Olympic Athletes Go For Gold, And Green

fromWNYC

Over the next two weeks, thousands of athletes will compete in the London Olympics. And it's not just gold they're after, but also green. Sponsorships will earn swimmer Ryan Lochte almost $2 million, Forbes estimates. But even lesser-known athletes have the chance to make a buck.

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OK. The athletes gathering in London for the opening of the Olympics are after gold, and also after green. Forbes estimates that sponsorships will earn swimmer Ryan Lochte almost $2 million. And even athletes who are not superstars can pick up cash. Here's Ilya Marritz of member station WNYC.

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Lashinda Demus is a 29-year-old mother of twins living in Los Angeles, and currently, she's the fastest 400 meter woman hurdler in the world. Also, she's promoting Greek yogurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

LASHINDA DEMUS: Chobani naturally powers me to be an outstanding mom, wife and athlete at the same time - triple threat.

MARRITZ: Sponsorship deals are how Olympic athletes support themselves. It's been that way since long before Mary Lou Retton was on the Wheaties box. But how exactly do athletes and sponsors find each other? Demus says, in her case, it's actually a funny story. She recently called me from home in L.A., right after practice.

DEMUS: I literally just came in, still dirty and sweaty from the track.

MARRITZ: So here's what happened: a few months ago, Demus says, she mentioned in an interview with a magazine that she gives Chobani to her boys, Donte and Duane. They love it. A short time later, the yogurt people found her.

DEMUS: So it was kind of like, oh, they seen my article. Really? They want to - you know, I didn't know they were sponsoring people, and I didn't know they were any Olympic sponsor, either. So it was kind of like it was meant to be.

AMY STANTON: Well, the truth of the matter is it's a long time coming when sponsorships come to fruition.

MARRITZ: Amy Stanton is Demus' agent. She remembers things slightly differently.

STANTON: I like that an athlete thinks that it all just happens so serendipitously, because that means we're doing our job.

MARRITZ: In fact, from the moment Stanton signed Demus up as a client late last year, she's been chasing potential backers. Chobani was a first-time sponsor of Team USA and seemed like a good fit. Stanton says if you're not famous like Michael Phelps and if your sport doesn't have tons of fans, you need an agent who's as competitive as you are.

STANTON: There's only a handful of Olympic sponsors, so it's the same few spots that everybody's vying for.

MARRITZ: So, how does the agent distinguish their athlete in a crowded field? Tripp Mickle covers sponsorship deals for Sports Business Journal.

TRIPP MICKLE: Right. Athlete selection comes down to two things: one, potential performance on the field of play and the chance to medal and be on a podium and get a lot of exposure from NBC. And two, storyline.

MARRITZ: Here, Stanton feels her client has something special: She's a mom. Demus missed the 2008 Beijing Olympics because she'd just given birth. Now she's hoping for gold, with help from her coach, who - get this - happens to be her own mother.

STANTON: So, strategically, you know, I'm playing the mom card, even though, you know, I feel like that, in this case, it's just such an authentic part of her story, that it doesn't feel like a marketing tool.

MARRITZ: Well, it worked. Chobani decided to sponsor Demus and five other athletes. It's also the official packaged yogurt supplier to Team USA. Chobani isn't saying what it all costs, but Tripp Mickle believes each sponsored athlete is earning $10,000 at minimum, and it could be much more.

If Lashinda Demus advances to the women's 400 meter hurdles final on August 8th, her agent Amy Stanton will be in the stands. And if Demus crosses the finish line first, Stanton will be cheering. Then, she says, she'll wipe away a tear, pull out her blackberry, and get to work.

STANTON: If Lashinda wins a gold medal, we're going to want to send that news out to as many people as possible - sponsors, media, etcetera - and figure out what we can do to take advantage of it.

MARRITZ: Because the spotlight does not stay on the podium for long.

For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz, in New York.

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