Which of These Olympians Will Win Over Marketers?

Winter Games May Not Generate as Many Brand Stars as Summer, but Athletes Such as Lindsey Vonn Show Potential

By Published on .

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- There will be no Michael Phelps. Let's get that straight right away.

The Winter Olympics, which began with Friday's opening ceremonies in Vancouver, will probably not produce the next sports endorsement giant on the scale of Mr. Phelps, who won eight gold medals in Beijing during summer 2008.

Skier Lindsey Vonn has a few sponsors, but if she pulls through, she'll be an Olympic darling.
Skier Lindsey Vonn has a few sponsors, but if she pulls through, she'll be an Olympic darling.
For one thing, none of the athletes in Vancouver will be competing in as many events as Mr. Phelps did. And the Winter Olympics just don't have the juice or the buzz of the Summer Olympics, largely because they have more niche sports, such as luge and curling, than the more mainstream sports played in the summer.

Still, the Winter Olympics have always produced their fair share of marketing success stories for athletes that emerged after strong performances in the games. Think figure skaters Dorothy Hamill and Peggy Fleming, speed skaters Eric Heiden and Dan Jansen, and the U.S. gold medal-winning hockey team in 1980.

Here's a look at handicapping the potential "marketing medalists" to stand out during the Vancouver games over the next two weeks.


Lindsey Vonn. These are supposed to be the "Vonncouver Olympics" for the woman that Sports Illustrated called the best American female skier ever after she won world championships in the downhill and super giant slalom last year. She certainly has the telegenic good looks that advertisers crave, and there isn't a hotter U.S. athlete in terms of buzz right now.

She's been in SI during back-to-back weeks, first in a controversial cover shot that some feminist groups said was demeaning to women, and then posing in a fur hat and skimpy bikini for the magazine's annual Swimsuit Issue. Ms. Vonn, moreover, has the requisite emotional backstory -- she failed to medal in 2006 in Turin after a skiing accident, and she revealed just days ago that a crash on the slopes she suffered on Feb. 2 while training in Austria has left her in "excruciating pain." Her current endorsement deals, with Alka-Seltzer and athletic-apparel company Under Armour, are somewhat under the radar, but if she pulls through and wins a gold or two, she'll be an advertiser darling.

Apolo Anton Ohno. Mr. Ohno might be more well-known for winning ABC's "Dancing With the Stars" than for being the country's best short-track speedskater. Yet if he wins two gold medals in Vancouver, he'll surpass fellow speedskater Bonnie Blair as the most-decorated U.S. Winter Olympian ever, and that's saying something. Mr. Ohno has already done spots for McDonald's and Coca-Cola, but his chance for further endorsements will only grow with another solid performance in his third Olympiad.

Sidney Crosby. Mr. Crosby has something no other Olympic athlete on this list will have -- longevity. Although he is Canadian, he already has name value and is well-known to American audiences as the star player for the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom he led to the National Hockey League's Stanley Cup last season in a thrilling seven-game series win over the Detroit Red Wings. No matter what happens in the Olympics, Mr. Crosby will be quite visible as he returns to the NHL in two weeks to continue playing for another four months. But if Mr. Crosby can lead Canada to the one gold medal the nation absolutely demands, in front of the home crowd, in a sport that Canada created, he'll be a legend in two countries.


Shaun White. It can only get better for Mr. White, nicknamed the "Flying Tomato" for his red hair. A snowboarder who reaches out to the Gen Y demographic advertisers love, Mr. White has earned about $10 million in endorsement deals since winning a gold medal in 2006, which piggybacked his legendary performances in ESPN's X Games competition, where he first burst onto the scene. Current endorsements include associations with hip companies like Burton Snowboards and Oakley sunglasses, but also mainstream companies such as Target.

Shani Davis. In the 2006 Turin Olympics, the speedskater made history by becoming the first African-American to win an individual gold in the Winter Olympics. He also added a silver medal.

