Olympics end, endorsements begin

Salt Lake City extinguished its Olympic flame Sunday, so it’s time to move on to the next phase of athletic glory – figuring out which athletes will cash in.

Most eyes focus first on the 16-year-old girl who jumped into the spotlight by beating out Michelle Kwan and other more heralded rivals for the gold medal in women’s figure skating.

“The big winner is going to be Sarah Hughes,” said Kip Koslow, executive vice president at New York-based Steiner Sports Marketing. “She’s clearly taking the marketing crown.”

Marketing experts are intrigued by the advertising possibilities of the snowboard daredevils, who can speak to an audience more attuned to the X Games than the NFL.

In the snowboarding halfpipe competition, American Kelly Clark won the women’s gold and Ross Powers led a men’s medal sweep for the United States.

“They have a marketability for companies that are trying to target a specific age group,” said Robert Tuchman, president of New York-based TSE Sports and Entertainment, a marketing company. “One of the harder demographics to reach is teenagers.”

Others likely to turn Olympics gold into cash include speedskaters Japanese-American Apolo Anton Ohno and Mexican-American Derek Parra, both winners of gold and silver medals. And there’s men’s skeleton gold medalist Jim Shea Jr., a third-generation Olympian.

Notoriety from the judging controversy in pairs figure skating turned eventual gold winners Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of Canada into household names. The two will be in demand, Tuchman said. The Canadian hockey team, which took the gold Sunday, also may be hot.

Out-of-nowhere winners, like Hughes, were U.S. women’s bobsledders Jill Bakken and Vonetta Flowers, the latter the first person of African descent to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics.

“All these people have a shot, but these athletes have a small window of opportunity to capitalize,” said Ryan Schinman, president of New York-based Platinum Rye Entertainment, a marketing company.

The Olympians received a blizzard of exposure as NBC estimated that 180 million unique viewers tuned in. They will also benefit from a patriotic mood in a nation recovering from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Despite the advantages, marketing experts warn that few of this year’s Olympians – except perhaps Hughes – are likely to parlay their gold medals into big money.

Outside of figure skating and maybe a few breakthrough stars, most athletes will earn less than $100,000 from a winter Games gold medal, they say.

“There are not going to be many massive endorsement deals,” said Merrill Squires, president of Dallas-based Squires Sports Group, a consultant.

Americans aren’t big fans of winter sports, a fact that hurts Olympians’ marketing power.

What’s more, most Olympic sports won’t get regular exposure in the United States after the end of the Winter Games.

“You’ve got to take the deals now,” Tuchman of TSE said. “In six months or 12 months, people will forget about you. The ones with staying power are the ones that have a good story to tell.”

An exception was skier Picabo Street, a winner in Nagano, Japan, in 1998. She proved to be a durable endorser.

This time, there may be too many winners for a star to emerge.

The United States, with 10 golds among its 34 medals, had its most successful Winter Games ever, meaning companies have plenty of options for commercials and personal appearances.

The athletes are “going to cannibalize each other for attention,” said David Carter, principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group, a consultant.