Tyson Gay has yet to make an Olympic team, but the 25-year-old sprinter has already lined up more than $2 million in endorsements from the likes of adidas, Omega, and Sega, which are betting big on the track star.
So when Gay crouches at the starting block in today's Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore., his agent, Mark Wetmore, a former Boston defense lawyer turned track-and-field marketing guru, will be nervously watching his top client from the stands.
Placing so much money on a first-time Olympic hopeful is a risky and unusual approach. Sports marketing analysts say the effort to sell Gay reflects a powerful convergence of forces this summer: Busi nesses looking to raise their profile in China and around the world during the 2008 Olympics are so eager to find a promising athlete untarnished by drugs that they're willing to make an advertising icon out of a relatively unknown sprinter.
Suddenly, the Kentucky native is everywhere: his face plastered on McDonald's bags and cups; his voice available to Alltel Wireless customers as a ringtone for their mobile phones; a clip of him winning a race featured in watchmaker Omega's commercials. Next month, weeks before the Aug. 8 start of the Olympics, Gay will appear on the cover of video game maker Sega's Beijing 2008: The Official Video Game of the Olympic Games.
"This is unusual to have such a flurry of signing by big companies wanting to use this guy. Clearly there is an anticipation that he's going to do well," said Matt Powell, an analyst with SportsOne Source, an industry news and information provider. "And businesses are casting about looking for the right kind of athlete - namely, one who hasn't done drugs."
There's obvious risk. Gay could have a bad day and not make the Olympic team.
"With the Olympics, it's always a crapshoot," said John Lewicki, McDonald's director of alliance marketing. "But we try to get some of the best athletes, and I think we have one with Tyson."
In 1992, Reebok spent millions on the TV campaign "Dan and Dave," featuring decathletes Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, both widely considered favorites for the gold. But then O'Brien failed to qualify for the team and Reebok had to adjust its commercials to feature O'Brien cheering on Johnson, who went on to snag the bronze medal.
Nonetheless, some companies clearly think they have found their winning athlete through Wetmore's firm, Global Athletics in Boston, a growing powerhouse in the marketing of track and field. Athletes represented by Wetmore's firm won seven gold medals at the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan. Gay took the gold in the 100 meters and the 200 meters and ran the third leg for the victorious US 4 x 100 meter relay team.
If Gay ends up taking home Olympic gold, he's destined to be a global sensation. That has made the build-up to this Olympics a whirlwind for the 44-year-old Wetmore, who quit his job as a criminal defense lawyer seven years ago and made Global Athletics a business now worth almost $15 million. It represents some of the highest-profile athletes in the world, including distance runner Meseret Defar of Ethiopia, who with Gay was awarded the 2007 Athlete of the Year, the highest honor of the International Association of Athletics Federations.
Global Athletics is also trying to raise track and field's profile, by managing more meets, getting them televised nationally, and aggressively lobbying businesses to put sponsorship dollars behind the firm's athletes. Sports marketers such as Wetmore, who was a middle-distance runner at Cornell, have helped USA Track & Field more than double its overall revenues since 1997, through larger sponsorships and increased television exposure.
At his South End brownstone office, where a large poster declaring Gay the "World's Fastest Man" is plastered in the front window, Wetmore said, "I'm nervous. This is huge for us. The biggest thing he can possibly do is win the Olympics in Beijing."
This pursuit is taking place against a darker backdrop of the sport. A day before Gay raced in the prestigious Reebok Grand Prix in New York in late May, the headlines featured track coach Trevor Graham's conviction for perjury in a case involving steroids and sprinter Justin Gatlin's appeal of his four-year ban for doping before the Court of Arbitration for Sport in New York. On Tuesday the arbitration court upheld the ban, denying Gatlin a chance to compete in the race.
Gay's appeal to sponsors, besides his obvious talent on the track, is his squeaky clean image. He's quiet and polite, a self-described "mama's boy," and a participant in "Project Believe," a new voluntary drug-testing program in which athletes agree to submit to additional testing by the United States Anti-Doping Agency, an independent group that polices Olympic-level athletes for prohibited substances. The tests are sometimes unannounced, including a recent visit while Gay was getting a massage.
"It's important. We need to build the trust back up in the sport," Gay said in a phone interview on Thursday from Eugene.
Wetmore is part of a group of athletic managers who recently agreed not to represent any athlete who is convicted of a doping violation that carries a two-year or longer ban. Wetmore, who signed Gay in May 2005, said it was Gay who volunteered for Project Believe, a decision that reflects greater accountability by athletes looking to rebuild the sport's reputation.
Over the past year, Wetmore and his Global Athletics team, including Rich Kenah, a 2000 Olympian at 800 meters and the company's director of marketing, have aggressively pursued big name sponsorships. In fashioning Gay into the new poster boy for track and field, they've had to weigh brand identities and ways to get the most bang out of the deals without overexposing their star - or derailing his training.
Over the past five months, Wetmore has sent Gay to video and photo shoots in Beijing, Athens, and Los Angeles, and to recording sessions in Houston for the Alltel Wireless ringtones, fitting in promotions with the sprinter's schedule of track meets and training.
"It's really hard because with five sponsors like he has, he still has to train every day. For him to fly to Beijing - it took a week out of his training," Wetmore said. "The hardest thing for us to do, with the incredible media demands on this guy, with sponsorship demands for him flying to Athens, flying to Beijing, we've had to say no to so much media it's almost unbelievable."
Four of his five major backers - adidas, Sega, Omega, and McDonald's - have official partnerships with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
"I feel some pressure," Gay said of the companies banking on him for an Olympic win. "But the sponsorships mean the world to me."
Alltel Wireless said it was approached by Global Athletics at the beginning of the year and together they worked out a deal unveiled in May. Alltel Wireless spokeswoman Lucie Pathmann said Gay's performance, combined with his personality, made him an easy sell as the company promotes its network.
"He has a hometown play with us. And he speaks to our brand very well - he's very disciplined, has a very humble personality," Pathmann said. "He's not too loud and boisterous. We felt he would be a good spokesperson for us."
Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com.