Vonn is estimated to be making as much as $3 million a year in sponsorship agreements with companies such as Procter & Gamble Co., Under Armour Inc. and Red Bull GmbH, and has been featured in Olympic promotions by General Electric Co.’s NBC network, which has the U.S. television rights to the Vancouver Games. She was pictured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was among the Olympians in the magazine’s annual swimsuit issue.
“Should Vonn miss out on medaling, it would be reminiscent of (decathletes) Dan (O’Brien) and Dave (Johnson) in the 1992 Barcelona Games, or (skier) Bode Miller in Torino in 2006: massive hype followed by incredible disappointment,” said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising. “She’s been the marketing darling leading up to these Games.”
While Vonn has been able to capitalize on her success heading into the Olympics from an endorsement standpoint, marketing experts said a gold medal is what might determine her future success off the slopes. An ill-timed injury could damage that chance. Vonn was hurt a week ago during a slalom training run in Austria and hasn’t been on skis since.
‘Most Painful Injury’
“I have faced a lot of challenges in the past, but I’ve always felt like I’ve been able to push through them,” Vonn said during a news conference yesterday in Vancouver. “This is definitely the most painful injury I’ve ever had. It’s going to be very, very challenging and very difficult.”
Vonn has 31 World Cup wins, second on the U.S. career list behind Miller’s 32 victories and tied with Switzerland’s Erika Hess for seventh place among women.
Vonn has a roomful of trophies and a cow named Olympe, a prize for winning a race at Val d’Isere, France. Her Olympic experiences have been less successful.
At the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, Vonn — then known by her maiden name, Kildow — crashed during a training run. After a brief hospital stay, she skied to seventh-, eighth- and 14th-place finishes in her three events.
She aimed to put that disappointment behind her in Vancouver, where she’s supported by a team — her “Vonntourage” — that includes two trainers, a ski technician and her husband of two years, Thomas, an unofficial coach and a former U.S. Ski Team member and Olympian. Now she might be facing more disappointment.
“It’s hard to focus on being prepared for these Olympics when you have such a big injury like this,” Vonn said. “A week ago, I won the last World Cup of the season and I was feeling great, I was healthy and had no problems. Now I’m sitting here questioning whether I’ll even be able to ski. It’s not where I want to be by any means, but I have to stay positive.”
Vonn said she might know more about her chances of competing in Vancouver today, when she attempts to ski for the first time since hyper-extending her leg. Her first race is the women’s super combined, scheduled for Feb. 14. She’s also set to compete in the downhill, Super G, slalom and giant slalom.
Vonn is listed as a heavy favorite in the downhill and Super G, according to oddsmakers. If she’s able to recover and ends up on the medal podium, Vonn would probably be considered the American “darling” of the Games and be in line for women’s product deals, Dorfman said.
“Like most Olympic athletes, she only has one shot to get it right,” Dorfman said. “You can bet that if Vonn can’t compete, NBC will try to get her in front of the camera any way they can — as an announcer, commentator, inside reporter, whatever — but it won’t carry the same weight with Americans as winning gold.”
Miller showed that hype doesn’t guarantee results four years ago, when the four-time world champion failed to medal in any of his five races in Turin. Decathletes O’Brien and Johnson were featured in Reebok International Ltd.’s “Dan & Dave” campaign leading up to the 1992 Summer Games, yet O’Brien failed to qualify and Johnson finished with a bronze medal.
O’Brien came back to win an Olympic gold medal in 1996 and sports agent Peter Raskin said Vonn could have a similar recovery, even if it’s not in time for Vancouver.
“This injury would be devastating from a marketing standpoint,” said Raskin, a partner at The Agency Sports Management, which represents former gold medalists such as speedskaters Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen. “However, if there’s one thing the American public embraces more than winning, it’s someone that overcomes adversity and succeeds.”