As the Winter Olympians train for the Sochi games in February, many hope their performance will result in endorsement gold. Through the decades, Winter Olympians such as Dorothy Hamill, Picabo Street, Dan Jansen, Apolo Ohno and Shaun White have capitalized on their gold-medal wins by lining up strategic marketing partners. Even in the absence of Olympic gold, figure skater Michelle Kwan became one of the most popular female athletes of all time and enjoyed tremendous endorsement success.
But the Sochi athletes face hurdles that weren't in London last year and won't be in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
Fewer viewers. The U.S. viewing audience for the winter competition has always been smaller than that of the summer games. Fewer countries compete, meaning smaller global audiences and perhaps less appeal to major multinational marketers. As a result, some Winter Olympics athletes look for ways to increase their visibility beyond the ice rink or ski slopes. After figure skater Evan Lysacek won gold in Vancouver in 2010, he chose to compete in ABC's popular reality show "Dancing with the Stars." By making it to the finals and spending months in front of a national TV audience, Lysacek enhanced his marketing opportunities by gaining exposure to a broader base.
Fewer sports. The Summer Games offer a wider range of sports than the Winter Games. And if a Winter Olympian participates in one of the more obscure sports -- Nordic combined, anyone? -- it is difficult to generate a fan base. Talent and a compelling story won't necessarily translate into marketing fame and fortune if the sport is hard to relate to.
Most of the well known endorsement examples coming out of the Winter Olympics have been in the more mainstream sports of skiing (Picabo Street), figure skating (Scott Hamilton) and, going back a way, hockey (the 1980 Miracle on Ice team). Viewers have participated in these sports themselves, understand the rules and know how much skill and dedication is required to perform at the Olympic level.
A notable exception is Apolo Ohno, whose immense talent, good looks and upbeat personality single-handedly brought the little-known sport of short track speed skating to the attention of the country. His athletic performance and dynamic personality earned him valuable endorsements for prominent brands such as McDonald's, Coca-Cola and Subway. (He, too, joined a season of "Dancing With the Stars," but he didn't necessarily need it.)
Less exposure. Brands select Olympians to serve as endorsers, based not only on their accomplishments, but also on their appearance. That's tough luck for athletes covered in helmets and cold-weather gear.
Figure skaters are relatively exposed among Winter Olympians, which may explain why they have been some of the most sought-after endorsers. But other Winter Olympians have to find alternative ways to resonate. Snowboarder Shaun White's unique hair and fashion sense helped connect him to the youth audience and positioned him as the hip, edgy brand ambassador for many products including Red Bull.
In the end, success in their sport on the grand, international Olympic stage and an engaging personality will go a long way for athletes seeking marketing opportunities. But a little extra work would be smart as well.
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