Burn Rubber, Lance
The hottest brand name in the cycling world is a 170-pound speedster in skintight polyester shorts. Since 1998, when he recovered from cancer, Lance Armstrong has ruled the mountains of France, winning the last four Tour de France races, cycling's biggest prize. From his Oakley sunglasses (OO ) and PowerBar pick-me-ups to the Nike swoosh (NKE ) and U.S. Postal Service emblem plastered on his jersey, the 31-year-old Austin (Tex.) native has become a two-wheeled marketing phenom. But now the superstar racer is peddling into a situation unique in the marketing world: taking on the often prickly French at their own sport at a time of unprecedented tension between the two countries.
Interest is already building for what could be Armstrong's historic fifth straight victory. Coca-Cola Co. (KO ) has begun airing commercials in the U.S. featuring the cyclist, and Subaru will start soon. Armstrong is even negotiating a movie deal. But for marketers, French-American tensions are a wild card, and they worry that Armstrong could become a target of anti-American protests. Armstrong has also voiced security concerns for himself and other racers. "We'd just as soon this focus entirely on Lance, on his athletic accomplishments," says Kevin McClanahan, chief operating officer of Monarch Beverage Co., whose All Sport sports drink sponsors Armstrong's racing team. "But the world is a crazy place."
However it all plays out, the action will be captured by the Outdoor Life cable channel, which is adding 90 hours of live coverage of the Tour in the U.S., on top of the 172 hours offered up last year. CBS is also devoting three Sunday afternoons to the event. That will intensify attention on Armstrong in the U.S., the target audience for most of his sponsors. The biggest benefactor likely will be the U.S. Postal Service, which spends $6.5 million annually to sponsor the U.S. team and, in return, gets its logo on Armstrong and his eight teammates' jerseys.
Armstrong, whose $10 million a year in sponsorship contracts includes bonuses if he appears at the Tour de France, wants security beefed up. The long, mountainous roads are a security nightmare, with crowds able to sidle up and touch riders along the route. Armstrong has his own bodyguard. But Trailwinds Sports, which operates the U.S. team, is expected to press Tour de France organizers to step up security -- which the Tour has so far resisted. "It's something we're monitoring all the time," says Bill Stapleton, Armstrong's manager. "But unless something dramatically changes, we intend to be there."
For now, Armstrong has a small army of sponsors ready to latch on to the back of his specially designed Trek bicycle. Stapleton says none of Armstrong's sponsors have expressed any thoughts of backing out. And Trailwinds is still planning parties for 250 or more corporate sponsors along the route. As for Armstrong, he has already begun training in Europe with a series of tune-up races. And both he and his sponsors are keeping their fingers crossed that there won't by any unexpected bumps along those French country roads.
By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles with Christina Passariello in Paris