Ohno turns Olympic medals into endorsement gold
Apolo Ohno, like a handful of other Winter Olympic stars, will leave Vancouver, B.C., with plenty of lucrative sponsorship deals. But endorsements are scarce for most U.S. Olympic athletes, who struggle to get by, working when they can and selling space on their gear to any sponsor who sees their potential.
Seattle Times business reporter
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VANCOUVER, B.C. — Apolo Ohno, the most decorated winter Olympian in U.S. history, is cashing in on more than medals. He has racked up sponsorships from Coca-Cola, Vick's, Omega, Alaska Airlines and the Washington State Potato Commission.
But while Ohno has skated and danced his way to wealth, other Olympic athletes still live with their parents and struggle to get by, working when they can and selling space on their gear to any sponsor who sees their potential.
Ohno's bronze medal Saturday in the 1,500-meter short-track speedskating event was his seventh Winter Olympics medal — a record for an American.
And he could walk away from Vancouver with deals worth millions of dollars. Since the Games began, he has begun endorsing luxury Omega watches, and other sponsors may follow soon, especially if he strikes gold in his remaining races.
"Apolo is one of the big stories of the Games, and if he makes history, the number of inquiries we can expect to get would be in the hundreds," said Peter Carlisle, a managing director of Octagon, Ohno's sports-marketing agent. A gold medal often seals the deal.
"You can set everything up, but oftentimes it takes that moment for people to see the effect he has on the general public and to act upon it," Carlisle said.
Ohno's cachet is an anomaly — he was a familiar face even before Vancouver with two successful Olympics and a winning samba routine in "Dancing with the Stars." He has a Hollywood agent, and his biggest sponsor, Alaska Airlines, painted his image on a Boeing 737.
A handful of other top American athletes at the Vancouver Games, such as alpine skier Lindsey Vonn and snowboarder Shaun White, have transcended their sports into mainstream commercial success.
Yet for most athletes, the Olympics as a chance moment to gain recognition and attract sponsors is fleeting at best. That's particularly true for the Winter Games, where some sports are quite obscure and the events attract a smaller television audience than the Summer Games.
"Most Olympic athletes, even if they have a huge amount of success at the Games where they are the story, it's still very challenging because the public was introduced to that athlete only a couple of weeks or months before the Games," Carlisle said. "Over that two-week period they are very relevant, but then it can evaporate very quickly because you lose that platform to be out there in front of that audience."
Even in the Olympic spotlight, one of the biggest chances to make money by advertising before a large U.S. audience is lost, said Scott Macartney, an alpine skier from Redmond and member of the U.S. Ski Team. The Olympics technically is for amateurs, so athletes can't wear the names of their sponsors during competition.
Macartney is one of the athletes featured in Comcast's Local Heroes program to help raise money for local Olympians, which provided some valuable exposure in promotions, he said. But the billboards had to be taken down during the Olympics, when advertising is reserved for official sponsors.
"When you watch the Olympics you don't see any sponsors," Macartney said. "The one real big opportunity to make endorsement money, they don't allow."
U.S. athletes support themselves mostly with endorsements, and among skiers only about the top 10 or 15 in each discipline can make a good living, he said. The U.S. team pays for coaching, travel and lodging, and the athletes foot the rest.
Companies pay to advertise on an athlete's clothing and equipment. But those individual sponsors can't be in the same category of business as the team sponsor. For example, if the team sponsor is Visa, individuals can't make endorsement deals with American Express.
Macartney regularly sells the real estate to U.S. companies trying to get exposure in Europe, where his ski races are televised.
The U.S. audience sees ski racing every four years during the Winter Olympics. Even then, only the best athletes are shown on television.
Success can change the life of an Olympic athlete dramatically.
In one season Macartney, now 32, went from living with his parents to paying off his student loans and making a down payment on his first house.
"If you ski fast, you get on one kind of podium and can make $50,000 in a day," he said. "The athlete in that race who gets 10th doesn't make anything."
Woodinville luger Christian Niccum, who competed in Vancouver, has worked for a nursing home and sold commercial truck tires to support himself. He also moved his wife and daughter in with his parents for most of the past year while he trained in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Leavenworth cross-country skier Torin Koos, competing in his third Olympics in Vancouver, also has struggled in relative obscurity. He found an unusual sponsor — USA Pears, which markets pears grown in Washington and Oregon.
It might not be the most lucrative contract, but it suits him: He plans to work in the fruit business once he retires from his skiing.
The U.S. Olympic Committee plays matchmaker between sponsors and athletes, looking for a personality that suits the product whether it's bubbliness for Coca-Cola or beauty for Olay, said Susan Goldsmith, a USOC marketing director. Performance and personality, along with an ability to talk to children and corporate boards, all count.
"We put together a roster of recommended athletes and work with partners to determine the best fit," she said.
The USOC is digging deeper to try to bring exposure to more athletes, Goldsmith said.
Anheuser-Busch, for example, chose a roster of U.S. skeleton athletes who had an edgy, underdog appeal, including 37-year-old racer Rebecca Sorenson, who didn't end up on the Olympic team, she said.
For the most part, though, it's about "high-performance brands and high-performance athletes," said Mark Pritchard, vice president of marketing at Procter & Gamble.
P&G, which owns Vick's, liked Ohno for his star power on and off the rink, Pritchard said.
The country will see a lot more of Ohno in TV ads that feature him as Superman for Vick's Dayquil, and skating on a circle of cracking ice in a commercial for AT&T.
The more famous the athlete, the higher the fee, Pritchard said. But local sponsorships are growing as a new avenue for athletes who are not well known outside their hometowns, he said.
Ohno sought out a partnership with the state potato commission to promote healthful eating and indulge his passion for cooking. The deal includes a cookbook with Ohno and top Seattle chefs.
And when the last race is finished, Carlisle, who represented U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps in Beijing, will be racing to strike as many other deals for Ohno as possible.
"The window of opportunity is shorter," he said. "It's not like you can go out and play another basketball game."
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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