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NEW YORK — Americans have always liked rooting for the home team, but in recent months marketers have really taken to pushing those all-American athletes in their marketing programs.
The goal is to drive brand awareness and increase sales in the the U.S., and with post-9/11 nationalism still strong, sports marketers are turning to home-grown athletes to show their red, white and blue spirit.
While styles may differ from one country to the next, the American market has long set the tone for sports-inspired trends. Evan Morganstein, president of Premiere Management, a Raleigh, N.C.-based company that represents 40 Olympic athletes with 60 Olympic medals, said: “They realize the American icon still outshines any other icon around the world.”
This comes at the same time companies are going global with greater force, with some using American athletes as the backbone for their crusades. Closer to home, Americans remain loyal to their athletes.
Craig Brommers, vice president of marketing for Speedo, said: “The American public generally only wants to identify with American athletes.”
He noted that Speedo sponsors about 45 American swimmers, divers and triathletes, and only six international athletes. The brand is more inclined to maintain a relationship with a retired American athlete than recruit a lesser-known foreign performer.
Peter Carlisle, director of Olympic and active sports for Octagon, a sports management firm, said: “The American market is changing with more of the emphasis on the story that will resonate with consumers. If they want to make an impact, getting the best athlete might not be the greatest idea.”
Enter tennis player James Blake, a handsome Harlem-raised Harvard graduate with dreadlocks, who Nike and American Express used as their poster boy for the U.S. Open, even though he was ranked 25th going into the tournament. Unlike Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who have had their personal stories told many times, the 22-year-old Blake stood to welcome a new audience.
Signing a new face like Blake helps attract fans to the sport, regardless if that player’s performance merits such high-profile placement, Morganstein said. His youthfulness and personal style reflect how Nike wants to be perceived by consumers even if that is not the brand’s image at this point, he said.
Being the best no longer secures the most endorsement deals, as proven by Anna Kournikova, who has used her blonde-bombshell looks rather than her tennis prowess to rake in a reported $8 million in annual endorsement deals — a bellwether among female athletes. But some sports insiders point out that she is the exception, not the rule.
Rick Burton, executive director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, views the demand for American athletes, including second-tier ones, as “a subliminal 9/11 reaction” in that beginning last fall, “companies wanted to wrap themselves in the American flag and using star athletes was a way of doing that.”
“A lot of companies are trying to say what is comforting to our consumers, like family values,” Burton said. “What transpired after that was finding familiar icons.”
It took a while to develop their concepts, find the right athletes and produce their commercials, Burton said.
“There was a little bit of profiling going on with Caucasians and Hispanics,” he said. “They thought people from other nationalities might have been seen as a risk or less immediately accepted.”
Aside from that, with the exception of international stars like Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Ronaldo, there are few athletes that can star on an international stage, Burton said.
“The bottom line is very few athletes can come into another country and have relevance,” he said.
Even Sarah Hughes, America’s golden girl at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, was limited in her marketing reach. The teenager couldn’t pitch many categories such as beer, cars and financial services due to her age, Burton noted.
Several companies tightened the reins, or reconsidered endorsement deals, once the recession rumbled last year. “A lot of people’s willingness to gamble evaporated,” Burton said. Budgets were cut and those that weren’t were scrutinized. “Companies knew a lot of big-ticket endorsement deals were going to get looked at sideways in the boardroom,” he said.
Athletes who are lucky enough to buck the trend often hold out for U.S. sponsors, which are more inclined to hook them up with comprehensive deals, than their foreign counterparts. Morganstein noted that Swan Goggles, a Japanese maker of swim goggles, “would love to sign a big-name American star,” but most elite swimmers are “locked up in head-to-toe deals with Nike, Speedo and Tyr.”
American swimmers carry such weight overseas that at least one American apparel company has already met with Morganstein about signing deals with them for the 2008 Olympics in China, an area being eyed by many athletic companies for growth.
“They’re looking past Athens,” he said. “To them, that is already over. Their eye is on China.”
For Speedo’s spring catalog, only U.S. athletes such as Jenny Thompson, Megan Quann, Lindsay Benko, Kristy Kowal and Amanda Beard were used. Americans also want to interact with their favorite athletes and count on brands to make that happen.
Last month, Speedo put Olympic swimmer Janet Evans front-and-center for a “Dive In,” a public screening at UCLA’s swimming pool of the new flick “SwimFan,” which features Speedo products.
“Sports marketing is certainly more sophisticated than it was in the early Nineties,” Brommers said.
In the past, marketers were more inclined to select specific athletes to reach specific sports fans, said Octagon’s Carlisle.
“If marketers want to widen the group they market to in order to include not necessarily fans of a particular sport, they need athletes that transcend sports.” he said. “They won’t transcend sports without a story, personality or angle.”
On top of that, athletes like Venus and Serena Williams, Kournikova, Jennifer Capriati, Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain are more aggressive about branding themselves, said Brian Berger, president of BBPR, a Portland, Ore-.-based company that represents athletes. They understand that the more fans hear about them, the more likely those fans will gravitate toward them, he said.
Kournikova “is the epitome of an athlete who has cashed in on her marketing appeal off the court,” Berger said. Ditto for the Williams sisters, especially Serena whose decision to wear a Puma catsuit at the U.S. Open was “about fashion and things other than sports.” Berger noted that athletes are just as competitive about their business endeavors as they are about competing.
“It used to be you just played your sport and hung out in the off-season,” he said. “Now athletes are looking to set themselves up with business interests so they have things to do when they retire.”
Take gold-medalist snowboarder Ross Powers and bronze medalist Danny Kass who each have a stable of endorsers, even though Powers is known for his apple-pie image and Kass is known for his irreverence.
“Danny has a funky image that is totally real and a lot of companies would prefer him,” Carlisle said. “He is so real and credible in his image and that is arguably more valuable than his Olympic medal.”