NEW YORK — Who will be the next face on the Wheaties box?

As the Olympics draw to a close, medal-winning athletes will focus on the next phase of their careers: how best to market themselves and lap up endorsement deals.

American women have been particularly successful in Athens, snapping up gold medals in gymnastics, fencing, softball, swimming and beach volleyball, all of which will likely lead to some substantial endorsement contracts. The Olympics are critical for women, because the Games give them far more prime-time exposure than they usually receive. Almost equal numbers of men and women — about 280 men and 260 women — are representing the U.S. in Athens, and females make up more than half of the viewers watching the Summer Games.

Medal winners such as gymnast Carly Patterson, swimmers Natalie Coughlin and Amanda Beard, softball player Jennie Finch, runner Allyson Felix and beach volleyball stars Misty May and Kerri Walsh are among those best positioned for gold on the endorsement front, sports marketers said. Members of the U.S. women’s soccer team, which beat Brazil for the gold medal in overtime on Thursday, are also likely to see plenty of marketing opportunities. But it’s uncertain if any of these athletes will have the staying power of gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who won the gold during the 1984 Summer Games.

“This year in particular we have seen many female athletes competing at a very high level,” said Dan Levy, director of women’s sports at Octagon, a global sports marketing firm based in Washington, which represents soccer star Mia Hamm, among others. “There are a lot of elite athletes for girls to look up to, and that will translate well for endorsements.”

Women athletes are also being more recognized for their physical attractiveness as well as their athletic abilities, which will also translate well on the commercial front, the marketing experts said.

“We have matured as a society, so that women can be both beautiful and accepted as an athlete,” said Marc Ganis, president of sports marketing firm Sportscorp Ltd. in Chicago. “I believe we are in the midst of a sea change as it relates to women’s sports. There is an old truism that sex and beauty sell, and why should that not be the case in sports?”

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