With the Winter Olympics quickly fading from view marketing experts are now measuring who, exactly, will emerge as the most potent star of Vancouver Games. While the answer depends largely on where you live, in the U.S. there’s little doubt that it’s snowboarder Shaun White, and the evidence proves it.
White’s gold medal performance in Vancouver was a ratings hit for NBC, who beat “American Idol” for the first time since 2004 during the night he competed. His Double McTwist 1260 was watched by more than 30 million viewers, 12 million more than the number who watched “Idol.” The spike during White’s big night was significant, given that the previous evening “Idol” beat the Olympics by almost 4 million viewers.
White’s popularity is nothing new. He skyrocketed to fame after winning gold in the Turin Games of 2006, and has kept the momentum going. While most Winter Olympic sports like skiing and speed skating go into a virtual TV blackout mode during non-Olympic years, the popularity of snowboarding in the U.S. keeps White’s name cycling through prime time.
Snowboarding is a pillar of the Winter X Games, which White has been dominating for years. But he also competes as a skateboarder at the Summer X Games, giving him year-round appeal. Ron Semiao, the creator and founder of X Games has an intimate understanding of White’s impact on the ratings. “He’s the one athlete that we can point to in our coverage where ratings go up when he’s competing,” he told USA Today. “It’s very quantifiable.”
Like Tony Hawk before him, White has parlayed his Gen Y celebrity status into his own video game, clothing line, and numerous endorsement deals with companies like American Express, Target, HP computers and Red Bull energy drinks. According to Fast Company magazine writer Chris Wilson, White is the hot ticket for reaching the young male demographic because he’s authentic, he understands the value of his brand, and he understands how endorsements work together.
Demand for White’s time was going through the roof even before he left for Vancouver. Bob Simon of 60 minutes did a full feature on White before the games. NBC considered him one their biggest marketing draws. Now, post-Games, he’s already on the coveted Wheaties cereal box and the cover of Rolling Stone and ESPN magazines. He’s the hot item on the talk show circuit, with Leno, Oprah, Regis and Kelly, Steve Colbert and even Rachel Ray getting in on the action.
But it was White’s recent trip to Wall Street that speaks volumes. Investors are undoubtedly exploring ways to cash in on his good fortune. White rang the closing bell of the NYSE on February 23. It was a down day for the market, but not for him.
Of course, the political class would like to draft off of his popularity, too. President Obama marveled at White’s private training ground in Colorado during a stump speech for Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, while Sarah Palin gushed about White, who she starred with on Jay Leno’s return to the “Tonight Show” Tuesday night.
Marketing experts also see White’s success and popularity as another indicator of the shifting landscape in sports. Though snowboarding has only been in the Olympics since 1998 it’s already one of the most popular of The Games, and there are rumblings of the IOC adding another snowboarding discipline called slopestyle, another hit of the X Games, where boarders take to a large course with rail features and huge jumps.
Al Michaels and Bob Costas summed it up best during their wrap of Olympic’s coverage. After admitting their lack of in-depth knowledge on snowboarding, the two legendary sportscasters laughed joked about what the future might hold, Michaels, the famous Miracle On Ice caller, told Costas, “We’ll be doing Saturday Night Snowboarding soon enough.”
Shaun White doesn’t need to explain how much marketing power he has after his most recent round of success. Photo: Polk via Getty Images.