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Alpine skiing: Vonn's stock is sky high in the risk business

By Steve Keating

LAKE LOUISE, Alberta (Reuters) - The downhill is very much a high risk, high reward business and American speed queen Lindsey Vonn was reminded again of the price you pay for success on the alpine World Cup ski circuit.

One minute last week a radiant Vonn is sitting in the posh Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise with music thumping and television lights shining for the splashy unveiling of her new signature line of winter wear for Under Armour.

The next she is lying in a tangled heap having careered through three sets of safety netting following a nasty crash during the first downhill of the World Cup season.

This time, Vonn escaped unscathed.

That, however, has not always been the case for the 33-year-old who has become the most successful women's ski racer of all-time, amassing a record 77 victories between multiple broken bones, surgeries and grueling rehabilitations.

"I understand the risk, I understand I am putting my life at risk every time I am skiing down the mountain but I love what I do," Vonn told Reuters while sitting on a couch surrounded by mannequins wearing her collection.

"I love skiing, I love being out on the mountain it makes me smile every time I am in the starting gate.

"If something happens, that's life, that's what is meant to be.

"You fall you get back up, you put it behind you."

It is that defiance and fearless resilience that has become the trademark of the Vonn brand and attracted a portfolio of sponsors that includes Under Armour, Red Bull and Head skies.

Each of the pieces in the Vonn collection is named for a milestone win in her career but could have just as easily recalled a devastating crash.

According to designer Nick Cienski, Vonn had considerable input into the look of the line but the most revealing item may have been the simplest, a black camo long sleeve shirt with the message, "The Rise. The Fall. The Comeback" stenciled across the back.

"She is a marketer's dream," Robert Prazmark, a former consultant with the IOC and USOC and now President and CEO of 21 Sports and Entertainment Marketing Group, told Reuters. "She is a very interesting blend.

"Aside from being extremely successful she has the added benefit of being a tad edgy, in an edgy sport which adds to mystique.

"That is one of the reasons Red Bull likes the association because she is living on the edge.

"Lindsey Vonn is an established star, she's managed her brand extremely well, she's stayed out of trouble, she's got celebrity status, all over social media and she straddles sports and entertainment."

As recognizable on the red carpet as she is on the ski hill it is that crossover appeal that has made Vonn her sport's most popular athlete and left her poised to challenge for a podium place on Forbes annual ranking of top women earners.

TENNIS DOMINATES

That list, topped last year by Serena Williams with an income of $27 million, is dominated by tennis players, who occupy eight of the top 10 spots, the other two places going to mixed martial arts star Ronda Rousey and motor racing driver Danica Patrick.

Vonn, who did not compete in the Sochi Games because of injury, was ranked as the third highest earning athlete at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, pulling in $3 million.

Eight years later, Vonn will once again head to an Olympics as the face of the U.S. team, the athlete broadcaster NBC and other media outlets will build and promote their coverage around.

“Lindsey Vonn is one of the most marketable female athletes on the planet, but she has little chance of finishing ahead of the top women tennis players in terms of annual earnings,” said Kurt Badenhausen who is a staff editor at Forbes Media and editor of Forbes’ Highest-Paid Athletes list.

“Vonn has reached the top of her sport, but there is much more money to be made in tennis than skiing with apparel companies paying out lucrative bonuses for top rankings and grand slam titles.

"Although, the Olympics and her new Under Armour line give Vonn a chance to rank among the top five highest-paid female athletes.”

Vonn's biggest challenge for another Olympic gold and the marketing spotlight may well come from inside the U.S. ski team from rising star 22-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, who recently collected her 33rd World Cup win. At the same age Vonn had seven World Cup wins.

Shiffrin may well leave Pyeongchang as the Games Golden Girl but going in it is Vonn wearing the crown.

Even after the Olympics Vonn's marketing potential looks set to skyrocket as she targets Ingemar Stenmark's all-time World Cup record of 86 wins with an intriguing Battle of Sexes on the horizon if the International Ski Federation gives her the all clear to compete against men in a World Cup race next season.

"If I continue to have success, if I continue to have a good support system around me to make sure I can do everything I need to do I think I could potentially ski longer," Vonn said.

"It's just depends basically on my knee, that's really the tipping point and right now it is holding up well but in two years I'm not sure how it will be."

(Editing by Ed Osmond)