Gold medalist teams are likely to score again

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Expectations for big product endorsement deals are soaring in the wake of the sponsor-soaked Centennial Olympic Games, but individual athletes are unlikely to become overnight millionaires.

U.S. Olympians with the best hopes for turning their gold into green include record-setting sprinter Michael Johnson, the women's gymnastics team, decathlete Dan O'Brien and swimmer Tom Dolan.

"We're not going to see a lot of instant Mary Lou Rettons coming out of this Olympics, despite all the publicity surrounding Kerri Strug and the other female gymnasts," said David Burns, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Service.

ARRAY OF OPPORTUNITIES

Instead, a larger number of athletes will cash in on a broader array of marketing opportunities than ever, experts said.

Women will take home a record amount of marketing gold after NBC's high-rated Olympic event; gold medal teams are likely to cut an unprecedented number of deals, while personal appearances will probably be a more profitable channel for many Olympic medalists than product endorsements.

NO QUICK DEALS

"It's the year of women at the Olympics, and there were a lot of surprises, so don't look for quick deals," said Stephanie Tolleson, senior VP at sports marketing agency IMG. "Smart marketers are going to assess their opportunities to make long-term use out of entire teams for tours and publicity, not simply for putting a face on a cereal box."

It will take weeks for marketers to finalize complex endorsement deals with the gold medal-winning women's gymnastics, soccer and softball teams, but opportunities for marketers are better working with the team than with individuals, Ms. Tolleson said.

Gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson is emerging as the gold-shod front-runner in commercial opportunities after last week's 200-meter dash, said to be the fastest human sprint ever measured. Computer and telecommunications equipment marketers are among top contenders to nail down deals with Mr. Johnson and also with gold medal decathlete Dan O'Brien, said sports marketing experts.

"Michael Johnson will be huge--he's just what marketers are looking for in total presence," Mr. Burns said.

GYMNASTS FOR WHEATIES

General Mills has already locked up the women's gymnastics team for its Wheaties box and is likely to do deals with other medalists. Gymnast Ms. Strug may also get her own box.

Multimillion-dollar book and movie deals are already in the works, describing the drama of the women's gymnastics team's gold medal win and the individual feats of Ms. Strug, Shannon Miller, Dominique Dawes and Dominique Moceanu.

Pharmaceutical companies are said to be swarming around star swimmer and asthmatic Tom Dolan to promote asthma remedies. Beach volleyball team gold medalist Karch Kiraly stands to increase his own million-dollar endorsement portfolio and Mark Henry, the world's heaviest weightlifter, has signed a multimillion-dollar contract with the World Wrestling Federation, even though he didn't win gold.

Mattel Toys is circling women's gold medal-winning teams, although it has not announced any marketing deals. The National Fluid Milk Processors is said to be interested in using the women's gymnastics team in a series of its signature "milk mustache" print ads. Agency Bozell Worldwide, New York, did not confirm discussions.

American Express Co. hasn't had a major tie-in to an Olympic athlete in several years, but may be exploring a relationship with one of the gold medalists; the company wouldn't comment.

NBC COVERAGE SPURS DEALS

"I think there will be more endorsements deals [for Olympians] than there have been in the past," said Ron Bess, president of Foote, Cone & Belding, Chicago. "NBC's coverage [gave] us more of a relationship with these people and there are a lot of wonderful stories."

Scuffling for product endorsements began last week when Ms. Strug, previously unknown to many Americans, became the best-known name of the Games when she performed with an injured ankle to help the women's team win the gold.

Ms. Strug last week renounced her college competition eligibility and hired Leigh Steinberg as her own agent, putting her in direct competition for product endorsement deals with her teammates.

Agent Sheryl Shade of New York-based Shade Global is shopping around the whole gymnastics team for long-term marketing deals, including deepening corporate commitment to a 29-city tour sponsored by John Hancock Life Insurance and engineered before the Olympics.

"I want to promote the gymnastics team as a whole, to turn their biggest moment into great marketing opportunities, but members of the team insist on pursuing their own endorsement deals," said Ms. Shade, who also represents the 14-year-old Ms. Moceanu.

Contributing: Mark Gleason, Jeff Jensen.

Copyright August 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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