The closing ceremony in Beijing is still a week away, but sports marketers are scrambling to determine which athletes are best positioned to squeeze sponsorship gold from their Olympic accomplishments.
The early favorites are the whale in the pool, the boomer's delight and a plucky gymnast.
But converting Olympic fame into long-term corporate sponsorship deals is no sure thing, even for record-setting gold medalist Michael Phelps, seemingly ageless Dara Torres, or Nastia Liukin, the third American to win gold in the all-around female gymnastics competition.
For proof, consider the divergent post-Olympics sports marketing careers of the first two U.S. women to win the all-around gymnastics gold.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
It has been 24 years since Mary Lou Retton's golden moment at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, yet 75 percent of Americans still recognize her name, according to Davie Brown Talent, a division of the Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based promotions agency. In contrast, only 10 percent recognize Carly Patterson, who won the all-around gold in 2004 at Athens.
That is relative anonymity in a society seemingly on a first-name basis with A-list celebrities such as Tiger, LeBron, Kobe and Oprah. Athletes such as Patterson clearly have ardent fans, but their comparatively small numbers make it difficult for corporate sponsors to justify endorsement and sponsorship deals.
So will Liukin take over the America's Sweetheart mantle from the 40-year-old Retton?
“Nastia is obviously benefiting from her success so far, and stands to benefit even more from the Olympics,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon's Sports Marketing Center. “But her relevancy for most mainstream sports fans disappears in about three weeks. It's not to say there won't be opportunity — it's just limited opportunity. Limited but still lucrative.”
The limits that Olympians face is clear from the most recent Sports Illustrated Fortunate 50 list, which is headed by Tiger Woods (at $111.9 million a year in winnings and endorsements) and ranks NBA star Amare Stoudamire 50th (at $14.9 million per year). Not a single athlete best known for Olympic performance made the list.
That doesn't mean there aren't some sizable paydays awaiting the stars of Beijing.
When Liukin packed her bags for China, the 18-year-old, Russian-born athlete who lives in Texas had nearly a dozen corporate sponsors ranging from AT&T to Visa.
On Friday in Beijing, business agent Evan Morganstein — who also represents Torres — was talking about Liukin's new line of gymnastics products. She also joined fellow Olympians Phelps and Aaron Peirsol as “athlete partners” for the PureSport performance drinks line.
Shortly after Liukin and her Beijing roommate Shawn Johnson, who won silver in the all-around competition, return to the United States, they'll join the 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars, which will travel to 36 cities, with tickets as high as $79.50.
Top athletes — the squad includes Paul Hamm, who was forced out of the Beijing Games by an injury — reportedly will earn six-figure salaries for the tour. Unlike Olympics ice skaters, whose fans skew older, gymnasts appeal largely to tweens.
So Walt Disney is providing the musical soundtrack — a band called KSM recorded the show's theme song, “Hero in You” — and Fox will broadcast a television special on its MyNetworkTV.
In Phelps' case, the cashing-in process began several years ago and shows no sign of weakening.
With a corporate sponsorship roster that includes Visa, Nike, Speedo, Adidas, Rosetta Stone, Omega and Kellogg's, Phelps earns a reported $5 million a year — plus a reported $1 million bonus from Speedo for tying or breaking Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in one Olympics.
Then there is Torres, the 41-year-old swimmer whose extraordinary accomplishments are prompting baby boomers to buy new swimsuits and jogging shoes. Torres has signed a book deal and will appear with Martina Navratilova at an AARP member meeting on Sept. 4 in Washington.
“I would put Torres at the top of the potential success stories out of the Games,” Swangard said. “She defines a new category of athletes at time when the boomer generation is aging. She's got a unique and inspiring story to tell.”
“The great thing about Dara is that every year she gets older,” Morganstein said. “And every year she's going to get more marketable, more profitable, because she's moving closer to the core baby boomer market. We're talking 20 years of earning potential for her.”