Going for the Gold : Carl Lewis Hopes to Win Over Madison Ave.
Carl Lewis rarely loses. In the 1984 Summer Olympics, he ran off with four gold medals. And over the next few weeks, he’ll try to do the same thing in Seoul.
His fans haven’t forgotten his feats. When Lewis walked out of the Los Angeles Airport Hilton on Thursday, just an hour before departing for Seoul, one autograph-seeker told him: “If you had wings, you could fly.” In Seoul, he hopes to fly off with more than gold medals. This time, he also hopes to capture more attention from Madison Avenue.
Will this be that year that Lewis, who after the 1984 Olympics pulled in an estimated $500,000 in annual endorsement fees, make the big jump to the multimillions earned by fellow Olympians such as Michael Jordan and Mary Lou Retton?
“I’ll have more time,” explained Lewis. “I’m not looking seriously at competing in the 1992 Olympics, so I won’t have to spend so much time in training.” That, at any rate, is Lewis’ explanation for missing out on the huge payday some big winners had following the 1984 games.
Although he did sign a long-term endorsement contract and filmed an ad for Nike, the relationship was cut short after several disputes, said Santa Monica Track Club coach Joe Douglas, who is also Lewis’ personal manager. On one occasion, Douglas said, Nike objected to a jogging suit Lewis wore because it didn’t say Nike big enough, and another time, Nike officials spotted him wearing another company’s shoes in public. Nike won’t talk about it.
After Nike bailed out, Lustrasilk, a maker of hair-care products for blacks, became his only U.S. sponsor. As a result, Lewis looked overseas--mostly to Japan and Scandinavia--for endorsement dollars from companies with names such as Sagawa Express (a sort of Japanese Federal Express) and Ecco (a Scandinavian athletic shoe maker). These companies didn’t demand too much of his time, Lewis said. The Japanese firms even sent commercial film crews to the U.S. so that Lewis’ training wasn’t interrupted.
“Back then, we had plenty of offers from companies,” Lewis said. “But I didn’t want to sacrifice my world of competition for the quick dollar.”
His critics say there are other reasons. “The key is not just if he wins, but how he wins,” said Stephen Disson, senior vice president at ProServ Inc., a Washington sports marketing firm that represents basketball star Michael Jordan.
Disson was referring to the so-called Jump Not Taken in the 1984 Olympics. That’s when Lewis, who had already won the gold medal in the long jump, opted to sit out his chance to set a world’s record in that same event. Lewis says he didn’t want to risk the possibility of injury. “Had I taken one more jump and injured myself, I would have been finished for the rest of the Olympics,” Lewis said. “I was in the Olympics to win medals for America, not to set world records for myself.”
But some of those who were there saw something entirely different. “He’d be in an entirely different (marketing) position today if he’d taken that jump,” said Paul Schrage, chief marketing officer at McDonald’s Corp. “I was there, and I remember the feeling of disappointment.”
Indeed, McDonald’s never put a Big Mac in Lewis’ hands. But it did snatch gymnast Mary Lou Retton.
Things, however, may be changing for Lewis. Disneyland, for example, has just signed Lewis to do several commercials. So has the U.S. Mint, which thinks Lewis can help it sell official Olympic coins. The flashy Swiss watchmaker TAG/Heuer is about to pay Lewis handsomely to strap its name around his wrist.
Sure, Lewis has read all the stories about his failure to make it big on Madison Avenue. “Everywhere I looked, there were stories about how I blew it or about how I could double my endorsements. That was the main talk of the last Olympics--who’s going to cash in? But great athletes, at any level, have to have objectives beyond that of cashing in,” Lewis said.
“You’d have to be crazy to think that when Larry Bird shoots a pressure basket, he says to himself: ‘Well, that’s another $400,000 in endorsements.’ ” After the 1984 Olympics, “my objective wasn’t to win a billion endorsements,” Lewis said. “My goal was to get back on the 1988 team. And I’ve accomplished that.”
Now, the 27-year-old runner says that his track career will stretch just one more year. So his eyes are on other things--such as expanding his singing career, beginning an acting career and even signing a book deal the day before he left for Seoul. Meanwhile, he says, he is also ready to become a more accomplished commercial spokesman.
Some of the nation’s top athletic marketing executives insist that while it won’t be easy, Lewis could still emerge as a commercial hit.
“I don’t think he’s damaged goods,” said ProServ’s Disson. “He’s got another great opportunity this year.”
Others concur. “I think Carl Lewis’ future is still ahead of him,” said Michael Barnett, who is the agent for hockey super star Wayne Gretzky. “Given that he has success in Seoul, there are still numerous opportunities available to him.”
This is not to say that Lewis could be the next Arnold Palmer--one of the most successful jock-turned-endorsers of all time. “Carl can’t call up Chrysler and say, ‘Gee, let’s have a track meet and name it after me,’ ” said Bud Stanner, vice president of the Cleveland sports marketing firm, International Management Group Inc. “But he could still obtain the commercial stature, of, say, a Jean-Claude Killy or a Scott Hamilton.”
Even that, however, will require some big changes. “Carl has to be willing to go through some corporate hoops,” Stanner said. “He can’t come off as being so arrogant.”
Responds Lewis: “I don’t know that I could ever satisfy the critics. If I took 50 endorsements this time, they’ll probably say that I should have gotten them in 1984.”
There is one product, in particular, that Lewis says he would like to endorse. “I’ve always been a car buff,” he said. “I read all the car magazines.” Indeed, his agent is now negotiating with a European and a Japanese car maker that have shown interest in Lewis. But so far, no American car makers have called.
But what if, say, Lee A. Iacocca picked up the telephone tomorrow and asked Lewis to pitch Chryslers? Lewis ponders for a moment, then smiles. He explains that Chrysler recently purchased Lamborghini, an Italian maker of high performance sports cars that sell for about $140,000 each. “I’d be happy to do it,” Lewis said, “if he threw in a Lamborghini.”
This May Be Last Time for McDonald’s
McDonald’s Corp. may be running its last Olympic marketing marathon.
The hamburger giant, which is spending an estimated $15 million this year just to be an Olympic sponsor, says it has postponed its decision on whether or not to be a sponsor of the 1992 games. “We’re late in making that decision,” said Paul D. Schrage, McDonald’s chief marketing officer. “And we probably won’t decide until the Seoul games are over.”
Should McDonald’s bow out after this year’s competition, the move would be a major blow to the U.S Olympic Committee. McDonald’s has been a prominent Olympic sponsor since 1968. At issue is the value of an Olympic sponsorship. Many companies believe that the millions of dollars can be better-spent on other corporate promotions. What’s more, Schrage said, the relationship between McDonald’s and the USOC has deteriorated since the departure of Peter V. Ueberroth from the USOC. “Sponsoring the Olympics has to be a great deal for all parties concerned,” Schrage said, “and I don’t know that this attitude exists today.”
Firm Plans Push in Crisis Management
Long before all hell broke loose at Suzuki--following reports that its Samurai vehicles were unsafe--Suzuki took an unusual step.
It hired a Los Angeles public relations firm, Rogers & Associates, to draft a so-called “crisis management plan.” And, indeed, when the crisis did arrive early this summer, Suzuki not only weathered the storm, last month it reported record Samurai sales.
Now, Suzuki’s crisis may effectively become a bonanza for the Japanese importer’s public relations firm. Rogers & Associates says it is now plans to go gung-ho into the crisis management business.
“One day, whether deservedly or not, something is going to happen that could have a terrible effect on almost every businesses,” said Ron Rogers, president of the company. For a fee, Rogers said, his firm will look at a client’s firm and assess “everything that can possibly go wrong.”