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From Olympic Medal to Commercial Mettle

March 05, 1998|GREG JOHNSON

Brad Miller grudgingly yielded to his wife's badgering in 1991 when he agreed to watch a televised figure skating competition.

The Cambridge, Ohio, computer-store owner liked what he saw. Now he's hooked on triple salchows, travels to competitions and tends a Web site honoring Winter Olympics gold-medal winner Tara Lipinski.

And if the messages electronic visitors leave behind are an accurate measure, consumer-goods companies are right to be courting teenage skaters Lipinski and silver-medal winner Michelle Kwan.

"I get e-mail from 8-year-old girls who want to grow up and be Tara, and from 62-year-old grandmothers who want to form fan clubs," Miller said. "I don't know anyone who doesn't smile at her exuberance."

While Kwan and Lipinski are poised for marketing gold, sports marketing experts say the marketing pot would be even sweeter if the skaters can manage an on-the-ice rematch during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

"It could heighten the Michelle-versus-Tara rivalry to epic proportions, culminating in a marketer's dream," said Bob Dorfman, sports analyst with Foote, Cone & Belding in San Francisco.

Kwan on Monday won the race for the first post-Olympic contract endorsement when she signed with Unilever to promote Fresh Deodorant Caress soap. But marketing experts say the skaters' youth makes the timing of contract announcements almost incidental.

"This isn't a 100-yard dash," said Kwan's agent, Shep Goldberg. "It's more like a marathon. This isn't about Michelle looking to score as quickly as possible or to get as much as she can. Michelle and her parents view this as a long-term investment."

Because the skaters' personalities are as different as their skating styles, Kwan, 17, and Lipinski, 15, are expected to travel different routes as they build their off-the-ice careers.

There's already talk of a movie based on Kwan's life to go with the Scholastic Books autobiography published before the Olympic Games. New chapters for "Michelle Kwan--My Story, Heart of a Champion" are in the works, and Scholastic's Web site invites grade-school teachers to use Kwan's story as grist for school reports.

But Kwan and her parents, Torrance residents Dan and Estella Kwan, are adamant that Kwan's off-the-ice opportunities don't interfere with her skating career or sully her wholesome image.

"I don't think Michelle will be doing Schlitz Malt Liquor ads or Camels," Goldberg said. "Michelle will do things that make sense because she's interested in them--and because they can be done within the context of her career."

Some potential marketing partners undoubtedly skated away from Kwan when Lipinski snatched the gold medal with a stunning performance in Nagano. But most observers say her marketing potential remains as sound as her figure skating technique.

"Because of her personal qualities, Michelle appeals to all demographics," said Michael Rosenberg, a Palm Desert-based skating agent. "Had she won the gold, I think Michelle would have been the most marketable Olympic figure skater since Sonja Henie," the Norwegian figure skater who won her first gold medal in 1928 and eventually went on to star in Hollywood.

Conventional wisdom suggests that a gold medal can generate more than $10 million in income in the years after the Games. Although Kwan undoubtedly lost some lucrative contracts, Rosenberg said, "shed no tears for Michelle because she's still incredibly marketable. With her personality and appeal to different demographic groups, she's going to do very well."

Lipinski is just two years younger than Kwan, but marketing industry observers say her agent will have to be more selective when it comes to proposals that might best be left to more mature skaters.


Lipinski entered the Olympic Games with contracts from Campbell's Soup, Mattel, DKNY and Minute Maid--proof that the talented teen appeals to a wide range of consumers.

Dorfman, a sports analyst, envisions Lipinski working with McDonald's Corp. or a major toothpaste brand like Crest.

And, as Lipinski moves through her teen years, Dorfman said, "it might be fun to see a Chevrolet campaign documenting Lipinski's quest for a driver's license."

But sports marketers differ on some other possible opportunities. Dorfman sees Lipinski as a good match for Chanel while Rosenberg suspects that Lipinski's youthful demeanor isn't a good match for the more-sophisticated product.

"Tara is more of a challenge, but only because of her age, not her persona," Rosenberg said. "The challenge is to compensate for the lack of adult products with even more teen- or child-oriented products."

Fans such as Miller say they're attracted to figure skaters because they've largely managed to avoid the pitfalls that trip up so many sports stars.

"Tara Lipinski seems incredibly natural, a delightful 15-year-old who gets so much joy from being out on the ice," Miller said. "And in today's sporting world, that's incredibly refreshing."

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