- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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Serena Williams answered the question that everyone else was dodging: Given reports out of Athens, was she concerned about security issues in the very birthplace of the Modern Olympic Games? So she mused aloud about the importance of sports, the value of life and the prudence of competing in the Olympics amid the shadow of terrorism. "I think," she said simply, "my security and my life is a little more important than tennis."
The context was in the hypothetical -- "I'm 100 percent planning on going to Athens," she reiterated the next day -- but the stir that her comments created continues to ripple as the Olympic's opening ceremonies move ever closer, now 100 days and counting down.
If the $1 billion that has been budgeted for security in Athens is illustrative of the seriousness placed on the threat of terrorism, then a $170 million insurance policy is reflective of the financial vulnerability that Olympic officials feel should the Game be canceled.
The Olympics remains among the most marketable events, in or out of sports. NBC, alone, has spent $800 million for the television rights that begin with the opening ceremonies on Aug. 13 and conclude with the closing ceremonies on Aug. 29. Well-known companies, from Coca-Cola and McDonald's to VISA and Xerox, have paid an estimated $50 million for the right to brand themselves as "TOP partners for the 2004 Athens Olympic Games." The staggering cost, it has been rationalized, is a small price to pay when weighed against the potential to cash in on the enormous value associated with the Olympic rings and the ideal of swifter, higher, stronger.
So when one star-powered athlete hinted that she would consider skipping this summer's Games, perhaps every person and every company with a vested interested had to be concerned. Were other athletes weighing the same questions in their minds?
To their credit, company officials say they have not pressured either athletes for a commitment to compete in Athens or Olympics officials about the readiness of the host city, which has struggled to meet deadlines on the infrastructure and construction of several key venues.
"The companies I endorse don't put pressure on me," said American swimmer Michael Phelps, who is expected to dominate the headlines from Athens. "I have a goal in mind and it's to bring back a medal from Athens and represent my country as best as I can."
It is the traditional Olympic athlete like Phelps, who trains in virtual obscurity for the chance to realize their athletic goals only once every four years, whom marketing executives are worried least about whether they will show up in Athens. The Olympics means not only a shot at a gold medal but also the brass ring of endorsements.
For Phelps, there is a $1 million bonus that Speedo is offering if he equals Mark Spitz's record of seven gold medals in a single Olympics, a pursuit of history that also has helped him land endorsement deals with Visa, Omega watches, AT&T and Argent. That is a motivation that does not exist for athletes like Williams who already have struck their riches in the professional arena.
"When the Dream Team plays basketball, you know for somebody who has (a) bigger professional league, bigger opportunities, an Olympic medal is nothing more than a souvenir for them," swimmer Gary Hall, an eight-time Olympic medalist, told Sports Business Radio in April. "But in sports like swimming it is the pinnacle of a lifetime of work and we do not have the luxury or to say 'Ah, the Olympic Games, I can blow it off this year.' "
Indeed, it's a different game for professional athletes who have more of a choice whether to make an appearance at the Games, assuming the sport's governing body wants them to go. "Companies prioritize events that they want the athlete to show up to and the priority depends on what sport you play," said Keven Davis, who represents Serena and Venus Williams for their marketing deals.
And for a highly ranked tennis player like Serena, who pulls in more than $13 million a year in endorsements, participation in the Grand Slam tennis events are more important than the Olympics, often because a company like Nike uses the four major tournaments each year to debut a new outfit that will hit stores.
So while Andy Roddick, the reigning U.S. Open men's champion, said if he were to win only one tennis tournament in 2004 he'd want it to be the Olympics, there is Kim Clijsters, ranked second among women's tennis players in the world, who has decided she won't represent Belgium in the Games because the national team has a deal with adidas. Clijsters has a sponsorship deal with Fila. "The clothing deal was one thing, but security was a thing for me as well," she admitted in an interview with BBC News Online this week.
"If you partner with an Olympian you expect them to be at the Games," said Coca-Cola spokesperson Susan McDermott. "For athletes we have that are already signed like LeBron James, we have a partnership with him because he's an NBA player. If he goes to the Olympic Games that would be a bonus, but it's not an expectation."
Officials with Argent, a mortgage company that is sponsoring Phelps as well as the rest of the U.S. swim team, declined to comment about Olympic expectations they might have of athletes. Michael Lynch, senior vice president of event and sponsorship marketing for Visa, said the company puts "absolutely no pressure on the athlete to show up."
"Obviously we are using them in all of our marketing materials and the like," said Lynch, who has signed more than 10 Olympic athletes Visa hopes will represent their brand in Athens. "If low and behold, they pop, that's a big win that exists for everyone involved."
Phelps is already featured on millions of pieces of Visa-branded promotions, Lynch said.
Adidas is an official Olympic sponsor that will outfit 700 U.S. Olympic team athletes and 300 coaches in addition to supplying uniforms to the entire Athens 2004 work force. Two of its spokespeople San Antonio Spurs center Tim Duncan and Orlando Magic power forward Tracy McGrady will suit up for the U.S. men's basketball team. However, the company's third major NBA shoe endorser, 2003-04 NBA MVP Kevin Garnett, who received a formal invitation to play for the team in March, is not expected to accept.
Garnett's exclusion will not have a major impact on adidas' business because the company doesn't focus its basketball business at the Games.
"The Olympics play a very limited role in our overall basketball business," adidas spokesperson Travis Gonzolez said. Gonzolez said the company will debut a basketball shoe specific to the Olympics in limited quantities.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Olympics means not only a shot at a gold medal but also the brass ring of endorsements.