Olympic glory lures more advertisers

A little gold-medal moxie may stretch further these days, say some analysts who suggest the endorsement game in Canada has shifted course significantly.

Expanding endorsement marketplace to push more athletes from podium to pitchman

Freestyle skier Alexandre Bilodeau carries the flag after becoming the first Canadian to win gold on home soil. ((Bela Szandelszky/Associated Press))
A little gold-medal moxie may stretch further these days, say some analysts who suggest the endorsement game in Canada has shifted course significantly.

Take freestyle skiing champ Alexandre Bilodeau's breathtaking swoosh down the moguls to capture Canada's first Olympic gold on home soil. Bilodeau's grit and all-Canadian humility could help him rein in $1 million in product endorsements, watchers say.

"In Canada … the game has really changed," said Russell Reimer, a managing partner for Calgary-based agency Agenda Sport Marketing. "The conversations that we've been having with companies have gone from 'I don't understand — working with an amateur athlete?' to 'How can we get involved, what can we do?'"

The draw for many marketers is in part an aversion to controversy, says Reimer, who is representing five athletes competing at the Vancouver Games including snowboard cross champion Maelle Ricker. Though some amateur athletes have been embroiled in controversy — for instance, swimmer Michael Phelps with his drunk-driving arrest and photographed bong proclivity — the great majority are the very best examples of clean living, goal setting and accomplishment.

"Controversy with people like Tiger Woods will continue to move the marketplace to the direction of athletes who are known primarily for their values and what they've done for Canada," Reimer said.

Canadian Olympic gold medalist Ross Rebagliati became a media sensation after a routine drug test showed evidence of marijuana in his system at the 1998 Olympics. Rebagliati was allowed to keep the gold medal. ((Susan Sterner/Associated Press))
The other part of the appeal is the spinning of a good yarn. Stories of overcoming adversity, sacrifice, determination and success have long proved irresistible to marketers. In the beginning, there was 1948 Olympic champion Barbara Ann Scott, who touted sweaters, soft drinks and a doll made to resemble Canada's plucky young figure-skating sweetheart. Since then, Nancy Greene  has plugged Mars bars, Elizabeth Manley endorsed frozen treats from McCain's, Elvis Stojko and Ross Rebagliati among others posed for clothier Roots, and Jamie Salé and David Pelletier pushed Crest Whitestrips.

In the lead-up to the Vancouver Games, consumers clicking around the television channels could find speedskater Clara Hughes talking about the benefits of Cold-fX and hockey star Sidney Crosby defining Canadiana for Tim Hortons. Cindy Klassen, Canada's most decorated Olympian at the 2006 Torino Games, signed endorsement deals estimated to be worth over $1 million with telecom group MTS Allstream, fast-food chain McDonald's and eyewear maker Oakley.

Finding the right fit

The key to long-lasting financial rewards is finding the right fit, says Ken Wong, a marketing professor at Queen's University. If an athlete endorses a product that has nothing to do with their achievement or personality, it will ring hollow.

"Wayne Gretzky, when he was doing the Esso commercials, the Ford commercials, it was kind of 'What makes Wayne Gretzky so knowledgeable about gas?' And in fact he didn't say anything in the commercials," Wong said. "The commercials didn't work. Sometimes it seems like a great idea but if it doesn't have a context, it really doesn't have it."

The key to selling freestyle skier Bilodeau will be in creating an inspirational profile in courage, Wong said.

"If it's simply him winning the gold medal, he might have a year … before he becomes, I won't call it old news but it's lost its sparkle. There is a period of time where everybody wants to be close to greatness, but they want to be close because nobody else has been."

Simon Cazelais, director of sponsorship consulting for Montreal-based advertising firm Bleublancrouge, agrees that co-ordinating the proper match between athlete and corporation is essential. Cazelais describes an intense research process in which he attempts to measure and forecast Canadians' response to an athlete over time.

"It starts with the consumer, how they see Alex Bilodeau. Is he more the freestyle culture or is he more like the nice guy with his family? We trace a profile of him and how he connects with consumers, what kind of emotion people feel in three months when they see him on a box of cereal or when they see him on TV."

Before the Games, Bilodeau was something of an underdog, says Cazelais. A Quebec research survey found that most consumers identified with hockey player Kim St-Pierre and figure skater Joannie Rochette while Bilodeau trailed behind. Cazelais expects that to change.

"He has a coast-to-coast appeal and that's very important," he said. "That will bring a lot of offers. The other thing is, he's really authentic, and that's what brands are looking at."

Gold not a sure ticket to Easy Street

Still, Wong is skeptical that earning gold in Vancouver will necessarily lead to a financial bonanza, suggesting that in many cases a win will likely translate into a reasonable living. In fact, Wong suggests that Canada's Own the Podium push to earn more medals may make the payoff less generous.

"In a peculiar sense, the fact that we're going to win more gold medals will in fact diminish the value of each gold as an accomplishment in and of itself," he said. "Now, it's not to say we don't want to see them, but it's different if there's 10 gold medal winners versus one gold medal winner."

Wong notes that many athletes are not necessarily motivated by money — a notion supported by swimmer Marianne Limpert, who won silver in the 200-metre individual medley at the 1996 Games and signed deals with Speedo and General Mills. She said the drive to win bested any desire to become a household name.

"I think definitely I was very fortunate winning the silver medal, I did have some sponsorship opportunities," she said. "I'm not going to pretend that I'm a millionaire or anything — not even close — but I think the other thing was, too, after the Olympics I wasn't really focused on making money and the sponsorship aspect."

For Limpert, endorsement money provided freedom to train without fear of sinking into debt. When she retired in 2005 she was able to live off the money for a few years as she figured out what to do next. She has moved on but still enjoys the occasional flash of fame.

"It's kind of fun," she said. "Once in a while when I pay for something with my credit card people will look and say 'Are you the swimmer?' and I'll say 'Yeah, that was in my previous life.'"