Will Marketers Strike Gold With Beijing Olympians?

August 27, 2008

I’m finally getting back to my normal sleep schedule after two weeks of staying up late every night watching the Olympics. 

I didn’t really care about the U.S. men’s basketball team (I see NBA stars excel against overmatched competition whenever they’re in town to play the Timberwolves), but I found myself riveted to the sports we only pay attention to every four years.  I was analyzing swimming, hanging on every point during volleyball matches and exulting like Bela Karolyi when U.S. gymnasts stuck their landings.

(AP Photos)

(AP Photos)

But now that the Olympic flame has been extinguished, so has the interest of millions of Americans.  Many won’t watch another second of diving or track & field until the world’s best athletes arrive in London in 2012.  So what does this mean for sports marketers looking to attach their brands to the hottest stars coming out of the 2008 Games?  And, who are the most marketable athletes to help engage U.S. consumers?

Because people won’t be paying close attention to upcoming events, marketers will need to strike quickly – building campaigns around the personalities and achievements of the athletes while the Beijing Olympics are still fresh in the minds of consumers.  It’s amazing how quickly the memories fade in most cases.  

My Top Five Most Marketable Olympians (not including those who regularly compete in professional leagues):

Michael Phelps (eight gold medals) – No stunner here, Phelps is by far the most compelling story of these Olympics.  In fact, his performance should make him marketable for the next 30 years.  I was only a few months old when Mark Spitz won seven golds in 1972, but I have always known about his achievements and consider him one of the greatest Olympians of all time.  Phelps will be that person for a new generation. 

Usain Bolt (three gold medals) – People are mesmerized by his speed and the ease with which he broke world records.  Plus, he has a cool name and a bit of a cocky attitude.  It’s easy to build a campaign around the fastest human on the planet, but it also comes with a risk.  We’re always one race away from seeing a new record holder and the sport is filled with constant speculation about performance-enhancing drugs.

Shawn Johnson (four medals, one gold) – There’s just something about the 4’9″ Johnson and her permanent smile that makes you want to cheer for her – even more than teammate Nastia Liukin.  At 16, she’s likely to be one of the favorites when the London Olympics roll around in four years, which should add to her long-term appeal.

Nastia Liukin (five medals, one gold) – Liukin won gold in the all-around, the most important competition in gymnastics. She’s graceful, well spoken and perfectly marketable – but I rank her just below Johnson because there are doubts about whether she will compete four years from now in London.  If her career winds down, so will her marketability.

Dara Torres (two silver medals) – She didn’t win gold in Beijing and she may never compete again, but the 41-year-old swimmer has a tremendous amount of appeal to the right target audience, namely Baby Boomer women.  She showed tremendous sportsmanship and proved that a fortysomething mom could compete against the best athletes in the world.

Honorable Mention

Brian Clay (one gold medal) – He didn’t get nearly as much publicity for winning the decathlon as I would have thought, but a savvy marketer could create an effective campaign around the “world’s greatest athlete.”  And he’ll come at a much cheaper price than some of the names listed above.