HUNTINGTON BEACH — Gold medal winner Kristi Yamaguchi skated her way into a milk commercial. Carl Lewis dashed his way into a tire advertisement. And there's no telling how many athletic shoes have been sold by basketball's high-flying "Dream Team."
But there won't be a wealth of endorsements awaiting Deena Wigger, a crack rifle shot who wants to follow in her father's footsteps by winning a gold medal in target shooting at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The 28-year-old woman, who grew up around shooting ranges, is the official spokeswoman for Huntington Beach-based Marksman Products, whose air rifles she sometimes uses in competition. But don't bother looking for Marksman advertisements featuring the coveted Olympic rings logo, because the privately held company can't afford the steep price tag to become an official sponsor.
And even if Wigger wins a gold medal, Marksman President Robert A. Eck said, target shooting lacks the sizzle needed to interest American television network executives. Said Eck: "Even if someone uses [a Marksman product] to win, will anyone even see it?"
U.S. manufacturers are on target when it comes to the domestic market for inexpensive air rifles and pistols that youngsters use to knock cans off fence posts or dispatch varmints to an early grave.
But Marksman, Arkansas-based Daisy Manufacturing Co. and East Bloomfield, N.Y.-based Crosman Corp. haven't been very successful competing against English and German counterparts who control the market for higher-priced adult air guns used by the best shooters.
Inexpensive rifles and pistols that retail for about $25 are "the meat and potatoes of our line," Eck said. "We haven't been able to take it to the next level in this country when it comes to adult air guns."
That's frustrating for executives at American companies who know that top-notch European shooters willingly pay thousands of dollars for finely tooled, highly accurate air guns. And they're equally frustrated by their inability to use the Olympics to generate more sales of their higher-cost air rifles and pistols.
Part of the U.S. air gun industry's problem is that target shooting, while obviously demanding, lacks the glamour needed to make it an attractive sport for the television networks.
If it were possible for Rodney Dangerfield to enter the Olympics, he'd likely be found on the target-shooting range.
To the uninitiated, target shooting remains "about as exciting as watching paint dry," said John Ford, marketing manager of Daisy, the nation's best-known air gun maker. "Americans are used to watching games where the field goal is kicked in the last three seconds or the basket is shot from outside the three-point line with three-tenths of a second left."
Europeans are comfortable with air guns as weapons because they've been in use for hundreds of years. "When Napoleon entered their country," Ford said, "Austrians met him with air guns in their hands."
Yet, despite popularity overseas, domestic shooters fret that 1984 Los Angeles Games planners initially failed to include a target-shooting range in their construction budget. The oversight was corrected, they say, only after international Olympic leaders intervened.
Only swimmers and track and field athletes take home more Olympic medals than shooters, but the fans still are burning from NBC's failure to broadcast a single target-shooting event during the 1992 Barcelona games. Fearful that they'll again be snubbed in Atlanta, shooters are talking about using the Internet to narrowcast their events.
Target shooting also suffers from being tainted by news stories about the illegal use of traditional firearms.
"The average American thinks shooting is involved with some form of killing, be it war, hunting or crime," said Eric Sundstrom, a fund-raiser for the Colorado Springs-based national shooting team. "But they don't know that target shooting is very popular, that there are 150 countries with teams."
Athletes also acknowledge that, while the sport is popular in Europe, it seems foreign to most Americans. "People grow up with basketball and volleyball," Wigger said. "They understand those sports. But they don't understand shooting."
The three privately held U.S. air gun companies don't release sales figures, but observers estimate that about 3 million rifles and pistols are sold each year and that the industry generates $100 million in combined revenue. Marksman has estimated sales of about $18 million.
Production costs have forced many consumer goods manufacturers to open offshore plants, but Marksman, Crosman and Daisy still make most of their entry-level weapons in the United States. "Wood and metal are going to cost the same anywhere, so we can make them in Huntington Beach as easily as overseas," Eck said.