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Athletes' endorsement power determined by fans

By Scott Becher

August 21, 2000

The Olympics are just a preamble for a separate competition that in many ways can be equally cutthroat — the race to determine which athlete will become Madison Avenue's next darling.

Sometimes it's the star that arrives as a favorite and delivers gold in bulk (see Michael Johnson). Other times it's a less-familiar name that achieves "perfection" (see Mary Lou Retton) or succeeds in the face of incredible pressure and adversity (see Kerri Strug).

No matter what the circumstance, you can bet that any athlete bringing home endorsements has done something special, even outrageous (see Dennis Rodman), to capture our attention.

The athletes may control wins and losses. But the fans determine who they like and dislike, who they want to root for, who they can relate to. Sort of a popularity contest.

This is the way it should be.

Yet many jealousies are beginning to surface over the adulation heaped upon one female athlete who has managed to serve up sex appeal as well as aces — Anna Kournikova.

It seems many of her tour contemporaries are envious of Anna's off-court success (estimated at $11 million to $15 million per year), particularly since her on-court record is considered lackluster. These critics point to the fact that Anna is ranked 19th in the world, but earns as much in endorsements as the tour's No. 1-ranked player, Martina Hingis.

The fault in this argument is a simple one — success in the game is not the only factor influencing marketability. It's the fan who judges the winners and losers in the endorsement game, with an assist from corporate America and the media.

Outside the world of professional wrestling, fans decide who the heroes and villains are. The media, and sometimes aggressive marketers, then prove adept at creating a bigger than life impression of these personalities.

Take the United States women's soccer team that won the 1999 World Cup. No question this was an accomplishment that awakened the U.S. to women's soccer. But two players stood out from the rest.

Brandi Chastain, by converting the last shootout attempt and then baring her sports bra, created a postcard memory for all that watched. And Mia Hamm, the sports most prolific goal scorer, benefited by an assist from Gatorade, which put her in commercials featuring her one-on-one duels with Michael Jordan.

Imagine Hamm is her sport's Babe Ruth, yet it was a Gatorade commercial that was largely responsible for introducing her to America. She was imminently likeable and successful. A fan favorite. An easy sell.

Not so for LPGA golfers. It's clearly the sport with the biggest chip on its shoulder.

Today Karrie Webb is her sport's equivalent to Tiger Woods, taking three majors the last two years and winning enough tourneys at age 25 to already qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame. Yet she languishes in the commercial shadow of Woods.

"Webb has gotten the shaft," says Linda Cohn, an ESPN announcer. "It shouldn't be about whether they're perky, or whether they smile a lot — they shouldn't have to wear short skirts."

Critics suggest the media is to blame for the lack of commercial success achieved by LPGA tour players. Limited network coverage, they say. No companies willing to embrace its stars. They all lose sight of reality.

Not too long ago Nancy Lopez was a national sensation. Same with Jan Stephenson. Remember Laura Baugh?

Where was the media and marketing conspiracy then?

For the most part, commercial success is not manufactured. Fans determine whom they like; marketers and the media then follow.

The fans will decide which Olympians are their favorites. On their own terms.

The smart marketers will be paying close attention

More FoxSportsBiz columns by Scott Becher