Stars eyed for sales potential

Times Staff Writer

The closing ceremony in Beijing is still a week away, but sports marketers already are scrambling to determine which athletes can squeeze the most sponsorship gold from their Olympic feats.

The early favorites are the whale in the pool, the boomer’s delight and a plucky gymnast.

But converting Olympic fame into long-term corporate sponsorship deals is no sure thing, even for record-setting gold medalist Michael Phelps, seemingly ageless Dara Torres, or Nastia Liukin, the third American to win gold in the all-around female gymnastics competition.

Consider the divergent post-Olympics sports marketing careers of the first two American women to win the all-around gymnastics gold.


It’s been 24 years since Mary Lou Retton’s golden moment at the 1984 Los Angeles Games, yet 75% of Americans still recognize her name, according to Davie Brown Talent, a division of Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based promotions agency. In contrast, only 10% recognize Carly Patterson, who won the all-around gold in 2004 at Athens.

That is relative anonymity in a society seemingly on a first-name basis with Tiger, LeBron and Kobe. Athletes such as Patterson clearly have ardent fans in their given sports, but their comparatively small numbers make it difficult for corporate sponsors to justify endorsement and sponsorship deals.

So will Liukin take over the America’s Sweetheart mantle from the 40-year-old Retton?

“Nastia is obviously benefiting from her success so far and stands to benefit even more from the Olympics,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the University of Oregon’s Sports Marketing Center. “But her relevancy for most mainstream sports fans disappears in about three weeks. It’s not to say there won’t be opportunity -- it’s just limited opportunity. Limited but still lucrative.”


That doesn’t mean there aren’t sizable paydays awaiting the stars of Beijing.

When Liukin packed her bags for China, the 18-year-old, Russian-born athlete who now lives in Texas already had nearly a dozen corporate sponsors, ranging from AT&T; to Visa.

On Friday evening in Beijing, business agent Evan Morganstein -- who also represents Torres -- was talking about Liukin’s new line of gymnastics products. She also joined fellow Olympians Phelps and Aaron Piersol as “athlete partners” for the PureSport performance drinks line.

And shortly after Liukin and Beijing roommate Shawn Johnson, who won silver in the all-around competition, return to the States, they’ll join the 2008 Tour of Gymnastics Superstars, which will travel to 36 cities, including Anaheim on Sept. 20, where tickets will run as high as $79.50.


Top athletes -- the squad includes Paul Hamm, who was forced out of the Beijing Games by an injury -- reportedly will earn six-figure salaries for the tour. Unlike Olympic ice skaters, whose fans skew older, gymnasts appeal largely to tweens.

So Walt Disney Co. is providing the soundtrack -- a band called KSM recorded the show’s theme song, “Hero in You” -- and Fox will broadcast a two-hour television special on its MyNetworkTV, which airs on Channel 13 in Los Angeles.

Tour promoter Michael Burg, who has represented past Olympians and run ice skating and gymnastics tours, said Liukin and Johnson are poised for marketing gold.

“Both of these kids have an appeal way beyond what some of the past figure skaters had in the way of vibrant personalities,” Burg said. “The marketing potential for both is relatively untapped and unlimited.”


Liukin is using her website,, to promote Saving Jane, the band behind her favorite tune -- “Supergirl” -- with lyrics that sum up her competitive nature.

In Phelps’ case, the cashing-in process began several years ago. With a corporate sponsorship roster that includes Visa, Nike, Speedo, Adidas and more, Phelps already earns a reported $5 million a year.

And while there’s no swim tour that Phelps can use to showcase his considerable talents, he figures to be a presence in the Olympics four years from now, when he will be 27.

“He’s not going to just fall into a black hole” after Beijing, said Scott Sanford, an executive with Marketing Arm. “I think after the Games you’ll see him have sustainability. And don’t forget, he’ll be competing in London in 2012.”


Times staff writer Meg James contributed to this report.




Marketers’ favorites

The American athletes with the greatest marketing value tend to be superstars who might have competed in the Olympics but are far better known for non-Olympic exploits, according to rankings created by the Davie Brown Talent agency. Here is a selected list for comparison purposes:

*--* Athlete Score

Michael Jordan 90.65 Tiger Woods 89.33 Peyton Manning 78.27 Kobe Bryant 76.74 Derek Jeter 70.91 Mary Lou Retton 70.28 LeBron James 65.56 Dwyane Wade 53.43 Michael Phelps 44.5 Dara Torres 42.26 Amanda Beard 40.68 Jennie Finch 38.40 Carly Patterson 34.87 Shawn Johnson 33.23 Kerri Walsh 31.98 Nastia Liukin 30.79 Tyson Gay 29.31 Allyson Felix 28.44 *--*


Note: Rankings are based on a national survey of 1,000 respondents conducted by Davie Brown Talent a few weeks before the Beijing Games. The score is a weighted average of eight attributes, including the athletes’ likability, fame and effectiveness as an endorser.

Source: Marketing Arm