Article in February 9, 2000 issue of USA Today
By Bruce Horovitz
Michelle Kwan skates rings around most skaters. But she's never won
an Olympic gold medal.
That normally would be enough to send savvy marketers racing for the exits. Gold is godly. Silver is, well, second.
But today, Chevrolet will announce it has signed a multiyear endorsement deal -- estimated at more than $1 million -- with the 19-year-old skater. Chevrolet isn't the first marketer to figure out that, when it comes to Kwan, plenty of green can be made without the gold.
That's thanks chiefly to her performance off the ice. In the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Kwan was the odds-on favorite for the gold. But Tara Lipinski pulled off an upset when she became the first woman in Olympic history to perform a triple loop in combination with another triple loop.
The TV cameras immediately turned to Kwan for a reaction. She continued to smile -- and to express only positive things about the contest.
"Her style and grace in losing overpowered Tara's winning," says Rick Burton, sports marketing professor at the University of Oregon. "She touched the hearts of mothers around the world who thought: I want my daughter to be like that."
For years, Kwan has been reluctant to speak about her endorsement career. For the first time, Kwan spoke at length to USA TODAY about life outside the skating rink and inside the world of product hype. The interview came just days before Kwan's scheduled attempt Friday to retain her title at the National Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland.
"If I capitalized on everything that came my way, I would be a mess mentally," Kwan says. "Skating is my first love. Everything else is extra."
Kwan knows that a gold medal at the Salt Lake City Olympics two years from now could catapult her into the marketing stratosphere. But, surprisingly, that gold medal is no longer her life's ambition -- nor is the flood of new endorsements that likely would come with it.
"There's something that has to motivate you beyond the gold medal," she says. "I can't see this lifetime of hard work coming down to 6 1/2 minutes," she says, referring to the approximate combined length for her long and short Olympic skating programs.
"Life isn't about Olympic medals," Kwan says. "It's about growing as a person."
That's one reason she is enrolled at the University of California at Los Angeles. On campus, she says, she can sometimes forget her celebrity status. But off campus, she still has lots to accomplish. First, a win this weekend would mark her fourth national title. Then, she hopes to win back the World Figure Skating title next month in Nice, France. Kwan finished second last year to Russia's Maria Butyrskaya.
In the endorsement arena, sports marketers say, Kwan continues to amass fans. When 250 ad agency executives were asked to name the top 10 athletic endorsers of 1999, only one woman made the list: Kwan. She ranked ahead of basketball's Earvin "Magic" Johnson on the list, compiled by Burns Sports Celebrity Service.
Just ask Disney. Its ABC network has a four-year deal to feature Kwan in TV specials. And its Buena Vista Publishing division is publishing an eight- book series featuring Kwan.
Prior to the Nagano Olympics, Kwan appeared in ads for Campbell's Soup, United Airlines, Yoplait yogurt and Caress soap. Since then, she has managed to at least match Lipinski endorsement for endorsement.
Along with income from skating shows -- roughly $10,000 per night -- both Kwan and Lipinski are believed to earning more than $2 million each from endorsements annually.
Lipinski's current gigs include Charles Schwab and Snapple. Is there an endorsement rivalry with Kwan? Not exactly, says Robert Thorne, Lipinski's attorney and manager. "But Tara's the world's No. 1 skater. She's the first person most people call."
Lipinski turns down three out of four endorsement offers, he says, because she has a burgeoning Hollywood career to protect. Doing a car commercial wouldn't fit that Tinsel Town imagery, he says.
Lipinski has a recurring role as a pre-med student in the soap opera The Young and the Restless. And she expects to sign a film deal with a major Hollywood studio within a few months, says Thorne.
"She's a brand," says Thorne. "We do not want to dilute the brand."
Kwan, however, is a different kind of brand. Less Hollywood. More homegrown. As a first-generation American, born in Torrance, Calif., to Chinese-born parents, she is a multicultural All-American. And a New Age marketer's dream.
"Success is defined differently in women's athletics," says David Carter, sports business professor at the University of Southern California. "It's less about winning and more about how you perform."
Kwan reflects back on Nagano: "People were amazed to see me still smiling -- even though I didn't win. I became a role model to some that night. Here, I'd been chasing a dream since I was 5 years old and didn't achieve it. Yet I was still happy."
That's why, when Electronic Arts brought its first computer game -- aimed at young girls -- to market at Christmas, the company picked Kwan as its subject. "She's a class act," says Mitzi McGilvray, supervising producer at Electronic Arts. "She transcends the fact that she didn't win the gold."
Although the game sold well, it was not a mega-hit. And that, perhaps, illuminates Kwan's one marketing weakness: Her greatest appeal isn't to girls her age, but to women over 50.
At least that's what consumer surveys by the research firm Marketing Evaluations have shown the past two years. For products geared toward young girls, says President Steven Levitt, "you might be better off taking someone off a sitcom."
A good fit
But that rap has hardly hurt Kwan's endorsement career. Certainly not with Chevy, a U.S. figure skating sponsor since 1997. The company's Cavalier is trying to attract the attention of girls as young as 13, who are just starting to form opinions on cars, says Steve Wagg, Cavalier brand manager.
Almost 70% of Cavalier buyers are women. "She's a perfect demographic fit for us," says Wagg.
But Kwan mostly has been driving a Jeep the past few years. So why hawk Chevy?
Well, Kwan says, two years ago, General Motors -- a major Olympics sponsor -- gave her a red Cavalier for winning a competition. Kwan says she drove the Cavalier a lot and still drives it occasionally. What's more, she adds, "My Mom is always asking to drive it." So Kwan will keep the Cavalier. And she has traded in her Jeep and will soon be driving a black Chevy Blazer with tinted windows, supplied by General Motors.
"I go up to the mountains all the time to train," says Kwan . "It will come in handy."
But Kwan insists endorsements are not her goal. . "I never think about how to make more money," she insists.
Kwan recently turned down a lucrative offer by a major consumer products maker to endorse a feminine hygiene product. Why? She doesn't use the brand. "If someone offered me millions of dollars to quit skating, I couldn't do it," she says. Similarly, she says, she couldn't accept millions of dollars "to endorse a product I don't believe in."
When Buena Vista Publishing approached Kwan about a series about her life, she found it laughable. She couldn't imagine what they would fill the books with. "I wondered if they were going to write about every single day of my life," Kwan recalls.
Instead, Kwan suggested a series of fictional books that mostly advise girls how to make their dreams come true through hard work. Although her name and image will appear on the covers, the books won't be biographical.
The books are aimed at 8- to 12-year-old girls. "For this market, it's a positive that Michelle didn't win the gold medal," says Lisa Holton, senior vice president at Buena Vista Publishing. "A 10-year-old girl can learn from Michelle that you can fail at some things, but still succeed in life."
Kwan, who won her first competition at 7, has seen her life chronicled by the media since she was 13.
She is amazed by the dozens of fan-created Web sites that speculate on even the most mundane gossip about her life. Yes, it's true, she hates to be alone. She seldom sits and watches TV skating specials. And she studies with the music turned up high.
But to answer the one question her Web fans seem most eager to know: No, she doesn't have a boyfriend. "I haven't had a chance," she says. "I'm young. My Mom says someday they'll come running."