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After the gold comes the green

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Gymnast Mary Lou Retton showed a dozen years ago in the Los Angeles Olympics that a dramatic gold medal victory by an appealingly driven contestant can lead to commercial millions.

The games are back in America this year, and advertising experts and talent scouts are watching to see if another Mary Lou can capture a top prize along with the hearts of a television audience.

But a lot has changed since Retton's surprise victory in 1984 in Los Angeles and the equally unexpected commercial bonanza that followed.

Companies paid millions to associate their names with this year's games in Atlanta. And the top Olympic prospects often come to the competition with endorsement contracts already in place.

Sprinter Michael Johnson, for example, has been featured extensively in ads for Nike sneakers. Long-jumper Carl Lewis has appeared for Nike and Pirelli tires.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, a longtime women's track and field star, has appeared for milk, Nike, MCI, Ray-Ban glasses and a Glaxo asthma reliever and is rated by one survey followed closely on Madison Avenue as one of the 10 most popular athletes around.

The latest edition of the men's Dream Team in basketball has players like Shaquille O'Neal, Charles Barkley, Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill who may be as well known for their commercials as their on-court performances.

Scottie Pippen, the Chicago Bulls star, is currently appearing in ad campaigns for Visa credit cards and Frito-Lay's Rold Gold Fat Free Pretzels tied to his role with the Dream Team.

But such exposure carries risks as well.

Dan O'Brien is entered in the decathlon after failing to live up to his commercial billing four years ago. Reebok had been running ads saying O'Brien was primed for an Olympic gold medal showdown in 1992 in Barcelona, Spain, when O'Brien unexpectedly failed to make the U.S. team.

Swimmer Janet Evans, participating in her third Olympics after winning four gold medals in 1988 and 1992, has been appearing in Cadillac advertising for about a year. The General Motors division arranged to have ads with her run during Monday's NBC telecast of the swimming competition.

But Evans failed to qualify for the finals in the 400-meter freestyle event. And she came in sixth in the 800-meter final, which was won by Plant City's Brooke Bennett.

Cadillac spokesman Brian Babyak said Evans' performance in the games won't affect how Cadillac uses the ads featuring her. "We selected her for both her athletic and her personal qualities," he said.

Will there be any breakthrough commercial stars from these Olympics?

David Burns of Burns Sports Celebrity Service-Chicago said there will be no more than two or three who can attract the attention of companies outside those closely associated with their own sport.

One reason is that the Summer Games last only about two weeks, and individual athletes are in the spotlight only a fraction of that time. "An advertiser needs to have a celebrity spokesman who is visible and recognizable and real noticeable," said Nova Lanktree, a sports talent broker.

Advertisers prefer to draw from games like football and basketball that dominate U.S. sports pages for months during their seasons, keeping their stars continually in the news, said Marty Blackman, who advises advertisers on using athletes.

Big endorsement winners usually need a gold medal and preferably multiple golds to get endorsement deals, the experts say. It helps to compete in an event like gymnastics or diving that give players a chance to show some individual style.

Brian J. Murphy, editor and publisher of the Sports Marketing Letter, said only two Olympians from the 1994 Winter Games were among the 10 highest paid athlete endorsers last year.

They were the figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, who was injured in an attack before the games and placed seventh in endorsements with an estimated $4-million in commercial earnings; and veteran speed skater Bonnie Blair, who was 10th at $3.2-million.

Murphy said no Olympian made the biggest endorser list from the 1992 Summer Games.

Pre-Olympic bets were on 14-year-old gymnast Dominique Moceanu to reap commercial rewards. She often has been compared with past gymnastic gold medalist Nadia Comaneci and is competing despite a leg stress fracture that kept her out of the Olympic trials.

But so far Moceanu has been overshadowed by her older teammates, particularly Kerri Strug whose gutsy vault on an injured ankle Tuesday helped ensure the U.S. women's gold medal in the team competition.

Bob Dorfman of Foote Cone & Belding-San Francisco said swimmer Tom Dolan, who was the first American to take an individual gold medal in Atlanta, could be attractive particularly since he splashed to victory despite allergies and a congenitally narrow windpipe.

A gold medal could revive decathlete O'Brien's marketability.

Talent broker Blackman notes Bruce Jenner remains commercially viable 20 years after he won a decathlon gold. "You have to compete in 10 events. You're superman," Blackman said.