By Duncan Scott
PHOENIX, Ariz. September 23. RECENT announcements of endorsements by prominent swimmers are almost humorous in their conformity to the self-images apparently chosen by the athletes and their representatives. We see great new possibilities, intended or not.
Gary Hall Jr., two-time Olympic champion in the 50 meter freestyle and a 10-time Olympic medalist, recently took another step in cultivating his rebellious, anti-authority persona. At the same time, he gave voice to the “grown man among boys” image he has fully earned by staying at the top of his game long enough to become the oldest male US Olympic swim team member since Duke Kahanamoku in 1924.
He agreed to an endorsement deal with historic Irish brewer Guinness to help launch its new low-carb/low-cal beer. Not exactly the standard product tie-in historically associated with competitive swimming, but swimmers have certainly been known to chug a brew or two.
Hall most recently burnished his chosen image by wearing pre-race attire for the Olympic 50 final provided by personal sponsor Everlast, a producer of boxing products paying money directly to him. In doing so, he rejected the official US Olympic Team attire provided by Speedo. This choice led not only to a fine for Hall from the nameless, faceless – heartless? — USA Swimming organization that had made the deal with Speedo, but also garnered Gary a boatload of free publicity from a sympathetic, anti-authority press, which furthered his image of choice and likely made deals like the Guinness deal easier to obtain. Method to madness and all that.
The Guinness deal demonstrates Gary’s acumen in choosing a product that best reflects his image, born both of marketing strategies and his life situation. Beer for the bad boy image. Low-calorie beer for the bad boy at an age when a lot of guys are spending more time on the couch watching sports than outside playing them. And finally, low-calorie/low-carbohydrate beer consistent with the serious efforts of the laudable champion for diabetes care. Three home runs in one swing.
"To be successful at this level of competition, it’s important to watch what we put into our bodies," Hall said. "And drinking Guinness allows me to enjoy a great tasting beer without the physical sacrifice or guilt." Perfect!
At about the same time, Michael Phelps joined two other recent Olympic champions —gymnast Carly Patterson and sprinter Justin Gatlin — in signing for the granddaddy of all endorsement deals for athletes — their image on a box of Wheaties. For Phelps it was a choice as well matched to his chosen image as was Hall’s.
More power to both of them. We certainly enjoy seeing businesses recognize the potential of swimmers market products effectively. Didn’t Cadillac do pretty well with Janet Evans, chosen for her ability to reflect the concept of the highest quality? It can only benefit the sport overall. Not every product endorsed will be beer, and even Gary’s move will certainly expand the swimming audience into a niche we previously probably did not reach effectively.
We hope more major companies strike while the Olympic/Olympic Trials broadcast glow is still hot and recognize marketing niches that match the interesting and unique personalities and images of international stars like Aaron Piersol, Natalie Coughlin, Brendan Hansen, Amanda Beard, Ian Crocker and others, even the retired or nearly retired such as Dara Torres, Tom Dolan and Jenny Thompson.
Summer Sanders is doing great with her cable series, Sports List, but the shame is that from the promos for the show you’d never know what a great aquatic athlete she was. That will change if Gary sells a lot of Guinness, Aaron and Amanda spearhead a successful new line of surfboards and beachwear or Natalie is the face for a health-conscious food line that hits it big. Once use of swimmers is proven both effective and socially acceptable in the advertising community, it will be easier to get gigs for the next tier of athlete.
Trying to stretch the summer’s notoriety in commercials may be the first step with traction to maintain serious exposure of our sport beyond the quadrennial Olympic blip. Commercials certainly run more often than our major competitions can, but both constitute exposure that is beneficial to the sport. Maybe this will make it easier to find sponsors for network broadcast of World Championships, more “Duel(s) in the Pool,” and then Pan Pacifics. Then Gary’s match race series … and then live cable of full NCAA Championships and even major dual meets and then … and then…
You write the rest.
For now let’s all (of us over 21, of course) have a Guinness with our next bowl of Wheaties! It’s a start.