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How Lindsey Vonn's Olympics-Ending Injury Can Be Turned Into a Positive

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Lindsey Vonn is officially out of this year's Winter Olympics. The skiing superstar earlier this week announced on her Facebook page that she will have right knee surgery, ending her bid to win a second gold medal in the Games' downhill event. While the loss of Vonn certainly hurts, does it affect her sponsors? Equally as important, does she have a backup plan?

The sponsors
It's no secret the 29-year old Vonn has her fair share of endorsement deals. From Oakley to Under Armour (NYSE: UA  ) , a number of companies have marketing campaigns tied to the skier, so it's natural to wonder if they're stung by her injury.

According to some experts, it won't hurt one bit. Rob Prazmark, the founder of 21 Marketing and a notable figure in the Olympic world, told USA Today that, "It is not that devastating to sponsors," adding, "I think everybody was somewhat forewarned so I think everybody already has a plan B." 

By this, Prazmark is alluding to the fact that Vonn suffered tears to her ACL and MCL early last year, so none of her endorsements were centered on a sense of 'athletic indestructibility.'

The message
On the contrary, some marketers even use her injury history to signify how their products stand for recovery. Rolex's official blurb on Vonn, found on its corporate website, is a great example:

Bumps and bruises could never temper years of desire. The spirit of a champion and an iron will conquer all. The world's most talented female skier reminds herself that when you fall down, you pick yourself up. All the way to the top of the mountain.

Rolex, by association, stands for determination and resilience. This is a clever way to market an injury-prone athlete, and Rolex isn't the only one. 

Procter & Gamble's  (NYSE: PG  ) "Thank You, Mom" ad campaign focuses on Vonn's inspirational qualities rather than her on-course performance, and Red Bull's magazine photo shoot highlights her... um, aesthetic qualities.

Source: The Associated Press.

Meanwhile, Under Armour's "Makes You Better" ads, which do emphasize Vonn's athletic ability, are about to wrap up and no changes will be made despite her injury, a company spokeswoman told me.

The timing
Herein lies another important point: The Winter Olympics are less than a month away, so it's nearly impossible to change anything even if marketers want to. This is a sentiment echoed by Rick Burton, a luminary in sports academia. The Syracuse University professor recently told Bloomberg that sponsorships are now in "full-go mode" and probably won't be tweaked.  

If Vonn's endorsement deals were focused on her ability to stay healthy, it might be a different story. Most of her partners, though, appear to have recognized that she could reinjure herself in the future, and worked around that possibility. Besides, now that Vonn is on the sidelines, there's another way she can get even more Olympic exposure.

The backup plan
If media speculation is to be believed, it's possible she'll move to the broadcast booth. Earlier this week, Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA  )   (NASDAQ: CMCSK  )  NBC Sports told reporters it "would welcome [the] discussion" of Vonn serving as a TV analyst, but no talks have occurred yet.

If she does join the NBC team, it would make sense. The network has already hired former figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, and it plans to give a role to tennis great Maria Sharapova. Speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, who arguably has as much star power as Vonn, will be in the NBC booth as well. The inclusion of Vonn would allow her to remain a prominent figure in all skiing events. But it would not give her sponsors more publicity in the process.

Steve Smith, a partner at Bryan Cave LLP who has advised a number of Team USA sponsorship agreements, points out that the International Olympic Committee "has a very strict policy of non-advertising at, and during, the Games ... so, she could not wear a jacket while on the air that promotes any of her sponsors." 

Still, if Vonn does join NBC, the expert says he sees "huge upside" for her in terms of public perception because "people will identify with her." But, according to Smith, that doesn't mean everything will be a cakewalk for her publicists.

Maybe the tougher question is: How do you keep her relevant after the games, when new champions have been crowned? That's where her handlers will have to earn their money…. If done right, she should have a long run with sponsors among the public.

It's all downhill from here
For Lindsey Vonn, the worst is over. She can now begin to move on from the distress caused by her decision to pull out of the Olympics, and through the power of television, the experience can even be turned into a positive. While her sponsors won't get any exposure from such a move, I expect they'll continue to focus on Vonn's appeal off the slopes in their advertising campaigns.

As Steve Smith explains, viewers will likely fall in love with the skier all over again if she joins the NBC broadcast booth because of her story. It's happened with athletes in the past, and the Olympian-turned-commentator narrative already looks to be in play this year with the likes of Apolo Anton Ohno and Nancy Kerrigan. Why not Vonn?

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Jake Mann

Jake Mann covers sports, economics and politics for the Motley Fool.

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