Backing Olympians is a big risk for sponsors, so why is Ryan Lochte an exception?
Ben BakerLochte chills with his reps from Speedo. His pre-London portfolio includes four other sponsors, and you can expect more to take the bet that he won’t sink this summer.
AS RYAN LOCHTE TELLS IT in his laid-back surfer way, he hasn’t felt nervous before a race in almost 20 years. In that memory, he is 8 years old and standing on a pool deck near his home in Rochester, N.Y., before the start of the 100-meter freestyle. Just as the starter barks the command to step onto the platform, Lochte has a sudden urge to pee. As he takes his starting position, the dam bursts.
Eyes hiding behind goggles, he can’t see the reaction from the stands, but he’s sure everyone sees his fear streaming down his leg. The announcer finally says, “Take your marks … go,” and Ryan dives into the cold, chlorinated water and takes off. Once he finishes, he doesn’t look around to see if he has won; he isn’t even sure he swam the right stroke. He just runs straight to his mom and announces, “I quit swimming. I don’t like this sport.”
The next day, Lochte was back in the water, and not much has rattled him since. A former seven-time NCAA champion at the University of Florida, he has risen through the ranks over the past eight years, winning one gold and one silver in Athens and two golds and two bronzes in Beijing (including his only individual gold, in the 200-meter backstroke). Fast-forward four years and 27-year-old Lochte is projected to win at least five individual golds — and possibly more as a member of the relay teams — this summer in London. Those golden opportunities make Lochte a rarity among American Olympians: an athlete who doesn’t send fear running down sponsors’ legs.
So far, five companies — Gatorade, Ralph Lauren, Gillette, Mutual of Omaha and Speedo — have signed on to endorse Lochte with bonus-loaded contracts that could earn him between $3 million and $4 million. His camp expects him to ink more deals as the Games approach, including an offer from another P&G brand and two other companies. Global brands have often shied from backing swimmers because they spend their races either underwater or half-hidden by goggles. Then they disappear from the public conversation for four years between Games. But these companies have jumped into the pool with Lochte because they liked the look of Michael Phelps’ chest full of Beijing gold and are willing to place the same bet on Lochte. And if he maxes out in London, there’s reason to think Lochte could approach Phelps’ medal haul from 2008 and his endorsement windfall of up to $5.25 million last year, according to Bloomberg Businessweek.
But Lochte is an exception. Sponsors view other Olympic athletes, especially those who focus on one event, as serious choking hazards. Every Games provides its own cautionary tale. In Beijing, Lolo Jones, the gold medal favorite in the 100-meter hurdles, clipped the ninth of 10 hurdles and finished seventh. Bode Miller partied his way to an epic meltdown at the 2006 Winter Games in Torino. The 2004 U.S. men’s basketball team lost to Puerto Rico, Argentina and Lithuania and limped to an underwhelming bronze medal in Athens. And from a corporate sponsor’s perspective, the risk of running a pre-Games campaign is compounded further because even the best athletes aren’t guaranteed spots on the team until they qualify during trials. In Lochte’s case, that’s less than four weeks before the Games.
To cover themselves, sponsors hedge their bets, signing up a diverse roster of athletes to help cover for the inevitable shortcomings. Coca-Cola has its “Eight Pack,” including tennis star John Isner and gymnast Shawn Johnson, and Team Visa London exponentially trumps that with a global roster of 64 hopefuls, with headliners Phelps and volleyball icon Kerri Walsh. “Years ago, brands took a risk on an individual athlete, and you lived and died by the sword,” says Mark Bossardet, Saucony’s vice president of global sports marketing. “Brands today are a little more gun-shy and are taking the old buckshot approach to see how many they can sign and what pans out.”
Bossardet understands this better than almost anyone. He was Reebok’s senior director of global sports marketing when it unveiled the “Dan and Dave” campaign in advance of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The commercials, which premiered during the Super Bowl, promised a duel between the world’s two best decathletes, Americans Dan O’Brien and Dave Johnson. The premise was that one of them would win gold, and the segments flashed back and forth between each athlete’s personal bests. An accompanying T-shirt campaign advertised the tagline, “To be settled in Barcelona.”
