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Winter athletes fight to get their day in the sun

When it comes to endorsements, summer Olympic stars outshine, outlast and outearn their chilly-weather brothers and sisters. Will this year's winter crop get a moment in the sun?
/ Source: contributor

The TV ad opens with a Michael Phelps pool plunge. Hardly a creative splash. But then a swimming Phelps explodes through the pool wall into a street, churning up pavement, butterfly-stroking next through a wheat field until, finally, he plows up an empty highway toward Vancouver’s snowy peaks.

The golden boy is going — the voiceover man says — “where the action is this winter.”

On the surface, Phelps is hawking a Subway turkey melt. But in 30 seconds, we learn an Olympic-sized business truth. When it comes to endorsements, summer stars — including some, like Phelps, with an illicit smudge or two on their luster — outshine, outlast and outearn their chilly-weather brothers and sisters. And they do it even in the days and hours before the Vancouver games.

“It’s the first time I’ve seen a sponsor trying to translate a summer hero into winter,” said John Rowady, president and founder of rEvolution, a Chicago-based sports marketing and media agency.

“If you compare how much athletes make coming out of the summer games vs. the winter games, I think the available marketing dollars for the winter athletes would be less than half,” added Jim Andrews, a senior vice president at IEG, which helps brands — including Subway —partner with sports and entertainment properties.

Sure, flocks of female figure skaters have turned their medal-winning spins and grins into endorsement gold, including Michelle Kwan (Chevrolet, Coca-Cola), Sasha Cohen (Citizen Watch) and Katarina Witt (Mercedes Benz, Herbalife). But the Olympic balance sheet clearly tilts to the sunny side.

For every winter breakthrough star like Dorothy Hamill or Apolo Anton Ohno, there’s a far longer roster of summer medalists who have cashed in commercially. In recent years: Shawn Johnson and Natasha Liukin from gymnastics, Kerri Walsh and Misty-May Treanor from beach volleyball, Jennie Finch from softball and Usain Bolt from track.

Summer games past have catapulted a rare few athletes to iconic status, giving their names  marketing cachet for generations: Mary Lou Retton, Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner to name a few. And, of course, there is the reigning Olympic endorsement king — Phelps — whose agent predicted the swimmer will earn $100 million-plus in his lifetime.

Why, in contrast, are so many winter stars left out in the cold when it comes to corporate opportunities?

The quick answer lies is their comparative lack of exposure — both in terms of eyeballs and skin.

On television, the 2008 Summer Olympics gave NBC an average primetime audience of 27.6 million people, spread across 17 nights. (That is comparable with a recent episode of Fox ratings monster "American Idol," which lured 27.8 million viewers.)

Beijing’s story lines — including Phelps’ successful chase for a record eight gold medals — clearly connected with more Americans than did the wintertime athletic feats beamed from Torino two years earlier. Those 2006 Winter Games averaged 20.2 million prime-time viewers over a 17-night run.

That gap may be widening: the Torino Olympics were the lowest-rated Winter Games in 18 years, according to Nielsen Media Research.

To both fans on the couch and brand masters on Madison Avenue, size matters. The Summer Games — 28 sports and 11,000 athletes from 204 lands — dwarf the Winter Olympics, which include 15 sports and 5,500 athletes from about 80 nations. What’s more, summer sports historically have been more relatable to U.S. consumers, many of whom grew up running, jumping, biking and swimming. How many Americans have ridden a luge or attempted a double-axel-triple-toe combination on knife-sharp skates?

“With the marketplace being smaller, the athletes have a tendency to not get the bigger deals,” Rowady said.

In most winter sports, we also see less of the athletes — skiers, snowboarders, hockey players, bobsledders, and lugers are bundled up head to toe.

“While that gives a branding opportunity on their uniforms, you really don’t get to see the guy. You don’t get the personal feelings of looking into their eyes,” said Howard Freeman, a sports marketing entrepreneur who heads the Promo 1 agency in northern New Jersey.

Of course, the winter athletes who offer fans a full view of their artistry — and their emotions — are the figure skaters. After their programs, as they wait to see the judges’ marks, skaters sit in a special area journalists have dubbed “the kiss and cry box.” Their happy hugs or deflated tears are aired live to the world, usually in a nose-tight camera shot.

“That,” Freeman said, “sells.”

“As marketers, we know people are paying attention to that event,” Andrews said. “We see the skaters (interacting) with their families and coaches. We get a little more ramped up in their story.”

No wonder, then, that figure skaters historically pull the highest broadcast ratings at the Winter Games. In Torino, the women’s finals drew that Olympiad’s biggest audience, 25.7 million people.

But a rough-and-tumble, American-flavored sport — snowboarding — is hurtling rapidly toward the top of the Winter Games endorsement mountain, led by a red-haired daredevil named Shaun White. The 2006 gold medalist in the men’s halfpipe struck carefully crafted marketing deals with Target, Oakley and HP and helped develop a new video game with Ubisoft. Last winter he trained on a secret, 22-foot-deep superpipe called Project X, personally groomed for him on a remote Colorado mountain and paid for by Red Bull.

Riding all that business savvy, White, 23, will bring his latest, most treacherous move to Vancouver: the Double McTwist 1260, which includes two flips and three-plus spins.

“During competition the stars emerge. That’s the beauty of it: you can’t manufacture that,” said Kathy Connors, who runs KMC Consulting, a sports, entertainment and PR agency in Washington. After the 2006 games, she worked with medal-winning U.S. snowboarders Hannah Teter and Gretchen Bleiler. Endorsements are earned, Connors said, through “performance and personality. And the thing that matters more and more? The personality part ... There is such effervescence with Shaun White. He is so authentic. How can you not root for him?”

“By the launch of the more aggressive youth movement by the (International Olympic Committee), snowboarding is now one of the coveted sports,” agreed rEvolution’s Rowady. “Snowboarding has the staying power.”

The buzz is so palpable that retired Olympic skier Nikki Stone even suggested that winter athletes, especially those who tap the young adult market, soon will close the divide on endorsement deals.

“I think we are catching up,” said Stone, who took gold in inverted aerial skiing at the 1998 Nagano games. Today she works as a motivational speaker and has authored a new book, “When Turtles Fly.”

As with all Olympians, however, Stone understands another cold business fact: Their marketing shelf life is brief, even for gold medalists. Compared to NBA, NFL, PGA or NASCAR athletes who return season after season, the games’ four-year cycles offer only a quick grab at the limelight for most athletes. Only a select few such as Ohno, White and Teter have a chance to shine at multiple games.

“You can’t sit there and wait for it to come in. You have a six-month window when everyone wants to feed off your enthusiasm,” Stone said. “But after six months, you really have to make it work ... People are quickly forgotten.

“But if you break through, you really break through. You’re always going to have a place in people’s hearts, a place in the American sporting landscape.”