security.

Athletes in top-tier sports like figure skating and alpine skiing are among the fortunate few for whom a gold medal can mean millions of dollars in endorsement deals, sponsorships and speaking engagements, marketing experts say.

Those who compete in unfamiliar sports like skeleton or bobsled still can turn a gold medal into a six-figure income for a few years or longer, but there are no guarantees — other than a $25,000 check from the U.S. Olympic Committee. (A silver medal is worth $15,000; a bronze, $10,000.)

“Winning a gold medal certainly doesn’t assure you of notoriety for years and years,” said Matt Lalin, executive vice president of Steiner Sports Marketing in New Rochelle, N.Y. “You have to continue to produce, and if you’re not in a sport that is highly visible, you better have a pretty good story.”

Miller and Kwan already have multiyear endorsement deals worth millions of dollars annually but stand to make more if they can win gold medals to seal two of the more compelling early stories of the games. Many big marketing companies offer cash bonuses for endorsing athletes who win gold medals because of the additional exposure they get.

Although Miller claims he is “very reluctant to be any more famous than I already am,” he will have his pick of new lucrative deals if he wins gold, and sales of his well-timed autobiography will enjoy a boost.

As for Kwan, the gold medal is “the one missing ingredient in her unparalleled success as a figure skating athlete,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. “It’s not that she is going to make a ton more money, but it will certainly help extend her marketing life as an endorsable athlete.”

A few other U.S. Olympians enter these games with the clear ability to be major earners including short-track skater Apolo Anton Ohno, controversial hero of the 2002 games, and mogul skier and male model Jeremy Bloom, who is hoping to be drafted into the National Football League in April.

Marketing experts also mention American snowboarders Shaun White and Lindsey Jacobellis as potential breakout stars. But for athletes below the top tier, it all depends on personality, charisma and a compelling story.

“That is what the Olympics is all about — it is sports reality television,” Swangard said. “Unlike pro sports,  in which we already have the star value of, say, an NBA athlete, many of these folks are coming out of total and utter obscurity, and I think that is an attractive element for the American sports consumer. It speaks to the Horatio Alger in everyone.”

For athletes in unheralded sports, which offer marketers almost no exposure in non-Olympic years, the back story is the crucial element that helps medal winners generate income from motivational speeches and corporate appearances.

“In essence the ones who are going to have a lifespan are the ones in the big sports, the figure skating, the skiing, or the ones who have an unbelievable story or a great controversy," said Doug Shabelman, senior vice president at Burns Entertainment and  Sports Marketing in Evanston, Ill. “The bland gold medalist still can make appearances, … there always is going to be room for them. But will they be set for life? No.”

Shabelman also stresses the importance of a good agent who can match an athlete with the right corporate appearances and endorsement deals.

Sometimes the story can be more important that the sport, allowing medal winners even from little-known sports to command up to $30,000 or even more for personal appearances.

Jimmy Shea, for example, won a 2002 gold medal in skeleton but was propelled into the spotlight as a third-generation Olympian whose gold medal-winning grandfather had died in a car crash 17 days before the opening of the Salt Lake City Games. He has parlayed his medal into a successful role as a motivational speaker and corporate spokesman, although still keeps his day job as a real estate agent.

Vonetta Flowers, the bobsled brakewoman who was the first African-American to win a winter gold medal, gets $10,000 to $20,000 for speaking engagements, according to Leading Authorities. So does wrestler Rulon Gardner, who won an unlikely bronze medal in Athens after suffering a case of frostbite so severe he nearly lost parts of both his feet.

Who will be the next Rulon Gardner? Nobody knows.

“We could go back and forth, but I promise you there are two, three, four stories that will come from names we never even heard of and never even thought to think of,” said Lalin of Steiner Sports Marketing. “That’s what makes the Olympics such a beautiful thing.”