Carl Lewis has been probably the biggest name in track and field since he won four gold medals at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Meet promoters can't draw flies unless they guarantee handsome appearance fees to Lewis and his teammates on the Santa Monica Track Club. But in the ultimate test of professional athletic prowess, the competition for big-bucks endorsements, Lewis has run far back in the pack.
Until Aug. 25, that is. That night in Tokyo, at the World Track & Field Championships, Lewis set a world record of 9.86 seconds as he led an all-American sweep in the 100-meter dash. Sports marketers say the 30-year-old's dramatic win over younger sprinters will help him score new endorsement deals from marketers of athletic gear and perhaps even general consumer products. His stock will also rise as the hype for the 1992 Olympics grows louder. "Lewis is certainly a hot property now," says Jim Andrews, editorial director of Special Events Report, which tracks corporate sponsorship of athletes.
SUPERHERO. Companies that already have Lewis on the payroll are celebrating their foresight. "The general public got reawakened to Carl. This elevates him to a whole new level of marketability," says Pat Devaney, a U. S. marketing manager for Japan's giant sporting goods maker, Mizuno Corp. of Osaka. The $1.3 billion-a-year company signed a long-term pact with him in 1987 and has sold 10,000 pairs of Carl Lewis track shoes--at $205 a pop--since.
Note well, though, that Mizuno does much of its business in Japan, where Lewis is a superhero. He's not so beloved by Americans, turned off by his too-calculated bid for attention and corporate dollars at the 1984 games. Also, track is a second-tier sport in the U. S., suggesting that Lewis' earning power won't approach that of Michael Jordan, Arnold Palmer, and Jack Nicklaus, the top athletic pitchmen. They each rake in $10 million or more annually from endorsements, by Andrews' estimate. He figures Lewis makes $1 million a year now and could eventually command up to $3 million a year.
"That's way off," retorts Joe Douglas, Lewis' manager. "The people who make up those numbers don't know what they're talking about." Maybe so, but Lewis has to polish his reputation with U. S. companies. Nike Inc. yanked its multiyear contract with him in 1987. "It was a difficult relationship," says Frederic E. Schreyer, sports marketing director at Nike, which had problems with Lewis' accessibility and cooperation.
Lewis hasn't suffered from false starts overseas, though. Mizuno uses him both to sell shoes and socks and as part of its general image campaign. "He represents top quality," says Michiyo Shuto, who negotiated Mizuno's contract with Lewis. The runner also has a shorter-term deal to appear in print ads for TDK Corp. audiocassettes in Japan. In Europe and Japan, he pitches Tag Heuer, a line of German sports watches.
Stateside, Lewis may have a hard time breaking out of the running-gear niche into consumer products. "It would be a stretch for a McDonald's, Coke, or Pepsi," says Bill Daily, director of sports marketing for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, Quaker Oats Co.'s sports drink. But Douglas is optimistic. He says that two Japanese car companies and one American car company are bidding for Lewis. Meanwhile, Mizuno is stepping up its U. S. ad campaign. "We will capitalize on the achievements" in Tokyo, says Mizuno's Devaney. And Lewis' Santa Monica Track Club, which markets running apparel in Europe and Canada, plans to bring the line to the U. S.
MELLOWING. Lewis can also take advantage of the craze for athletic Methuselahs, including boxer George Foreman, Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan, and tennis player Jimmy Connors. "An aging athlete who can compete against youngsters is a great story and has a great marketing position," says Andrews. Moreover, age seems to have worn away some of Lewis' off-putting attitude. In Tokyo, he hauled Leroy Burrell and Dennis Mitchell, the silver and bronze medalists, up to the top of the victory stand with him. And at the post-race press conference, Lewis grew teary as he spoke of his father, William, who died in 1987.
The U. S. hasn't fallen for a track star since decathlete Bruce Jenner grabbed the gold at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. It may be Lewis' turn. Conveniently enough, most of his existing contracts, except with Mizuno, are expiring about now. To go with his great time in Tokyo, Lewis has great timing.