NEW YORK — With her new Wheaties deal and a pack of other corporate suitors, Sarah Hughes is proving to be America’s golden girl on and off the ice.
But a handful of other Olympians are ready to cash in on their own medals. Canada’s gracious pairs skaters, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, have landed deals with Kleenex and Crest; shy snowboarder Kelly Clark is being chased by everyone from car companies to soft drink brands and even fourth-place figure skater Sasha Cohen just renewed her deal with the National Beef Council.
Bobsledders Vonetta Flowers and Jill Bakken were just picked up by SFX, a Washington, D.C., sports management firm, and are now eyeing endorsees. Madison Avenue favors Flowers, the first African American woman to medal at the Winter Games, for her poise, smile and easy manner.
Apparel makers have yet to seal any deals with Olympians, and the jury is still out on whether such endorsements are worth the money. Competition is stiff, but also can be fleeting, according to sports agents, advertising executives and other sports-oriented types.
Hughes stands head-and-shoulders above her fellow athletes in the endorsement department and is expected to take in between $1 million and $4 million this year. Insiders see Clark in the $1 million to $2 million range. As for bronze medalist Michelle Kwan, her personal stock should stay between $3 million and $4 million, the catch being new deals will be tougher to come by and existing ones will likely not be renewed.
Now that snowboarding has gained credibility and popularity with Olympic fans, a wide range of industries, including automobiles, cereals, telecommunications and soft drinks, are chasing Clark. At 18, she is among the Olympic female athletes providing access to Gen Y, said Peter Carlisle, director of Olympic and active sports for Octagon, which reps Clark. Polo Ralph Lauren and Quiksilver earned his praise for supporting action sports, but conventional clothing companies were criticized for not tapping into this younger generation.
“They’re overlooking burgeoning younger industries,” Carlisle said. “New action sports companies are generating sales that dwarf traditional brands. Walk the halls of any high school in America. The kids aren’t wearing Nike or Adidas, they’re wearing DC Shoes, Etnies, Vans and other skateboard shoes.”
Susan Izzo, president of Mosaic Management, a Westport, Conn.-based sports agency with a forte for surfers and snowboarders, noted that more mainstream companies will be going after snowboarders to try to cash in on the swarm of interest, as it and other action sports gain credibility.
Doriane Vidal’s silver medal in the halfpipe has sent companies scrambling to sign her up. About 20 firms each day have called her agent, Larry McKay at Sport Promote, since the Olympics ended. She is in talks with Pepsi and “the other largest soft drink company,” he said.
Vidal’s European modeling experience and her fluency in French, English and Spanish appeal to global brands looking to avoid using voice-overs to shoot commercials for different countries, McKay said. On top of that, out-of-industry exposure bolsters an athlete’s value. Vidal currently endorses Rossignol’s new RTO line, Vans and Oakley, and plans to add athletic and casual footwear, streetwear, auto and electronics to her portfolio, McKay said.
With the exception of figure skaters, who take in six-figure endorsement deals, most female athletes average five-digit deals, said Brian Berger, president of BBPR, a Portland, Ore.-based agency that works with Olympians and professional athletes. Quick to point out that well-known names like Shaquille O’Neal don’t have shoe deals, Berger also noted that winter athletes aren’t a good match for apparel makers, since most people aren’t in the market for bobsledding uniforms or figure skates.
The trick is to tie the athlete’s image to sell a product, as Nike has done with Marion Jones. Most consumers don’t need her performance track shoes, but they will buy into the brand with a less-technical model, he said. But keeping the buzz around female athletes, especially those who compete in sports that are not widely televised, as is the case with most Olympians, can be a chore. A few years back, Berger escorted Jones to a Nike event and many people expected to meet a man due to her name, he said.
But Brent Bouchez, founder and president of Bouchez Kent, an advertising firm that works with a few sports-related brands, agreed that athletes must match the labels they endorse. Tiger Woods plugging Buick, for example, is a stretch, since most consumers wouldn’t believe he drives one, Bouchez said. In addition, Olympic news wears off fast, and in a few months most Americans will be challenged to name, say, the women’s bobsledding team.
When Ed Taussig, group creative director for G2 New York, caught wind of Hughes’s Wheaties deal Tuesday, he wondered,: “Is that all they can do with this girl?” Companies have yet to use female athletes in a modern way, opting to play it safe with more predictable matchups, he said. In this post-feminist age, someone like Hughes should be able to do work with a trendy brand and still be able to be on a Wheaties box, Taussig said.
“Why wouldn’t some great shoe designer or hosiery company use her? She could still maintain her squeaky clean image if that’s what she wanted,” Taussig said.
In his previous professional life as advertising manager for Miller Lite’s “Taste Great, Less Filling” campaign, Rick Burton, executive director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, cast his share of commercials.
Burton said: “Looks are always important. That’s just the shallowness of our society, unfortunately. Whether a person is in a commercial or print ad, that’s someone’s belief of an ideal. At a certain level, anyone can be made to be attractive.”
Advertisers still tend to go with women in “socially acceptable” sports like figure skating and shy away from niches like bobsledding or luge, said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research for Women & Girls in Sports at the University of Minnesota.
The entire U.S has become so “Britney Speared” that endorsers look for model types from the get-go, said Richard Kirshenbaum, cochairman of Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners.
“For the most part, fashion and beauty companies look for people who look like real models,” he said. “Most of the people in the Olympics tend to be real people.”
In addition, advertisers tend to develop concepts before signing celebrities. The number one question they’re asking now is: “Will this person be relevant five years from now?”
Seventeen-year-old Sasha Cohen, who finished just out of the medals but received high exposure, has gotten a handful of calls from potential endorsers and is considering one with an apparel company and another with a jewelry firm, said her coach, John Nicks, who helps manage the business side with Cohen’s father, Roger. Well aware that Salt Lake City was Cohen’s premiere international competition, marketers are trying to sign her up, seeing a bright future.
After three million people visited her Web site during the Games, her father went to work on a new site that will bow next week.
“She’s only 17 years old and she’s just starting her career,” he said. “We have to be careful not to jump into too many things. It’s a little different than dealing with athletes in their 20s and 30s. Sasha has a mind of her own and likes certain things. We have to take that into account.”
Flowers and Bakken stand to sign mid-five-figure up to six-figure endorsement deals, and could pull in five-figure fees for speaking engagements, said Robert Urbach, executive vice president of SFX. The aim is to give them a 10-year life span with companies with a need for speed, such as cellular services that are “not necessarily the number one favorite,” Urbach said. SFX also is going after more fashion-conscious brands.
Shahid & Co. considered lining up a female Olympian, but nixed the idea due to timing and expense, said Sam Shahid, a partner in the advertising agency.
“By the time it gets out there, it’s already over,” was his opinion. “After six months to a year, it’s already played out.”
But the company hasn’t ruled out profiling an athlete for the A&F quarterly it produces for Abercrombie & Fitch.
“We need heroes,” Shahid said.