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?”
Athletes also seem more willing than ever to show off their sexy side. A number of women posed in revealing outfits in publications such as FHM, and the beach volleyball players competed in bikinis shrunk down from uniforms in previous years. Playboy magazine’s September issue features a 12-page pictorial of Olympic athletes.
Of course, not all female athletes want to take off their clothes to market themselves, and marketers spend a lot of time and money figuring out the best way to build on the success of an Olympic medal. The fame of many is short-lived, so some consultants say they should enjoy the moment while they can.
“When an athlete wins a gold medal, they are bombarded by opportunities,” said Tracy Evans, an agent at Athlete Source, a sports marketing agency in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “The thing about Olympic glory is that the shelf life is very short. They have to act quickly. Some athletes don’t end up doing things they could because they lack organization.”
While a handful of athletes, including swimmer Michael Phelps, inked endorsement deals with companies such as Speedo before the Olympics, most deals are cemented after the Games. Companies like Adidas, Speedo and Nike are often the first to sign an athlete before they reach a pinnacle, marketing experts say. After the Olympics, consumer giants such as AT&T, Visa and American Express make big contract arrangements.
Officials at Nike and Reebok said they don’t discuss endorsement contracts.
“While there are some exceptions, generally what happens is that first an athlete gets attention at the Olympics, then come the articles and photo spreads, and then come the sponsorships,” Ganis said.
Finch, the tall, blonde softball pitcher who had deals with firms such as Bolle and Mizuno sports equipment before the Games, is an exception. Now that the U.S. softball team has taken gold, it’s likely Finch will soon be pitching a number of other products as well.
“She is beautiful but also has strong religious convictions, which is helpful to her image,” Ganis said.
Gold medal gymnast Patterson already had deals with AT&T Wireless and McDonald’s, and it’s likely her phone is now ringing off the hook, Evans said. Nonetheless, Evans and others said it’s unclear whether Patterson has what it takes to make it past the initial glory days of her gold-medal win. Only 16 years old, she appeared tentative and uncomfortable in television interviews and is clearly learning the ropes when it comes to being in the media spotlight.
“In her case, it may be a flash in the pan,” Ganis said. “She can capitalize on the big burst of publicity now, but whether she has the kind of personality and exuberance that will take her through the long term is hard to say.”
John Bond, a partner in New York advertising agency Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners, said, “Athletes more than anything else need a personality. Even if it’s a bad personality. Mary Lou Retton was not just a medal winner. She was an American darling, and she transcended the boundaries of her sport.” Twenty years after winning the gold in Los Angeles, Mary Lou Retton still earns between $200,000 and $250,000 a year, according to MSNBC.
“Most athletes should just take 95 percent of the money that comes their way, because there is a good chance they won’t be around that long,” he added. “It’s like fashion. It’s about who is hot this week.”
Ganis said Coughlin spoke well in an interview with NBC’s Bob Costas after one of her victorious races, which could help her get endorsements. “She was poised and very telegenic,” he said. “She will definitely be sought after.”
One gold-medal-winning athlete who might not make it in the world of endorsements is fencer Mariel Zagunis, even though she is the first American to win a fencing gold in 100 years.
“Unfortunately, the public can’t see her face, and they don’t know much about her sport,” said Octagon’s Levy. “It’s hard for people to relate to sports they don’t understand.”
Levy said most female athletes still don’t get the same contracts as men, partly because they receive less television exposure.
“When the athletes get back to the U.S. and everyone goes back to their day jobs, track and field and gymnastics won’t get as much publicity as basketball,” Levy said. “Television isn’t equally distributed between men’s and women’s sports. There is much more gender parity in the Olympics than there is in the world of sports marketing.”