Olympic Athletes: Measuring Their Moment in the Spotlight

I was listening to sports talk radio this morning and was reeled in by a discussion the hosts were carrying on regarding recent Olympic medalist Ryan Lochte.  They were arguing about his relevance in the sporting world and how Americans are really only tuned in to him and his career but once every four years.  While there are many fans who do follow the sport of swimming on the regular, I had to agree with them- in Olympic years 2008 and 2012, Ryan Lochte has been a household name; but, what will the general public’s response be to him in 2014?  Will everyone remember him?  And if they do, what kind of influence does he, or any other 2012 Olympian for that matter, have on consumers?  Can he or his fellow USA medalists effectively endorse products during the 4-year hiatus between the games?

While these questions can’t be answered easily, we can certainly ascertain a few conclusions without delving into focus groups and rigorous marketing surveys and studies.  Here is what is comes down to:

  • The more you win, the bigger the payday.  22 medals (18 gold) do not come easy, but thankfully all of Michael Phelps’ hard work has been and will continue to (quite literally) pay off.  Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, can command the highest paycheck of any Olympian in history.  Obviously the higher the success rate and medal count an athlete accrues, the more likely they are going to be able to secure athlete appearance opportunities and become spokespersons for some of America’s leading corporations.
  • The more popular the sport in which the athlete competes, the more likely he or she will be to continue to be relevant for months and years after the closing ceremonies.  It is not hard for most of us to understand that All-Around Gymnastics Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas will have a far easier time landing an endorsement deal than Kayla Harrison who won gold in Judo.  For most viewers, gymnastics is a thrill to watch and commands the prime timeslots.  Whereas, only a fraction of fans have even heard the name Kayla Harrison, never mind having actually seen her win the gold.  Because of the viewership and recognition of the sports itself, gymnast Gabby Douglas will no doubt be inundated with personal appearance requests, endorsements and media opportunities.

It is also true that the medal winners of individual sports generally receive more recognition and opportunities that those competing in team events (i.e. Indoor Volleyball, Water Polo).  Although, gymnastics which only has 5 team members and beach volleyball with only 2 team members show us that there are certainly exceptions to this rule.

  • It also doesn’t hurt when an athlete could be considered “America’s Darling” with a radiant smile, effortless interviews and always positive attitude.  The more likeable the celebrity, the more apt they are to be embraced by sponsors.  It is also crucial to avoid scandal.  When the seemingly squeaky clean and beloved Marion Jones was found to be using steroids, it brought and abrupt end of her gravy train of speaking engagements, celebrity appearances and endorsements.
  • Speedos anyone?  Some athletes have a leg up on endorsement deals and opportunities simply because of the equipment and products associated with their sport.  While not many people seriously look into purchasing skeet shooting equipment, most active people do own a swimsuit or two… or a pair of running shoes.  While it is possible that USA Gold Medalist in Women’s Skeet Kimberly Rhodes could have some success in working out a deal with a hunting/shooting equipment manufacturer, there is no doubt that 200 Meter Gold Medalist Alyson Felix will have a much easier time and a substantially larger paycheck with a major shoe marketer.
  • Absence does not always make the heart grow fonder.  The further removed from the Olympics an athlete is, they can often experience a diminishing number of opportunities.  Unless an athlete has reached legendary status- Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Michael Spitz, Mary Lou Retton, Bruce Jenner- the athlete will benefit by striking while the iron is hot.  They need to work with their marketing teams immediately after the Games to garner all of the opportunities that they can while their story, success and name still resonates with American consumers.  If an athlete has hung up their track shoes, leotard or swimsuit, there are always a plethora of opportunity in broadcasting and media.

When looking to hire an Olympic celebrity, all of the above factors need to be considered: the athlete’s achievements, recognition among consumers, popularity and reputation, marketability, and relevance.  Clearly, the higher-ranking the athlete is in each of those categories, the higher the cost will be for the celebrity appearance.  Depending on the budget and the needs of the organization, perhaps it is a more beneficial to hire a celebrity that has very recently competed in a reasonably popular sport or event, like Brittany Reese, gold medalist in the long jump.  Brittany is extremely vocal about her affinity for her hometown of Gulfport, MS which was struck by Hurricane Katrina.  So, businesses and civic organizations in the region would be specifically good candidates for working with her.   Those with national programs or events on a larger scale may consider a legendary athlete that is memorable, but relatively recent- like Carl Lewis.  He continues to enjoy a good reputation and is also relatively recent.  His appeal also spans throughout a variety of demographics.

Whatever the event or program, US Olympic Medalists are always a good choice for endorsements and celebrity appearances.  They represent the best in our country, exemplify poise and leadership and are truly America’s champions.