Unfortunately for Reebok, the rivalry was settled in New Orleans four weeks before the Games. O’Brien failed to qualify at the U.S. Olympic trials when he missed the opening height of the pole vault, and he brought the campaign crashing down with him. Half the shoe company’s $25 million marketing effort was suddenly irrelevant. Reebok pulled its existing ads from NBC and immediately reshot the commercials with O’Brien’s role as that of a spectator cheering on Johnson, who didn’t even win the gold in Spain. (He earned bronze.) “Even today, people remember me more for ‘Dan and Dave’ than for winning the gold medal,” says O’Brien, who went on to win the event at the Atlanta Games in 1996.
Twenty years later, the ads serve as a case study for what not to do when building an Olympic-brand platform. Just ask Paul Doyle. He manages the world’s top three decathletes, all Americans and all with a chance to win gold. He’s been busy pitching a package deal to almost 25 potential sponsors. It’s a rivalry among friends! Young vs. old! Characters who span the marketing spectrum! First up is Trey Hardee. At 28 years old, he’s held the No. 1 spot in the world for two years. Last year he held off countryman Ashton Eaton, 24, at the world championships. Their career bests — 8,790 for Hardee and 8,729 for Eaton — are so close that every inch, every fraction of a second, is crucial. And chasing them is 32-year-old Bryan Clay, the defending Olympic champ.
It seems like marketing gold, a compelling storyline that companies should not be able to ignore. And yet they are, Doyle believes, because of fear over another “Dan and Dave.” Hardee, Eaton and Clay all have to tiptoe through a minefield of 10 separate events over two days to qualify for London and then another 10 each to reach the medal stand. That means each guy has 20 pressure-filled opportunities to screw up on his way to winning a single medal. That’s 60 obstacles in the way of the first American decathlon sweep in 60 years.
Even after Clay won gold in Beijing, no new sponsors came knocking at his door when he got back on U.S. soil. “By no means did it set me up for life,” he says. He continued to live with his wife and three children in the same modest three-bedroom home outside of Los Angeles. Though Doyle won’t quote numbers, he says each of his decathletes makes less than the NFL minimum ($390,000) every year with sponsorships, appearance fees and prize purses. That’s not chump change, but a guy like Lochte has turned down bigger offers.
If a company is going to roll the dice on a signature athlete, then a proven winner is a much less hazardous option. A perfect example is Usain Bolt. At first glance, he seems like a high-risk, high-reward choice who doesn’t offer Puma much brand value if something goes awry. At last year’s world championships in Daegu, South Korea, Bolt jumped the gun in the 100 meters and was eliminated from the most hyped event in all of track and field. But Bolt later covered that gaffe by winning the 200 meters and anchoring Jamaica’s 4×100-meter relay to a world record. Moreover, because he still enjoys an extremely high profile from his dominating three-gold performance at the 2008 Olympics, Bolt remains in the spotlight no matter what happens on the track. “The good news for Puma is that Bolt’s visibility is so high that even when he false-starts, the focus stays on him, and a new Bolt narrative is created,” says one top track and field agent, who requested anonymity. “Not the story that Puma wanted but still visibility nonetheless. All is not lost.”
Like Bolt and Puma, Lochte’s own strong track record and versatility are part of what made him attractive to sponsors. “There are not many swimmers out there who compete in as many events as he does,” says John Shea, senior director of sports marketing at Gatorade. “Whereas some of the swimmers will focus on one stroke, Ryan does the whole gamut.” And his ongoing rivalry with Phelps has served only to boost Lochte’s potential marketability. Last July at the world championships in Shanghai, Lochte won five gold medals and a bronze and beat Phelps in their two common events, the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter individual medley. Lochte now owns world records in both the 200- and 400-meter individual medleys and the American short-course records in the 200-meter freestyle and 200-meter backstroke. “Once I was able to beat Michael, it gave me a motivation, an edge. I told myself, I can do this,” Lochte says. “Once I beat someone, they won’t beat me again.”
He can’t say how many medals he is shooting for other than to acknowledge that the number will be large. “I am going to swim as many events as I possibly can,” he says. All that Lochte has to do now is take down the greatest Olympic athlete on the world’s biggest stage.
To be settled in London.