Beijing Olympics

Oded Balilty/AP
Michael Phelps

Eyeing Endorsements, Olympic Athletes Go for the Green

August 20, 2008 02:03 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The high ratings and enormous popularity of the Beijing Olympics has many athletes, and their sponsors, looking to cash in with lucrative endorsement deals.

Let the Financial Games Begin

Corporations are already busy making contracts with star athletes in the Beijing Olympics, and now that the games have proven to be a ratings bonanza, the wheeling and dealing is sure to continue. U.S. viewership during the first three days of the games averaged 30.41 million—up 26.7 percent from the first three days of the 2004 Athens Summer Games.

But it remains to be seen which athletes will be able to translate Olympic glory into dollars. So far, the athletes predicted to bring in the most cash include swimming sensation Michael Phelps, U.S. swimmer Dara Torres, China’s hurdler Liu Xiang and American gymnast Shawn Johnson.

Endorsements depend largely on the outcomes of the athletes’ contests. Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang was poised for a marketing bonanza until Monday, when he was forced to pull out of the games due to a foot injury, leaving many to wonder whether his sponsors will pull his ads.

But a gold medal or outstanding athletic achievement alone does not lead to marketing success, personality is also a factor, says Brad Hunt of IMG’s Gold Medal Management. “You need to see, actually feel, charisma and marketability,” Hunt said to ESPN during the Sydney Olympics.

Who’s Winning the Endorsement Race So Far

Eight-time Beijing gold medalist Michael Phelps is poised to bring in the biggest haul of the 2008 Games. Phelps, who already makes about $5 million a year in endorsements, snagged a million-dollar bonus from Speedo for winning all eight of his events. Among other endorsement deals, he is now set to appear on boxes of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes and Corn Flakes, although he will not make the traditional appearance on Wheaties boxes. Phelps could be on his way to joining the ranks of superstar earners David Beckham and Tiger Woods, according to CNN.

Asked the value of eight golds in Beijing, earned in front of a prime-time U.S. audience, sports agent Peter Carlisle, who leads the Olympics division at the agency that represents Phelps, estimated that the swimmer may earn $100 million over his lifetime.

But commentator Bill Simonson predicts that Phelps will be no Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan in the long run, due to the fact that swimming is not a popular sport at other times of the year. “Please enjoy this ride, because once the Olympic flame is extinguished, the commercial shoots are over, and Leno and Letterman have had you on their couches, this party will come to a quick end,” Simonson says.

Winning Olympic glory can mean more than just cash. Phelps’s agent says that he is getting about 50 calls a day from people offering book deals, movie deals, even free pizza and dental work.

American swimmer Cullen Jones, who won a gold medal Monday in the 400-meter men’s freestyle relay, is looking to garner a modeling contract to cash in on his good looks outside of the pool.

Endorsements are not without their controversy, however. In July, Olympic gold medal swimmer Gary Hall criticized Olympians Nadia Comaneci and Mark Spitz for endorsing Botox, saying that Olympic endorsements should not support an emphasis on physical appearance.

After the Games

Some Olympians continue to cash in long after the games are over. Besides endorsement opportunities, some take advantage of motivational speaking engagements to capitalize on their achievement long-term.

Former Olympians continue to rake in endorsements
as companies tap into viewers’ nostalgia for previous victories. This year, former Olympians returning to the Games via advertisements include Comaneci and Spitz, with Botox, track star Jackie Joyner-Kersee, working with health benefits manager Medco, and soccer player Julie Foudy, representing Cabot cheese and Kleenex.

But most Olympic athletes, especially in the more obscure sports, do not make a windfall from the games and go back to their normal lives once the contests are over.

Endorsements with the Olympics are very limited,” said Bob Williams, the president of Burns Sports, a company that matches advertisers with companies for endorsements, to ESPN. “If an agent promises that a gold medal is going to be a $1 million-plus windfall, that’s just not going to be the case, because about one or two percent of the athletes will be making 99 percent of the money to be had.”

Even those who find themselves in the limelight during and after the games may find that their glory is short-lived. Diana Nyad of Marketplace says that for those who are not megastar athletes, their shelf life is around six months, due to peoples' short attention spans.

In the United States, most athletes receive only modest funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee, unlike other countries like China that have developed huge Olympics machines. So when the phones stop ringing, they return to fairly ordinary lives. “They go to school or hold down jobs. They don’t live in luxury and aren’t recognized on the street,” NPR reports.

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