Peter Carlisle, the sports agent who represents Olympians Michael Phelps and Apolo Ohno, began pitching downhill skier Mikaela Shiffrin to potential sponsors months ago. That job got a lot easier last week.
Shiffrin, an 18-year-old with TV-ready looks, won the women’s slalom event in Sochi -- emerging as the most marketable star of the Olympics, according to Baker Street Advertising executive Bob Dorfman. The exposure led to conversations with a wide range of companies, which see her as the rare athlete that transcends her sport, said Carlisle, a managing director at the agency Octagon. The goal is to forge long-term partnerships with brands such as Samsung Electronics Co., he said.
“With the performance that she had, companies and brands in numerous categories have expressed interest,” Carlisle said in a phone interview. “If you just charted the spike in e-mails, phone calls or substantive conversations about commercial opportunities, it’s amazing.”
With her slalom victory, Shiffrin became the youngest U.S. Alpine medalist in history and drew comparisons to another athlete who first won gold as a teenager: swimmer Michael Phelps. He went on to become the most decorated Olympian, as well as a pitchman for brands ranging from Subway to Visa. It’s too early to tell what kind of potential Shiffrin has, though she’s off to a promising start, Carlisle said.
“If she’s fortunate enough to have a career that spans three games and a 10-year period of time or thereabouts, her commercial success will likely be in the tens of millions of dollars,” said Carlisle, who also represents Phelps. “It’s highly speculative.”
Shiffrin already endorses a handful of brands, including ski-goggle and sunglass maker Oakley Inc. and the pasta company Barilla Holding SpA. Carlisle, working with Shiffrin’s manager Kilian Albrecht, is now seeking new sponsors -- especially ones that appeal to an Asian audience.
The next Winter Olympics will be held in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and it’s important to start building awareness early, Carlisle said. He declined to say what brands had discussed a Shiffrin sponsorship, though he did name Samsung as the kind of company that would make sense.
“You’re talking about a company that’s invested in the Olympic space, is global and is based in Korea,” he said. “That’s an example of why a particular company may be attractive.”
Samsung, based in Suwon, South Korea, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Shiffrin has on-camera charisma and is young enough to have a long potential career ahead of her, said George Belch, a sports marketing professor at San Diego State University. The combination could bring sponsorship deals worth several million dollars, he said.
“She has all the characteristics that marketers are going to be looking for,” Belch said in a phone interview. “We’re talking about someone who is 18 years old, who could easily compete in at least two more Olympics if she stays healthy. If you hook your wagon to her as an endorser, you could be riding this for years.”
Her stated goal of winning five medals at the 2018 games in South Korea also may impress endorsers, he said.
“Clearly people love confident athletes and she seems to have that,” Belch said.
Shiffrin is “the closest thing to a Winter Olympics ‘It Girl’ to come out of Sochi,” Baker Street’s Dorfman said. She could easily sell beauty, fashion or health products and the contracts could earn her $1 million in a year in new marketing opportunities, with deals lasting five or 10 years, Dorfman said.
At least one major brand has bowed out of contention: Coca-Cola Co. The soft-drink maker already has a team of four Olympic athletes, including skater Michelle Kwan, and said it doesn’t plan to add to that roster.
“We are delighted to be partnered with them and continue that relationship,” said Kerry Tressler, a spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based company.
Shiffrin was already building buzz before winning the slalom event, helped by 29-year-old star skier Lindsey Vonn dropping out of the Olympics. Shiffrin was the youngest American to win a World Cup title in any discipline, and the only non-European to win four World Cup slalom races in one season. Before last week’s gold medal, Dorfman had predicted she could add as much as $3 million in long-term endorsements, speaking fees and current sponsor bonuses.
New potential sponsors include Subway restaurants or PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade brand, Dorfman said. Phelps and Ohno, a speedskater, have both appeared in Subway ads. Representatives for Subway and PepsiCo didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Shiffrin has said that she prefers to endorse products that she’s familiar with and uses often. She wears Oakley goggles and eats Barilla pasta, for instance. Shiffrin endorses Amer Sports Oyj’s Atomic and Leki Lenhart GmbH, two makers of ski equipment, and Snap Supercandy. She also has appeared in Procter & Gamble Co.’s “Thank You, Mom” ads.
“I’m trying to keep it limited right now, because I have a lot going on, I’m still young and I need to focus on the ski racing,” she said during a media conference call. “At the same time, this is a really great opportunity to build my legacy and build my brand.”
‘Totally at Ease’
Last year, Carlisle and his team at Octagon began asking Shiffrin about the brands and products she liked: “What kind of computer do you use? What do you eat?” he said.
Now the task is converting those preferences into commercial opportunities, he said.
“I’ve worked with a lot of young athletes and rarely do you sit across from an 18-year-old where they are totally at ease,” Carlisle said. “That’s such an advantage. You have such a small window of time where these athletes introduce themselves to the general public. When you’ve got someone who’s comfortable communicating, the media sees that. It makes it easier to connect with an audience.”
Until the Olympic Games, the Colorado-born Shiffrin was better known in Europe than in her home country. Now that she has U.S. recognition, the next step is to see if her fame can carry over to Asia, Carlisle said.
He pursued a similar strategy with Phelps, who won a record 22 medals. In 2007, the swimmer traveled to China with Visa Inc. By the time of the Olympics in Beijing the following summer, Phelps had built up “significant popularity,” Carlisle said.
“It’d be interesting to see what a U.S. alpine skier could do in Asia,” he said.