Lindsey Vonn's decision to sit out next month's Olympic Games because of a knee injury is surely a personal and professional disappointment for the Alpine skiing star. But Olympic athletes with Vonn's star power also mean big advertising dollars — and not competing in Sochi may create winners and losers among the skier's sponsors.
Tripp Mickle of Sports Business Daily tells Morning Edition host David Greene that Vonn's announcement is a huge loss for NBC, which holds exclusive broadcast rights to the 2014 Winter Games in the U.S.
The skier, who won the gold medal in the downhill competition at the 2010 games in Vancouver, "was the face of the Olympics for [NBC]," Mickle says, and the network has been planning to feature her prominently in the weeks leading up to the games in Sochi, Russia. Vonn's plans to compete in five separate skiing events gave the network an even bigger promotional advantage, Mickle says, "and they've lost that."
Procter & Gamble, an official sponsor of the Olympic Games, may also find itself changing its promotional plans. Vonn and her mother have been front and center in the company's "Thank You, Mom" campaign spots, which depict moving stories of mothers supporting their children through their Olympic dreams.
The company will still be able to feature Vonn leading up to and throughout the Olympics, but without potential victories in Sochi to use as a springboard, P&G is unlikely to feature her in quite the same way it had planned after the games end, Mickle says.
Vonn's other sponsors, however — including Under Armour, Rolex, Red Bull and Head, to name a few — may actually benefit from the athlete's change in plans. An International Olympic Committee rule prevents companies that are not official Olympic sponsors from featuring athletes during the games, Mickle explains.
That means athletic gear company Under Armour, for example, with a slick winter advertising campaign featuring Vonn, will now be able to run those ads throughout February, rather than pulling them once the competition opens Feb. 7.
"So in a funny twist here, you actually see a sponsor who's going to be able to use an Olympic athlete during the games in a way that they wouldn't have been able to otherwise," Mickle says.
There may be other new opportunities for Vonn's backers, as well. Bloomberg Businessweek notes that "the savviest marketers at those companies will be pushing Vonn to do a media blitz about her decision to bow out."
"Doing enough stories on her not going probably makes up for the exposure she would have received for the games," Matt Powell, a marketing analyst for SportsOneSource told Businessweek.
You can hear more of Tripp Mickle's conversation with David, including how Vonn's withdrawal from the games could affect her future endorsement opportunities, on Morning Edition's page Wednesday morning.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
For all the meticulous planning and expensive buildup before the Olympics, some things cannot be controlled - like when an injury prevents an athlete from showing up. In this case, one of winter sports' biggest stars, American Alpine skier Lindsey Vonn has a knee injury that we now know will keep her from competing next month. The Gold medal winner is beloved by fans and she has huge sponsorship deals with brands like Under Armour, Oakley and Rolex.
Tripp Mickle covers the Olympics for Sports Business Journal. We asked him about Lindsey Vonn's star power.
TRIPP MICKLE: She was clearly the face of the Sochi games coming into these Olympics. And everybody loves a story of someone overcoming an obstacle. And she started a relationship that really put her from the sports pages into the pages of People magazine, as well. And that's her relationship with Tiger Woods. She really had some pop and star power that nobody else in these Olympics has.
GREENE: And we should be very careful. Both of us don't want to suggest that we're not concerned about her health, obviously. But when a huge athlete like her is not going to the Olympics, at the last minute like this, it has to have some financial implications. And let's start with NBC. I mean how much does this mean to them?
MICKLE: This is a huge loss for NBC. They were going to feature her in promotions leading up to the games. And then she provided a huge advantage to them because she was going to compete in five events, over the entire two weeks of the games. And they've lost that.
GREENE: So Procter & Gamble, they're an actual sponsor of the Olympics. And that meant that they could use Lindsey Vonn if she were actually competing. But there're some companies that are not sponsoring the Olympics who would've faced restrictions, and not been able to actually use her during the games itself. Does that open some opportunities for some of those companies now?
MICKLE: Yes, the clear winner is Under Armour. They developed a winter ad campaign that features Lindsay Vonn throughout the advertisement. And they're going to be able to keep that advertisement up and running during the Olympics, when Lindsey is still going to be a topic of conversation, and still going to be a top of mind for a lot of viewers of the Olympics - even though she's not participating.
So in a funny twist here, you actually see a sponsor who's going to be able to use an Olympic athlete during the games, in a way that they wouldn't have been otherwise.
But Procter & Gamble, which is an Olympic sponsor, was going to make her the face of their advertising around the Thank You Mom campaign that they've developed. And if you've seen these commercials you basically need to wipe your eyes after you've seen them, because they're just very emotional - talking about moms picking up kids from the age of four all the way up until they come down the slopes in their first Olympics.
And Lindsey -Lindsey was just going to be a spokesperson for that. And they're not going to be up to use her the same way they would have after the Olympics. They'll be a use her leading up to it but not afterwards.
GREENE: Any long-term implications for Lindsey Vonn when it comes to either her skiing career, or on the business side, the endorsements that she hopes to have?
MICKLE: I think the long-term implication will really play out over the next four years. Lindsey is 29, she's got one more Olympics in her. Now, if she's able to come back and perform well at that Olympics then she could still cement her name among all-time Olympic greats. And that could be great for her opportunities for appearances and endorsements after her competing days are over.
But if she's not able to come back and perform at a high level, then this could really be looked back at as a missed opportunity for her at a time when she could have transcended the world of skiing, the world of the Olympics, and really made a name for itself as just a global sports icon.
GREENE: Tripp Mickle covers the Olympics for Sports Business Journal. Tripp, thanks so much for talking to us.
MICKLE: Thanks so much for having me.
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GREENE: This is NPR News.
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