Lindsey Vonn’s absence from next year’s Olympics would be a big blow for Comcast Corp.’s (CMCSA:US) NBC unit -- and an opportunity.
The attempt by the 29-year-old American to defend her Olympic downhill skiing gold medal is in jeopardy after she reinjured a surgically repaired ligament in her right knee in a training crash two days ago at Copper Mountain, Colorado.
Vonn is being marketed as the biggest star of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and it’s in the best interest of U.S. Olympic broadcast rights holder NBC and her sponsors to keep her that way, while recognizing other promotional avenues for her, said Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at San Francisco’s Baker Street Advertising.
“Considering that Vonn is being called ‘the face of the Sochi Games,’ not competing would be rather disastrous for her and her marketers,” Dorfman said in an e-mail. “If she doesn’t compete, I guarantee NBC will give her plenty of face time: in the broadcasting booth for ski events, as a roving reporter in the Olympic Village, ‘Today’ show correspondent, anywhere and everywhere.”
Dan Masonson, a spokesman for NBC, declined in an e-mail to comment on a possible role for Vonn with the network. NBC has hired two-time Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir to commentate on the sport at the games, while Maria Sharapova will be an NBC reporter, Forbes said Nov. 13. The tennis player, 26, was born in Siberia and moved with her family to Sochi when she was 2.
Vonn is the top-earning U.S. skier in history, and her sponsorship deals with companies including Procter & Gamble Co. (PG:US), Under Armour Inc., (UA:US) Red Bull GmbH and Rolex Group are worth about $2.5 million a year, Dorfman said. After winning the downhill at the Vancouver Winter Olympics, the St. Paul, Minnesota, native became a household name in the U.S., even appearing on NBC’s “Law & Order” television show.
Vonn was planning to defend the title when the Winter Olympics begin in 78 days, even after tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in her right knee and breaking a bone just below the joint in a February crash at the world championships.
The four-time World Cup overall champion, who has won six straight downhill season titles, reinjured the ACL, strained her right knee and sustained minor facial cuts and shoulder bruises in the spill during a Nov. 19 training run at the U.S. Ski Team’s Speed Center, according to a statement from agent Lewis Kay.
“She needs to rest for a few days and then will pursue physical therapy and will determine the next time she is able to compete after seeing how she responds to the treatment,” Kay said in the statement.
A partial ACL tear can be the same thing as a strained knee ligament, and if it’s a mild strain Vonn could be fully healed in a month, according to James Gladstone, an orthopedic surgeon at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.
“She rehabs very well because having had the surgery in March or February, she was potentially going to race her first World Cup race this coming week, which is only eight months out,” said Gladstone, co-chief of sports medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine, who is not personally familiar with Vonn’s case. “That right there is incredible, so if anyone has a chance to come back, I would think it would certainly be her.”
Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said that if Vonn can’t come back, NBC should be concerned about losing one of its biggest storylines: Her recovery from a horrendous injury, not to mention her dating top-ranked golfer Tiger Woods.
“I’d be surprised if NBC hasn’t already spoken to her agent to say that if she isn’t competing, we’d like her in the booth broadcasting for us,” Burton said. “Her sponsors have probably hedged themselves because of the severity of her injury.”
Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said Vonn’s absence from the slopes probably wouldn’t prove critical to NBC’s ratings, since she’s still likely to be heavily featured in the telecast.
“Lindsey is an important part of the Olympic story in 2014, but won’t make or break NBC’s broadcast,” Swangard said in an e-mail. “Let’s hope she is on the slopes where she belongs, but I expect her to be in Sochi either way as an important face to the U.S. Olympic squad.”
Even if Vonn is not able to get into competition shape before the Olympics, her attractiveness and personality may mean she’s just as big an asset on the sidelines, Dorfman said.
“She’s way too valuable -- both on the slopes and off,” he said. “She’s easily the most recognizable American female going into the games, a proven gold medalist, glamorous as well as talented, charismatic and comfortable on camera and, thanks to her relationship with Tiger Woods, an A-list celebrity.”
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