Friday, June 25, 1999

Women athletes sell, companies finding

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mia Hamm's footwork with a soccer ball may soon be upstaged by her ability to boot consumer products into the average American household.

        The star of the USA team in the Women's World Cup games under way in Chicago — and a spokeswoman for Procter & Gamble's Pert Plus shampoo — will be seen on plenty of television sets this summer.

        She will be going one-on-one with Michael Jordan in Gatorade commercials and pitching Barbie dolls for Mattel, and Nike shoes to would-be soccer stars. She will also be selling Edy's frozen yogurt, Earthgrains breads and Powerbars in hundreds of thousands of stores across the country.

        In increasing numbers, women athletes like Ms. Hamm are seen by many companies as a chance to get into the heart, soul and pocketbooks of soccer moms like Connie Venturino.

        “I bought the Barbie doll,” said Mrs. Venturino of Liberty Township, whose daughters, Andrea and Amber, have soccer scholarships at Tusculum College in Greenville, Tenn.

        “I have a 6-year-old at home and Mia is a role model,” she said. “My daughters are envious of Mia, but in a good way.”

        There is no question that endorsements from star athletes, particularly women athletes, sell products, said Jack B. Cowie III, president of Highland Marketing Group, sports and event marketing consultants based in Portland, Maine.

        Mr. Cowie, who has advised IBM, Continental Airlines, The Wall Street Journal, Nautica, Motorola and BMW on where and how to spend sports marketing dollars, said a vacuum of well-known women athletes brings bucks to the few who are out there.

        “You've got women making forays into what have been traditionally known as men's sports,” he said. “With soccer, the No. 1 participatory sport for children 14 and under, you can bet that Mia Hamm is moving frozen yogurt.

        “When Mom needs to make her kid happy in the frozen-food aisle at the grocery store and the kid sees Mia and recognizes her, well, that makes it really easy to make the kid happy. Mom buys frozen yogurt.”

        Women endorsing products or representing companies has seen tremendous growth in five years, said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago-based company founded in 1970 that matches advertisers with athletes for endorsements.

        When Tonya Harding hired a thug to assault Nancy Kerrigan in January 1994, millions of Americans began to pay attention to figure skating, Mr. Williams said.

        “It brought figure skating a brand new fan base,” he said. “As a result, figure skaters are now top product endorsers.”

        Mr. Williams' company has worked with Ms. Hamm and such athletes as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird. He said the most compelling evidence that female athletes are effective in national campaigns is that companies keep signing them up.

        Experts say soccer offers a natural link, because so many youngsters play. According to Nike, between 1991 and 1998, there was an 86 percent growth rate in the number of girls participating in soccer at the high school level and a 120 percent increase at the college level.

        The Soccer Industry Council of America estimates 7.5 million females in the United States play soccer.

        But Mr. Cowie cautioned that the marriage of athletes and companies can be rocky.

        “What every company faces is this: Am I willing to put a billion-dollar brand on the shoulder of one individual? That's a scary proposition,” he said. “All it takes is one incident of spitting on a referee or one paternity case to bring down the brand.”

        IBM, for instance, will probably never contract with an athlete.

        “With a brand valued at $10 billion, they will never sponsor an individual,” he said. “There's not an individual on Earth worth risking that $10 billion value.”


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