Speedskater Shani Davis has had some controversy surrounding him, but his four events this year hold potential for sponsorships.
Speedskater Shani Davis has had some controversy surrounding him, but his four events this year hold potential for sponsorships. Credit: Berthold Stadler
Mr. Davis, though, has been embroiled in controversy. He does not accept funding from Team USA -- he is backed by Nike and three foreign sponsors -- and does not participate in the team-speedskating competitions, which earned him a rebuke from American speedskater Chad Hedrick four years ago. He is, however, entered in four individual events this year and is favored in two. A couple of golds could mean more endorsement potential.

Evan Lysacek, Johnny Weir, Jeremy Abbott. These are the U.S. men's competitors for the figure-skating competition, and they all have marketing potential.

Mr. Lysacek, a world champion, already has endorsement deals with Ralph Lauren and AT&T, among others, and his costumes are designed by Vera Wang.

Mr. Weir is outgoing and flamboyant -- he picked a fight with PETA when one of his costumes contained real fur -- and he has appeared in a documentary on skating and on the TV show "My Life on the D List" with Kathy Griffin.

Still, it's Mr. Abbott who is the ally of the two-time defending U.S. champion. Any one of them could walk off with marketing deals if they leave Vancouver with a gold medal.


Bode Miller. The ultimate renegade. Mr. Miller caused a huge stir in Turin in 2006 when he entered that Olympics as the favorite, or close to it, in each of the five ski races he was entered in. He did not win a medal, didn't even finish three of the races and was widely ridiculed for partying like a rock star and drinking during those two weeks. He lost about $3 million in early endorsements after that. Now 32, a father and far more mature than he used to be, Mr. Miller has strong potential on the marketing front for turning his life around if he can capture a gold medal in any of the five events he is again entered in. The only thing that marketers like as much as a success story is a comeback story.

Rachael Flatt. For the first time in a long time, an American female figure skater enters the Olympics without the usual accompanying fanfare or buzz. In fact, many observers believe this might be the year when U.S. dominance in the sport -- America has won at least one medal in women's figure skating in every Winter Olympics since 1968 -- might come to an end. But marketers have long anointed U.S. medalists with endorsement deals, from Ms. Hamill and Ms. Fleming to Michelle Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi. If Ms. Flatt can medal, with the requisite emotions running high in the "kiss and cry box," expect her to be involved in some sort of deal. Kleenex, anyone?

Kris Freeman and Brian McKeever. What would the Olympics be without the "overcoming obstacles" stories? Mr. Freeman, an American cross-country skier, is a diabetic who wears an insulin pump full-time. Mr. McKeever, a cross-country skier from Canada, is legally blind. He suffers from Stargardt's Disease, and only has 10% vision. He was a two-time gold medalist in the 2006 Paralympics, and is now going for gold in the Winter Olympics.

The qualities of a brand champion

Four things marketers look for in a potential Olympics endorser


The athlete has to bring home the gold. It doesn't have to be eight, like Michael Phelps, but very few athletes have been sought after by marketers after bringing home silver or bronze from the Olympics. An exception is Nancy Kerrigan, who was attacked and whacked on the knee at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 1994 by associates of her main rival, Tonya Harding. Ms. Kerrigan ended up signing $9.5 million worth of endorsement deals that year, although few remember that, weeks later, she actually finished second in the Lillehammer Olympics to Oksana Baiul.


Americans like their Olympians to be confident yet humble rather than cocky and outgoing. There have been wonderful, outsized personalities who managed to come across as extraordinarily likeable, such as track star Florence Griffith-Joyner, who with her flashy outfits and incredibly long nails dominated the 1988 Summer Games at Seoul.


Latching on to a sure-fire Olympic winner is smart, as many marketers did with Michael Phelps (before the bong) in 2008. But sometimes the build-up to the Olympics can overshadow the event itself and backfire in marketers' faces. Reebok learned that the hard way when its "Dan and Dave" went up in flames prior to the 1992 Summer Olympics when world record holder Dan O'Brien failed to even qualify for the games.


There are good stories, and then there are really good stories. The Jamaican bobsled team that competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary was truly one of a kind. Speedskater Dan Jansen had both a great back-story and sad story. Hours before his first race in 1988, his sister Jane died. He fell and didn't medal. Four years later, in the '92 Olympics, he fell again. Finally, in 1994, Mr. Jansen won gold and skated around the rink afterward holding his baby daughter -- named Jane.

In this article:
Most Popular