Retirement will treat Lance well in marketing game

He exhibits his dominance for just one month a year in France, competing in a niche sport trumped in popularity in America even by Formula One, the European race car series.

But Lance Armstrong could very well turn into one of the most successful retired athlete endorsers in sports marketing history, joining the exclusive company of Michael Jordan, Jack Nicklaus and George Foreman.

Like those sporting legends, Armstrong has athletic accomplishments that allow him to be considered in this elite group. But his inspirational story, including his recovery from testicular cancer to compete at cycling's highest level, seems to overshadow the notable obstacles faced by the greats who have come before him.

Since Armstrong won his first Tour de France in 1999, his story has been well-documented in articles and books. It is only recently that his story has become a budding business enterprise.

More than 50 million yellow "Livestrong" wristbands, at $1 apiece, are in circulation. Nike recently unveiled 10//2, a collection of apparel and shoes marked with a logo signifying the date in 1996 that Armstrong found out he had cancer.

The campaign for the launch features print advertising with a ghostly, bald Armstrong -- a scar on his head from the brain surgery he underwent to banish the disease. Television ads include raw footage of Armstrong's news conference to announce to the world that he was sick.

"He's a world-class athlete doing things in his sport that have never been done before," said Peter Stern, president of Strategic Sports Group, a sports marketing firm. "He's courageous, determined, committed and, beyond all that, he's a survivor."

So how many people now know of the 33-year-old Texan?

He's more recognizable to the general population than Peyton Manning, Tim Duncan, Wayne Gretzky, Roger Clemens and George Lucas, according to Stephen Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations, a research company that conducts the Q Score ratings.

The company's research also reveals that, despite accusations of performance-enhancing drugs (Armstrong has never failed a test), the general population feels more positively about Armstrong than about Beyonce, Alex Rodriguez, Shaquille O'Neal and Jay-Z.

"It doesn't matter if the Tour de France is in France or in Boise, Idaho, media coverage makes up the difference," Levitt said. "Even if only 12 Americans actually travel to the Alps to watch him race, everyone knows that time after time he's proven he's the champ."

Armstrong makes $15 million per year in endorsements from the likes of Nike, Subaru, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Dasani and Discovery Channel.

"I think he has become, from a statistical standpoint, one of the most recognizable athletes in the world," said his agent, Bill Stapleton. "I think, more than any other athlete or celebrity, I think he brings meaning to people."

For years, an athlete's retirement often meant the sure end to any lucrative commercial opportunities. But times have changed.

"Right now, for corporations, retired athletes are more attractive than the majority of current athletes for a variety of reasons," said Jordan Bazant, a partner in The Agency, a sports marketing firm that represents many retired athletes, including Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Isiah Thomas. "If you've received iconic status, you traditionally transcend your sport or you're the face of the sport. And you are never going to experience a defeat in your post-professional career, so there will never be a negative."

Arnold Palmer and Nicklaus have long earned millions annually by attaching their names to products. Foreman is the newly anointed king of retired athlete pitchmen. His roster of products has included electric grills, a line of meats, Casual Male Big & Tall and the latest -- George Foreman Knock-Out Cleaners.

Jordan's name is on a $500 million Nike business, yet he rarely appears in the company's commercials. He's under contract with Gatorade through 2007, but he hasn't been featured in a spot in 2½ years.

Those who have worked with Armstrong say they're happy with the results of his campaigns.

Armstrong signed with Coca-Cola in 2000, but more recently he has been known as the sole endorser for the company's bottled water brand, Dasani.

"Lance has become more than just an athlete," said Rick Zuroweste, group marketing director for Dasani. "He has become an icon for better, healthy living as well as an inspiration for never giving up, never saying, 'I can't do it.' It has been a tremendous, heartwarming story that I think people resonate with."

Zuroweste says the company's studies have found that Armstrong, partly because of his background, is among the most credible of spokesmen. When the Coca-Cola contract expires in a couple of years, Zuroweste said, he expects the company to continue to explore how it can use Armstrong across all brands in the future.

Discovery Channel executives had so much confidence in Armstrong's postrace shelf life, they signed off on a three-year, $30 million deal to endorse Armstrong's team, beginning this year, even though Armstrong only guaranteed the company he would take part in one more Tour de France.

"He's obviously going to be an integral part of helping us push forward, but I think that now that he won't be in the saddle we'll use him much more on television and as a spokesman and as a coach," Discovery Channel CEO Bill Campbell said.

It's not clear what Nike's plans are for Armstrong, though it recently launched an extensive clothing and shoe collection around the cyclist. Armstrong himself has pegged His Airness as the business model goal.

"I think we can all look up to the Jordan brand. Something that probably started on a fairly small basis has become a very large business for Nike and for Michael," he said.

One company sure to work Armstrong into the fold in the future is Trek Bicycle, the market leader in high-end specialty bikes. Since the alliance between the two started in 1998, Trek's business has grown steadily. This despite the fact that U.S. bicycle sales have remained static over that time period, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

Armstrong's deal with Trek extends to 2010.

If Armstrong cares to establish new relationships, no lack of offers is expected. In fact, some marketers say Armstrong's relationship with singer Sheryl Crow, whom he has been dating for the past 18 months, can only help his popularity in the future.

"Sheryl Crow has a huge fan base that will translate into more fans for Lance Armstrong, and the two of them together present some real interesting opportunities," marketing executive Stern said. "You've seen what Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf have been able to do. You take someone from music and adding someone from sports, where the line is already blurred, and putting them together creates a real unique opportunity."

Because of the lack of viewers of his actual event, Armstrong could garner less notice when he steps off the bike than other sporting icons have upon retiring. But Stapleton says Armstrong's story won't fade away once his client no longer is winning yellow jerseys.

"There is going to be a major motion picture about Lance's life; there are longtime sponsors who will stay involved; and I think his work with the Discovery Channel will keep him in front of the American public," Stapleton said. "And, most importantly, his foundation and all the things he does for cancer survivors throughout the world -- that will keep Lance in a place where people still want to hear what he has to say."

If Armstrong is willing, he also can make millions doing more speaking engagements. His $150,000-per-talk rate is among the highest in the world and is comparable with the fee groups must pay to hear former President Bill Clinton stand at the podium.

Said Coca-Cola's Zuroweste: "In an odd way, I think his personality and exposure could actually increase because he'll have more time to carry … his survivor message to a broader array of people."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.rovell@espn3.com.