But how can Bolt’s marketability today match up to that of Lewis’ during the mid 1980s to early 1990s?
For some, such as MVP Track Club president Bruce James, the answer to that question lies in performance. In his opinion, Bolt has the advantage because he accomplished the more impressive feat.
“He has achieved what Carl Lewis did not achieve which is three gold medals and three world records at the Olympics,” James told Sunday Finance last week, referring to Bolt’s historical performance in the 100 meters, 200 metres and 4×100 metres relay.
For others, however, like financial consultant Dennis Chung, athletic ability is merely the first step and Bolt’s on-the-track performance in Beijing was just a small stepping stone for him in his quest for riches.
By no means is Bolt’s Olympic performance just a “small step” in the grand scheme of things when assessing financials. That performance gave Bolt on-the-track earning power that nobody in track and field has enjoyed for a long time – an almost guaranteed six-figure US dollar pay cheque for each race. Organisers of the ExxonMobil Bislett Games IAAF Golden League meet in Oslo, Norway, for instance, said they were prepared to pay Bolt more money than any other athlete has ever been paid to appear if he races there on July 3 this year. In 2001, those same organisers agreed to pay Olympic 100 metres champion Maurice Greene a US$75,000 appearance fee, so one can just imagine the amount that will be put on the table for Bolt. In addition to appearance fees, the prize for winning a race at a Golden League meet is US$16,000, so in hindsight, Bolt, at worst, is extremely comfortable financially.
However, despite the lofty sums of money on the Mundo, it is said that the bulk of an elite athletes’ earnings comes from off the track.
Chung said that while Bolt’s feat undoubtedly created unlimited potential for off-the-track business opportunities, his financial dreams will never be realised without an effective marketing team pulling the strings behind him.
“Bolt is far superior to Lewis in terms of his potential but the fact of the matter is that a lot was created around Lewis because of marketing,” noted Chung.
“We must understand that it’s not just about running,” he continued. “The (majority of the) money is not going to come from the performances.”
Chung doesn’t believe that Bolt is being marketed properly.
“When you look at a man like Bolt, who did such an amazing feat, the truth is that I don’t think he is being marketed (adequately),” said Chung. “If you look at Bolt (at the Olympics) and you look at him now, he really is still living off the accomplishment of that time and there is no real marketing around him.”
Bolt currently has endorsement deals with German apparel company Puma (worth US$1.5 million a year), mobile firm Digicel and Gatorade, the popular sports drink manufactured by Pepsi. The Boston Globe reported that he was recently in that northeast US city doing a photo shoot for Italian fashion label, Gucci. However, critics are not impressed and have openly questioned why Bolt is yet to endorse licencing his image for products such as food, games and toys.
“It really goes back to Usain Bolt and his management team to make that type of money by making the right decisions and choices,” said Hall of Fame former athlete Juliet Cuthbert. “I really don’t know everything that they’ve done, but I don’t think they’re making the right choices.”
Cuthbert, a three-time Olympic medallist, said based on Bolt’s potential, he should have already procured several US multimillion dollar endorsement contracts. But a major part of the problem, she believes, is the man himself – Bolt.
“With his personality, he could be making way more than what he’s earning now but he needs to polish up his act,” opined Cuthbert. “He needs to understand his marketability and until he does, he will never earn that US$10 million.”
Last week, Bolt escaped serious injury after he wrote off his J$15.3-million 2009 BMW M3 Coupe on the Vineyard Toll section of Highway 2000 in St Catherine, just three weeks after making controversial comments to a German newspaper on youthful marijuana use. But as Cuthbert pointed out, the market of sports endorsements is one where money and squeaky-clean public images go hand-in-hand. While performance is a prerequisite, looks, personality, lifestyle and communication skills are integral parts of the résumé companies seek when searching for product spokespersons.
“If he wants to earn US$10 million a year, he cannot be wreckless in anything that he is doing and he has to think before he goes out there in the public eye so he doesn’t do anything that can ruin his career,” Cuthbert said.
“Marion Jones, for example, was polished,” continued Cuthbert, in reference to the now disgraced US runner who was heavily endorsed before drug allegations surfaced. “That girl could talk and she was pretty, so people would make her endorse things.”
Indeed, Bolt’s fellow Olympic headliner Michael Phelps was dumped by cereal company Kellogg’s after photos surfaced of him smoking marijuana from a pipe. It is even argued by US sports marketers that Lewis, who won nine Olympic gold medals and a record eight World Championship titles, lost out on some valuable endorsement deals because of questions about his private life and his perceived ‘over-cockiness’ (His agent infamously claimed he was bigger than Michael Jackson).
Still, Lewis raked in a solid – if not impressive – range of endorsement contracts, from gracing the cover of Wheaties to selling burgers for McDonald’s. He was especially popular in Europe where he reportedly sold millions of copies of a recording album he produced. Against that background, it will be no easy feat for Bolt to shatter Lewis’ achievements financially, especially due to the fact that his emergence coincided with a downturn in the global economy.
“One of the things that is working against him is the fact that demand and economic activity is contracting,” noted Chung. “Therefore, the market that was out there for endorsements will not be there for a little while.”
The fact that Bolt is not American will also act as a constraint, explained Cuthbert.
“Bolt will have to do exceptionally well for Americans to endorse him,” she reasoned. “I think European companies will probably endorse him faster.”
However, all agree that Bolt is certainly in a position to raise the bar above that of ‘King Carl’, and, indeed, indicators are rife of Bolt’s far reaching and revolutionary marketing potential for the sport of track and field. For instance, in a new Gatorade commercial, he shares centre stage with the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Mia Hamm and other sports’ greats. Perhaps even more amazing, three-time Kentucky Derby winning US horse trainer Bob Baffert reportedly emulated Bolt’s ‘To di worl’ pose after his thoroughbred won a famous Cup.
“He can earn far in excess of the US$10 million he desires,” said Chung of Bolt, “if marketed effectively he should be getting all types of endorsement, movie contracts, watch deals etc”.