There will be some awkward moments for Coke, Visa

Updated: February 13, 2006, 12:53 PM ET
By Darren Rovell | ESPN.com

It's not as bad as when decathlete Dan O'Brien failed to make the Olympics after Reebok mounted an entire campaign around his battle with fellow American Dave Johnson, but there's no doubt that Michelle Kwan's withdrawal from the Olympics is a marketing disaster.

Kwan is the lead athlete and one of four Olympians in Coca-Cola's marketing campaign, and one of 15 athletes included in Visa's program. Visa spokesman Michael Rolnick told ESPN.com on Sunday that commercials featuring Kwan, which were scheduled to debut Monday, will still run as planned. The 25-year-old figure skater is featured in a 30-second spot with multiple athletes and also has an individual 15-second spot. That commercial features actual footage from the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"The spots are still a great demonstration of the company's new brand positioning," Rolnick said. "While we would have loved for Michelle to have done well, this doesn't dramatically impact our sponsorship."

Still, if Kwan ads run as scheduled, it will be an awkward moment for the company, which has paid at least $60 million this quadrennial for the right to use the Olympic rings with its advertising.

But Visa is better off than Coke. Sure, the credit-card company mailed out many Kwan posters to vendors, but the majority of their materials and ads feature snowboarder Lindsay Jacobellis.

Kwan's image is associated with many of Coca-Cola's brands through in-store promotions and commercials featuring an all-male cheerleading team rooting for her to win.

"We are proud of Michelle for embodying the Olympic spirit," Coca-Cola spokesperson Susan McDermott said. "Just as it takes a champion to win, it takes the courage of a champion to step down. But in light of the fact that Michelle is no longer competing, we will no longer be airing those spots."

McDermott said on Monday that one ad with Kwan's name will continue to run throughout the games. "Without ice, Apolo would be a speed swimmer, Michelle would be a water skater and our Cokes would be warm," the ad says.

Last month, Kwan was named the most marketable Olympian in a poll, commissioned by Sports Business Daily, of more than 200 sports executives. Kwan took 33 percent of the vote, followed by Bode Miller and Sasha Cohen.

The problem with marketing Olympians is that they come out of nowhere, and by the time they win a gold medal, they are forgotten, absorbed by the NBA playoffs or a horse making a run at the Triple Crown. With that in mind, it's easy to see why Kwan was the best marketing bet of the Olympics. People know her, she has that golden smile, and over the course of her career she has upheld a squeaky clean reputation.

Although she hasn't won gold at the Olympics (she won silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002), Kwan is a legend in the sport, having won five World Championships and nine U.S. titles. She pulled out of the U.S. trials but was named to the team by a five-member panel. The decision was met with great controversy.

"If Peyton Manning can't compete in the AFC championship game, he doesn't get a bye to the Super Bowl," former figure skater Scott Hamilton told The Miami Herald.

But the pressure was immense. Some likened the panel's call to handing out a lifetime achievement award. Others realized the immediate business pressures. Having the recognizable Kwan in the most popular Olympics event could only be good for NBC, and the added drama could only be better for ratings.

Taking home gold could have meant a huge payday for Kwan, but dropping out isn't a huge loss for her. She has already earned millions in endorsements based on her consistency over the years.

The best value in figure skating now could be Kwan's replacement, Emily Hughes, sister of gold medalist Sarah Hughes. With virtually no pre-Games hype, Sarah won the gold four years ago and cashed in on endorsement deals and motivational speeches.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.Rovell@espn3.com.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter