- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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If he were to line up with the likes of Serena Williams and Shaquille O'Neal, a poll measuring name power suggests that Lance Armstrong is as recognizable as anyone among American sports fans.
If all three athletes, who each makes approximately $14 million annually in endorsements, were to pull a product out of their pocket and describe its merits, it is Armstrong, according to a recent poll, who will most likely convince a consumer to buy it.
Only Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods would yield better returns.
The results of both surveys are astounding considering that Armstrong pedals a bicycle for a living.
He is without question the most popular athlete who has dominated his sport in relative obscurity. He is eyeing a record sixth straight victory in the Tour de France, but only he will command only a small American audience during his grinding, 22-day trek through the French Alps and to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. But thanks to his well-documented recovery from cancer to rise to the top of his sport, Armstrong has transcended beyond what any current athlete has in theirs because he has more relevancy away from sports.
But even as Armstrong's face is plastered on the covers of magazines, his name fills the airwaves and he is seen pitching products from Dasani water to Subarus, not to mention a variety of products with a Nike swoosh on them, professional cycling still operates away from the limelight, at least outside of France.
Despite Armstrong's run and omnipresence during the past five Julys, 93 percent of Americans say they have little or no interest in cycling, according to a poll conducted earlier this year by Knowledge Networks, a market research firm. Only 2 percent say they are very interested in the sport.
"His story is so powerful," said Dave Tice, Knowledge Network's vice president of client service. "But if the cycling world can't leverage what Lance Armstrong has done, it has probably gone as far as it can go."
According to the poll, fewer Americans say they are very interested in cycling than those who are superfans of Formula 1 racing (3 percent), Arena Football (4 percent) and horse racing (4 percent).
The Tour De France doesn't command the network coverage that horse racing's Triple Crown attracts each year, but television viewership is at least up for the event, which runs from July 3-25.
The Outdoor Life Network (OLN), which will broadcast 340 hours of Tour de France coverage this year, has doubled the size of its audience the past three years it has broadcast the event. Approximately 1.2 million viewers tuned in per day last year, up from 600,000 who watched coverage of the 2002 race. This year, network executives predict that daily viewership will hit the 2 million mark and advertising sales will triple.
OLN president Gavin Harvey understands that the sport has its place, but says there's room to grow "before we decide that the sport's popularity has topped out."
Since Armstrong started winning yellow jerseys in France, similar races have popped up in California, New York and Georgia. And there are discussions about a new series of events that would be prime programming for OLN.
"The sport of cycling is never going to become a national sport like American soccer (football) or baseball or basketball or the same in England where we have soccer and cricket," said Phil Liggett, who will announce this year's race live on OLN. "But it's still an extremely popular sport and it has its followers and, of course, its followers all go out and buy the best bikes and they have found a new route to health and fitness because of what Lance has done."
Statistics can be misleading, depending on which ones are used and how they are interpreted. Participation in cycling is up, but not by leaps and bounds.
The number of Americans who use stationary cycles has increased by 1.3 million, to 31 million people, from 2001 to 2003, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), a group of nearly 2,500 manufacturers and national brand distributors of sports apparel, athletic footwear, fitness and sporting goods equipment. Approximately 800,000 more people bike recreationally than were doing the activity over the same time period.
"Ninety-nine percent of Americans don't identify with the exact type of cycling that Lance does," said Mike May, an SGMA spokesman. "They don't watch him and then get inspired to take a bike and pedal up the Rocky Mountains or the Appalachians. There's a much better chance that someone who watches Tiger Woods swing a golf club will take up golf, or someone who watches Andy Roddick will take up tennis."
SGMA numbers show that over the past three years, sales of bikes and related accessories have remained stable, grossing $2.5 billion each year.
Industry insiders say those statistics are deceiving.
Road bike sales have grown by at least 30 percent over the three-year period, according to Dick Moran, marketing director for Trek Bicycle Co., which has sponsored Armstrong for the past seven years. The overall industry sales number has stayed flat, Moran reasons, because the decade-long fad of consumers buying mountain bikes faded at the same time road bikes were becoming more popular.
"Without Lance, I'm pretty sure the overall cycling industry would have been on a major decline, instead of holding steady as it has," said Moran, whose company sells Armstrong's bike model -- the Modone SL -- for $5,000.
Growth or not, it has reached a point where executives with companies that are using Armstrong as a spokesman don't rely on Armstrong's performance as much as Nike needs Tiger Woods to win or LeBron James to lead his team deep into the playoffs.
Nike makes U.S. Postal Service jerseys worn by Armstrong and even makes Armstrong shoes, but most of those items end up in bike specialty shops instead of in front of the mass market.
Despite the fact that Armstrong could retire after next season, the Discovery Channel recently agreed to a three-year, $30 million title sponsor deal with Armstrong's team, which will begin in 2005. His deal with Coca-Cola, for which he is currently pitching its Dasani brand in a national television campaign, is up in September, but a source with knowledge of the negotiations says an extension is "imminent."
In previous endorsement contracts that Armstrong has signed, there were clauses that stipulated an immediate deduction in payout or a termination of the deal altogether if Armstrong retired.
Now, according to his agent Bill Stapleton, "more and more big sponsors are happy and the retirement issue is becoming less and less important."
"Whether he wins his sixth Tour de France or retires, and whether he stays on the bike or leaves, our relationship is less about the sport of cycling itself and more about Lance," said Bea Perez, Coca-Cola's vice president of sports marketing.
"We hope for him that he wins it," said Sam Moed of Bristol-Myers Squibb, one of Armstrong's first endorsement relationships that developed after he used the company's drugs in his battle against cancer. "He deserves the ultimate cap on the amazing athletic accomplishments. But what he represents and the impact he has on people is the reason why we believe our relationship is so special."
After all, Armstrong's best-selling book published in 2000 was called, "It's Not About The Bike," and Armstrong doesn't command the highest speaking engagement fee in all of sports by telling corporate executives about his cycling career.
The $200,000 appearance fee is partly due to the quality of his story as well as Armstrong's attempt to price himself out of the market as a result of a busy training schedule. It hasn't worked. This year, Armstrong will do at least five speech at top dollar, but also turn down just as many.
"He looks like the normal guy with a baseball cap, who happens to be one of the world's greatest athletes," Stapleton said. "He has become a symbol for never giving up and people love to reach out and touch him."
It is for this reason that even if Armstrong doesn't win a sixth Tour de France title, he may go down in history as the athlete with the most support from fans that never even watched him compete.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org