Downhill skiing champion Lindsey Vonn’s withdrawal from the Sochi Olympics because of an injury deprives broadcaster NBC and sponsors of the most recognizable U.S. athlete a month before the games begin in Russia.
“How do we adjust? We change a little bit of our promotion, we look for another story,” NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus said at a news conference in New York. “We will miss her. We wish we still had Lindsey there, but we don’t.”
NBC Universal in June 2011 agreed to pay $4.38 billion to retain Olympic broadcast rights through 2020, including $2 billion for Sochi and the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Lazarus said Vonn’s place in NBC promotions leading up to the Feb. 7-23 Sochi Games could be taken by U.S. skiers such as Julia Mancuso and Ted Ligety, or U.S. snowboarder Shaun White, or teams such as the U.S. and Canadian hockey squads.
“There isn’t an Olympics where stories and athletes don’t emerge,” said Gary Zankel, president of NBC Olympics. “Stars are made and born during the Olympic Games.”
Vonn’s absence could clear the way for the emergence of a young woman skier such as 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin of the U.S., the reigning world champion in the slalom. She already has two World Cup victories in the slalom this season.
“It’s hard to swallow that Lindsey Vonn won’t be competing in Sochi, but I’m incredibly impressed at her determination,” Shiffrin said yesterday in a Twitter post. “She’s a true hero.”
Bob Dorfman, executive director at San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising, said Shiffrin “looks like Lindsey Vonn’s little sister.”
“She’s up and coming, has won a couple of events recently, so she definitely has the skiing chops,” he said in a telephone interview. “This does kind of open the door for her. Everybody is always looking for the next big thing.”
Vonn, 29, a four-time World Cup overall champion and the top-earning U.S. skier in history, said yesterday in a Facebook post that she will have surgery to repair her right knee.
The announcement came seven weeks after she hurt her surgically repaired knee in a training accident, saying it is too unstable for competition. Vonn tore her anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in February and then re-injured the knee on Nov. 19. She returned to competition two weeks later, finishing 40th at Lake Louise, Alberta.
“I did everything I possibly could to somehow get strong enough to overcome having no ACL, but the reality has sunk in that my knee is just too unstable to compete at this level,” Vonn said.
“While this is certainly a blow given her notoriety and familiarity to fans, the Olympics always seems to benefit from - - if not create -- new stars and media darlings,” David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said in an e-mail. “Other compelling stories will emerge, and they will gain traction with fans and consumers.”
Lazarus said at yesterday’s news conference the network had not yet spoken with Vonn about doing television work in Sochi, adding that “if she wanted to have that discussion, we would welcome that discussion.”
Dorfman said “there’s a 99 percent chance” that Vonn will be working for NBC during the Olympics.
“Even if she’s on crutches, you’re going to see her a lot,” he said. “Whether she’s working as an analyst at events or as a free-roaming reporter doing features in the Olympic Village during the games, she’s just too attractive and too much of a celebrity and a personality for NBC to let her slip away.”
With less than a month remaining before the Olympics, corporate marketing efforts for Vonn and other athletes are already in “full go-mode” and are unlikely to be affected, according to Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse University.
“What will be really interesting is whether or not we see a ratings slippage,” Burton said in a telephone interview. “That’s hard to predict based on whether or not she was going to be competitive. Had she gone but not been competitive, NBC would have been trying to capture some of the heartache, trying to spin a story of how heroic she was in trying to go on a bad leg.”
The absence of Vonn, who also has gained fame by dating world No. 1 ranked golfer Tiger Woods, will leave Comcast Corp.’s NBC working to create a new fan favorite, Burton said.
“Someone has to be developed as a media darling,” Burton said. “They’ve got a month to get ready to get her replacement, who hopefully for them is photogenic and at least a top-10 skier to build a story around.”
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