Ski Champ Vonn Follows Sharapova, Federer Path in Money Search

U.S. Skiing Champion Lindsey Vonn
US skier Lindsey Vonn celebrates on the winners' podium in the Women's Super G of the FIS Ski World Cup in Lake Louise, Canada. Photographer: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

Lindsey Vonn has turned into the Maria Sharapova of skiing without matching the earning power of the world’s highest-paid female athlete.

Almost a year after winning the Olympic downhill at the Vancouver Winter Games, Vonn has become a household name in the U.S. She played a small role on NBC’s “Law & Order” television show, went to the White House correspondents’ dinner and posed as a Sharon Stone lookalike. Her annual endorsement income with companies such as Red Bull GmbH, Rolex Group, Procter & Gamble Co. and Under Armour Inc. doubled to about $6 million, according to analysts at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.

That’s a bunny hill compared with the $24.5 million that Sharapova takes home each year in prize money and deals with Nike Inc., Tiffany & Co. and Groupe Danone SA’s Evian water brand. Both Vonn and Sharapova, a three-time major tennis champion from Russia, are represented by IMG.

It’s “highly unlikely that Vonn will ever match Sharapova’s earning power,” Bob Dorfman, creative director of Baker Street Advertising, said in an interview. “It’s not a personality issue, it’s a matter of their particular sport. Tennis pros are more visible, more accessible and more fashionable, and their equipment --- from shoes to clothes to accessories --- lends itself to more endorsement opportunities.”

Vonn, who last weekend won her first event of the season in the Super G race in Lake Louise in Canada, also suffers from the low visibility of her sport during non-Olympic years. During an interview at the start of the season in Soelden, Austria, the 26-year-old expressed frustration at the marketing of skiing, saying it doesn’t have enough events in North America, and doesn’t promote its athletes as well as tennis.

Gold Medals

Dorfman estimated Vonn’s 2010 earnings may have doubled from $3 million before Vancouver because she offers advertisers “the complete package: gold-medal winning athletic performance, charismatic personality, great looks and figure, and role-model behavior off the slopes.”

The St. Paul, Minnesota native is “one of the few Olympians whose marketability extends beyond the Games,” he said.

Sharapova, 23, has been able to stay on top of the money-making list even while sidelined for nine months with a shoulder injury and not winning majors. Sponsors including mobile phone maker Sony Ericsson Mobile Communications Ltd. say the Russian, who became a celebrity when she won the 2004 Wimbledon title aged 17, transcends her sport. Although Sharapova hasn’t advanced beyond the quarterfinals of a major since her comeback to the WTA Tour in May last year, she extended a deal with Nike at the start of this season by eight years for $70 million.

This Season

Following her victory in Lake Louise, Vonn moved into second place in the overall World Cup standings, behind Maria Riesch. The German, Vonn’s best friend, had won both downhill races in Alberta ahead of the American.

Vonn, who is trying to win a fourth consecutive overall World Cup title this season, has been reaping the commercial benefits of winning her first Olympic gold medal as well as a Super-G bronze in Vancouver in February.

She has signed post-Olympics deals with Oakley eyewear, Briko helmets, Spyder downhill suits, Sport Tube ski transportation ski equipment, Leki ski poles and the Got Milk? dairy campaign, Mark Ervin, the racer’s Los Angeles-based agent, said in an e-mail.

Other Offers

Vonn said she has turned down “quite a few offers” and is selective in signing new endorsements.

“It has to make sense,” said the American, who married former American ski racer Thomas Vonn in 2007 and lives in Vail, Colorado and Austria.

Vonn, whose family relocated to Vail from Minnesota when she was a teenager to access better training facilities, gave interviews in fluent German while in Soelden. Austrian fans mobbed the Olympic champion for pictures and autographs after she finished 18th in the giant slalom on the Rettenbach glacier.

After Vancouver, Vonn was just as well known to U.S. consumers as golfer Phil Mickelson and Academy Award winners Helen Hunt and Kevin Kline, according to the Los Angeles-based Davie Brown Index, which is used by advertisers to gauge the ability of celebrities to influence consumers.

She holds a U.S. record 34 World Cup victories, yet still lags behind female tennis and golf players at the bank.

Tennis Earnings

Led by Sharapova, tennis players including sisters Serena ($20.2 million in annual earnings) and Venus Williams ($15.4 million) made up half the top 10 list of the world’s highest-earning female athletes, published by Forbes in August. Three golfers, including the retired Annika Sorenstam ($8 million), were also included.

“While the Olympic platform is massive, being out of the spotlight puts Olympians at a disadvantage,” said Matt Delzell a senior director at The Marketing Arm, which compiles the Davie Brown Index. “In the U.S., athletes in mainstream sports like golf, baseball, basketball, and football are visible for much of the year. That’s not the case with Olympians.”

Vonn said skiing must utilize the U.S. market more to retain consumer attention. The World Cup circuit has just four stops in North America, two each in the U.S. and Canada, with the last ending on Dec. 5 in Lake Louise, Alberta, and Beaver Creek, Colorado. Austria alone has seven stops, spread from Oct. 23 to Feb. 6, while Italy has six stops between Dec. 17 and March 6.

‘Big Market’

“It’s such a big market,” she said. “If we had one or two more races, we could really expand that, and it would make ski racing so much more popular.”

In the run-up to a race weekend in Aspen, Colorado at the end of November, Vonn appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine’s movie issue posing as Stone’s character in the film “Basic Instinct.”

“This is exactly the sort of thing Vonn needs to do to stay top of mind between Olympics,” Dorfman said. “It’s attention-getting, sexy, slightly controversial but not off-putting, and excellent tabloid show material.”

Skiing can learn a lot from the way tennis is marketed all year by the men’s ATP World Tour and women’s WTA Tour, Vonn said.

“Their fans can relate to the stars because they can follow them throughout the season,” she said. “We should have similar marketing in skiing.”

Vonn has been picking up some tips from 16-time Grand Slam tennis champion Roger Federer, who according to Forbes earns $43 million a year from prize money and deals with companies led by razor-blade maker Gillette Co. and Nike. The two first met at the 2009 French Open, which Federer won. Vonn, who regularly plays tennis during the off-season, attended his press conference afterwards and they have met a few times since.

“I definitely can learn a lot from him,” Vonn said. “Just the way he’s able to handle himself. For someone to be that successful and to have their feet on the ground is really rare.”

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