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Turning medals into dollars tricky for Canadian Olympians

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It's a different world -- or income bracket -- for Canada's shining stars of the Games.

Chances are, you have read about America's gold medal-winning figure skater, Evan Plysacek, planning to splurge on a $270,000 Aston Martin. Snowboarder Shaun White and alpine skiers Bode Miller and Lindsey Vonn are expected to cash in. In Canada, there was speculation the country's first gold medalist of the game, mogulist Alexandre Bilodeau, could hit the $1 million mark in endorsements. Reading that lends itself to getting carried away.

"You have compelling stories coming out the Olympics, unfortunately for amateur athletes, companies use athletes less than they have in the past," says Bob Stellick, of Stellick Marketing & Communications in Toronto. "The tendency is to use the same people more. If you look at Sidney Crosby for endorsements in Canada, he's the chosen. [Fellow NHL superstar] Alex Ovechkin has virtually nothing in Canada.

"I've heard people say Bilodeau, who's a great story, might get more than a million dollars," Stellick adds. "But who's going to be creating a winter sports-oriented national adverstising campaign next year?"

For major ad campaigns, companies prefer a known quantity. "If you have to put a graphic at the bottom of the screen with the name of the athlete, you've got the wrong athlete," Stellick says.

The influence of the U.S., along with the 24/7 media focus the Games gets during its 17-day run, causes people to, in Stellick's phrasing, "way overestimate" what is out there for Canadian athletes. It's a reality of a country with 33 million people, about one-10th the U.S. population. The scope is smaller. For instance, Kyle Shewfelt struggled to find endorsements after the Athens Games in 2004, despite winning the country's first gold medal in gymnastics.

A common deal-breaker, as Keith McIntyre, of K-Mac & Associates in Burlington, Ontario, puts it, is "regularity." How often are some of these sports featured in the traditional media? How rare was the feat?

In those respects, Tessa Virtue and her skating partner, Scott Moir, who won the country's first ice dancing gold medal Monday, should command both appearance fees and endorsements following the Games.

"Figure skating is still a very popular sport that gets a lot of attention," says McIntyre, who has worked on advertising campaigns involving Canada's previous golden couple, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. "You have the international scene, Skate America, Skate Canada.

"From a peer marketing perspective, companies that are looking to reach women, you’ll probably see them getting something. They're attractive [skating] couple, what they have accomplished is an excellent feat. She'll have an opportunity, probably in the area of cosmetics, skin care, health and beauty products.

Virtue, 20, and Moir, 22, have more going for them than looks. During the free skate, CTV showed repeated shots of a packed community center in Moir's hometown of Ilderton, Ontario. That may give them appeal outside of their boutique sport.

"You could tell exactly what quality of people they are when [CTV] cut away to show that community center full of people screaming. It looked like that Middle America, Middle Canada, it felt like that really great small-town Ontario.

"Part of the opportunity they have is Ontario does not send many people to the Olympics."

Bilodeau, who's from Quebec, where winter-sport athletes get mainstream attention -- should do well. McIntyre puts his post-Games income in the $250,000-$500,000 neighborhood. Medalists at multiple Olympics also have higher name recognition, which bodes well for silver-winning Jennifer Heil, who won gold in Turin.

"With Bilodeau, he has that positioning of being the first Canadian to win on home soil," McIntyre says. "Jennifer Heil is the other one. Jenn’s had great, great success with Aveeno [a skin care product]. Alex will definitely have the opportunity. He's in skiing, so that's good for appealing to a younger market. He is a younger kid [age 22]. I know for a fact there's a lot of potential interest, he could have 4-5 deals in place."

What about Jeff Montgomery, the wild-and-crazy guy who won gold in men's skeleton? Marketing experts are cautious about the endorsement possibilities for the energetic men's skeleton champion, although he is set to appear on The Oprah Winfrey Show today.

Virtue and Moir likely have a higher profile outside of Olympic years. Alpine and freestyle skiers, such as Bilodeau and Heil, have natural product tie-ins -- sportswear, equipment, skis. (Both men spoke a couple hours before Ashleigh McIvor won a gold medal in ski cross.)

"There’s a lot of winter sports, where if you put them on TV and it doesn’t say Olympics, people might wonder what they are," says Stellick.

Montgomery, with his auctioneer's gift of gab and everyman vibe, might have better luck with corporate speaking engagements. Past medalists --hockey's Cassie Campbell-Pascall, speed skater Catriona Le May Doan and rower Marnie McBean to name a few -- give talks tying their personal journey with a broader message about, say, active living or overcoming adversity. Perfecting a 20-minute talk for $5,000-$8,000 a pop can provide a steady income.

"He’s a telegenic, interesting guy," Stellick says of Montgomery. "He might be able to get good speaking gigs. He is going to have to work for it."

Put another way, after the Games are over, the hard work is just getting started for many Canadian medalists.

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