Tough to carry a torch here

Olympic stars lately have struggled in showbiz

Sure, Michael Phelps has racked up more medals than any other Olympian in history, but turning his gold into Madison Avenue or Hollywood cash will be far trickier.

The advertising world has long had an ambivalent relationship with Olympic athletes; though coverage is saturated during the Games, interest in the quadrennial competition fades once its torch is extinguished.

And Hollywood, once a natural next stop for successful Olympic athletes, has become a remote detour.

So despite endless exposure, athletic dominance and a boy-next-door likability, one of the best athletes the U.S. has ever produced might be a ho-hum story when he climbs out of the pool.

"If anyone can transcend the limited shelf life of Olympians, it's Phelps," said Bob Dorfman, a vp at San Francisco-based shop Baker Street Partners, which compiles an annual list of sports-star endorsements. "But there are still a lot of problems."

After the 2004 Athens Olympics, Disney signed Phelps — then coming off a performance that saw him win six gold medals — to a multicity swimming tour. He also became a celebrity spokesman for Hong Kong electronics maker Matsunichi, inking a four-year deal worth about $4 million.

The dreams are bigger this year for Phelps and Peter Carlisle, his rep at sports agency Octagon, which handles many Olympic athletes. (Phelps has no Hollywood agent, though it's possible that a sports-minded shop could soon be making overtures.) Phelps' habit of breaking world records and the attention on the Games makes him an attractive candidate; Visa already has created new spots around his Olympic performance, and he has deals in place with PowerBar and Speedo.

But the fact that the Summer Olympics take place every four years has proved a huge obstacle. And, apart from frequency issues, the Games may run into a more fundamental problem with consumers. "It's always been an impediment to these folks going on because the glory is (supposed to be) enough," marketing consultant Robert Passikoff said. "Isn't that the Olympic tradition?"

Even for Olympians, gold medals don't always translate directly into marketing dollars. Two of the most marketable U.S. Olympic athletes in modern times, gymnast Mary Lou Retton and decathlete Bruce Jenner, won a comparatively small number of golds — just two and one, respectively. By contrast, a nine-time gold medalist, swimmer Mark Spitz, and a five-time champion, speedskater Bonnie Blair, have had far fewer endorsements.

In Beijing, Phelps is proving that he has not only unparalleled swimming chops but broad commercial appeal.

When he lined up to compete for his fourth gold, in the 200-meter butterfly, just after 10 p.m. ET on Tuesday night, NBC saw ratings spike 23% to 39.1 million viewers for the half-hour. As one wag put it, if every one of those extra 8 million who tuned it went to see a movie he was in, Phelps would have a boxoffice hit (at the right budget).

But like Madison Avenue, the Hollywood reality is hardly that simple.

In a pre-endorsement age, Hollywood would scour the Olympics for athletes and slot them into movies, as they did with Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie and U.S. swimmers Buster Crabbe and Johnny Weissmuller.

"Once upon a time studios would find these beautiful creatures and put them in movies," Hollywood publicity guru Tony Angellotti said. "And if someone isn't that facile with the English language, like Weissmuller, well, you just make him Tarzan."

In the modern age, the path is far more checkered for athletes looking to cross over. Retton has done a host of walk-on parts as herself in movies or shows such as "The Naked Gun" and "Baywatch," but attempts at larger casting have been tricky — just ask anyone who saw Jenner in "Can't Stop the Music" or the near-Olympian Kurt Thomas in "Gymkata."

While studios seek what they call "pre-awareness," that idea has them putting in a rap star in supporting roles, not athletes.

Hollywood still could be key if Phelps is to overcome the fragile celebrity of most Olympians. Branding experts say that placing him in reality shows — either his own, like skateboarder Ryan Sheckler on MTV, or in venues like "Dancing With the Stars" — is essential. "The key is to create content that keeps him out there," Dorfman said.

But even that might not be enough, either to drive ratings or goose endorsements.

"The challenge for Olympic athletes has always been to be able, after the post-game hype, to translate that into big marketing and endorsement deal dollars," Starcom's Tom Weeks said.

And Phelps could fade even within the Olympics, which still has another week left after the athlete kicks through his last breaststroke Saturday. "There's no question that Michael is an important driver of interest in the Olympics," NBC research chief Alan Wurtzel said. "But the Olympics turn out to be more than Michael Phelps." (partialdiff)
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