Wednesday, September 20|
For Olympians, money's there, but not for long
By Darren Rovell
At 2 a.m. Sydney time on Tuesday, U.S. swimmer Lenny Krayzelburg sat at a McDonald's in the Olympic village eating alone with a gold medal around his neck. Krayzelburg's celebratory dinner was interrupted by a ringing cell phone. It was his agent, Tom George.
Immediately upon finding out where Krayzelburg was, George started typing a FAX to McDonald's. "He just won a gold medal, and he didn't go to Disney World. He went to McDonald's," it said.
Thus, is the life of an agent during the Summer Olympics.
And George, the senior vice president of athlete marketing at Octagon, is doing very well at the Sydney Games. At least in the early going, George's company, which represents many Olympians, seems to have a lead in the fierce post-Olympic endorsement war.
Octagon client Tom Dolan, who already owned a gold from the Atlanta Games, picked up another in the 400-meter individual medley Sunday. Octagon client Ed Moses won a silver in the 100-meter breaststroke later that day. And Krayzelburg set an Olympic record and picked up a gold in the 100-meter backstroke Monday.
George's reaction? "Relief," he said.
"I've been working under the presumption of success for 16 months," he said. "I've gone through several marketing campaigns, and I was praying that everything would go great. ... You can set up all the bowling pins, but the athletes have to knock them over, and they sure knocked them over."
Krayzelburg represents George's biggest victory, since the company has the most to gain from the backstroker's success. After the U.S. gymnastics team's fourth-place finish in the team competition, Krayzelburg -- who already has endorsement deals with Speedo, Powerbar, IBM, Pfizer, Goodyear, Kellogg and Hebrew National -- is, without question, America's most marketable star from Sydney thus far.
But in order for George to collect big-time on the typical 20- to 25-percent commission rates on Olympian endorsement contracts, Krayzelburg probably will have to win another gold medal in the 200-meter backstroke Thursday.
This, despite the fact that a couple of gold medals in the Olympics is still no guarantee that companies will start calling.
"Endorsements with the Olympics are very limited," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a company that matches advertisers with companies for endorsements. "If an agent promises that a gold medal is going to be a $1 million-plus windfall, that's just not going to be the case, because about one or two percent of the athletes will be making 99 percent of the money to be had."
Krayzelburg also falls in the minority because his sport -- like gymnastics and track and field -- is not covered year-round on television. In most cases, he will be forgotten by January.
"Figure skaters have been endorsing things left and right, and that is because their TV rating is good," Williams said. "They are on TV on a regular basis, and they sell out their venues."
Kerri Strug's vault that won the gold for the United States in 1996 made her America's darling. But unlike figure skaters Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan, Williams said Strug disappeared because of a lack of post-Olympic exposure.
"For the athletes in the sports we call Olympic sports in this country -- swimming, gymnastics and track and field -- this is their moment to shine," said Sue Rodin, president of Stars and Strategies Inc. and agent to Jenny Thompson as well as women's soccer players Julie Foudy, Carla Overbeck and Siri Mullinix. "There is no pro swimming league, but the soccer players have the World Cup every four years and a professional league coming."
|Lenny Krayzelburg kisses the gold medal he won in the
That's why it's more risky going after strictly Olympic-sport athletes.
"You are more safe in picking athletes like figure skaters, athletes who can generate revenue outside of the marketing of the pure Olympics," said George, who also has hurdlers Allen Johnson and Mark Crear on his client list. "When you pick the exclusively Olympic athletes, you have to pick them well, and you have to pick people who have a change to pop off the top."
"You want to land a superstar who you think is going to be an all-out winner in the end," Rodin said. "You can have a great personal story, you can overcome great obstacles -- you know, against all odds -- but the bottom line is that you have to perform, since a personality alone does not make the Olympic team."
But the recruiting process involves much more than getting the swimmer with the fastest stroke, since the ability to gain endorsements also depends on personality.
"First, you look for potential athletic success. Then, you need to see, actually feel, charisma and marketability," said Brad Hunt, president of IMG's Gold Medal Management, which retains track star Michael Johnson as a client. "Gold medals alone do not create marketing deals."
For Fred Fried, president of marketing for SFX Sports Group, it's also about having a story to tell.
"We look for personalities and for people who have a story behind a story, because that is where there is the most potential," said Fried, who managed speedskater Dan Jansen when he won a gold medal in 1994 at Lillehammer. "When there is a story, there are interesting things that we can do before, during and after the Olympics."
Fried's most compelling story in the 2000 Olympics is in swimmer Dara Torres, who after winning four golds in relays in 1984, 1988, and 1992, is making a comeback at the age of 32. Torres already has two medals from Sydney -- a gold and a bronze.
A stellar performance, a great personality and a compelling story form the killer combination that will yield the truly huge endorsement deals, according to Dean Bonham, president of the Bonham Group, a sports consulting firm.
"It doesn't matter if the Olympics are in Timbuktu or Los Angeles or Sydney, endorsements only come when a personality emerges to the point where the masses want to know more about them," Bonham said. "In the past couple Olympics, we really haven't had anyone who has jumped up and grabbed us and tugged at our heart with that good story, a nuclear smile and the incredible performance."
Bonham cites Mary Lou Retton as the last American Olympian who cashed in the maximum out of her performance. Retton's gold medal and golden smile scored her more than $5 million between her retirement as an amateur in 1986 and the 1988 Olympics.
For Thompson, who now has won seven gold medals and one silver in relays over the past two Olympics, the lack of an individual gold might hinder her breakout endorsement potential. But, after another disappointing finish -- this time in the 100-meter butterfly -- and only one more chance left in the 100 freestyle later in the week, her agent Sue Rodin doesn't see it so much as a make-or-break opportunity.
"We would love her to get their ultimate exclamation point and win an individual gold. But if she doesn't, she packs her bags with seven medals, which is so much to be thrilled about that everything else is just icing on the cake."
Krayzelburg had part of the necessary story well before the Olympics. His family, without knowing a word of English, moved from the Ukraine to America when he was 13 to flee religious persecution.
Krayzelburg is already on a Crispix box, and a deal with Raisin Bran is in the works. But whether there will be toys of Lenny in future Happy Meals remains up in the air. He probably needs another gold medal, so that George has a little less convincing to do with McDonald's.
Darren Rovell covers sports business for ESPN.com.
||Speaking engagements are the best opportunity for Olympic medallists, even the lesser known ones, to capitalize on their performance of a lifetime. According to Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, 20 percent of the top requested 200 speakers in the country right now are Olympic athletes.
Speedskater Bonnie Blair, a four-time gold medallist over four Olympiads, gets $15,000 per speech. "She gives as many motivational speeches as she wants," said George, who has Blair as a client. "She has more dates offered to her than she can possibly do."
Bruce Jenner, who won his gold medal 24 years ago, and Mary Lou Retton are consistently among the top 10 motivational speakers on the speaking circuit.
Lesser known athletes like Peter Vidmar, who won the gold in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, has made a great deal of money through capitalizing on the Olympics and the speech himself.
"Peter probably makes $350,000 a year for speaking," said Williams, who added that Vidmar would make very little in endorsements and trade shows today. "He's got gymnastics camps and schools, so I wouldn't be shocked if he makes a half million dollars working 75-80 days a year."
"I've seen his basic speech five times, and five times, I've cried," George said.
-- Darren Rovell