Lance Armstrong's talents extend far beyond his bike. He has parlayed his incredible athletic skills -- including a record seven-consecutive Tour De France victories -- and reputation as a tenacious, gracious cancer-survivor into a global brand that continues to grow.
Take this year's Tour. Armstrong is back with a vengeance (a potentially disastrous flat tire, notwithstanding) for his second consecutive season in France after a three-year hiatus. But even his "retirement" couldn't slow him down -- Forbes.com recently ranked him as the most influential athlete in the United States. In researching the rankings, the magazine found that more than half of all Americans recognize Lance Armstrong's name. Nearly one-third view him as "influential." And 46 percent "like him a lot."
The $20 Million Man
Armstrong brings home an estimated $20 million each year in prize winnings and endorsements, putting him on par with the country's top athletes, most of whom compete in far more popular sports like football and baseball.
"Americans love winners," said Robert Tuchman, executive vice president of Premiere Global Sports. "He personally dominated a sport that has been dominated by non-Americans throughout history. Armstrong has allowed cycling to put a face on its product."
And the product is booming. There's non-stop coverage of the Tour de France on television and online. Versus, Comcast's national sports channel, (CMCSA) is providing 14 hours of TV coverage daily in full high-definition over the course of 23 days. Armstrong retired in 2005 after winning seven straight Tours, before making his comeback in 2009, finishing third. Versus saw its average viewership grow 98% to 529,926 in 2009 from 267,722 in 2008, according to Nielsen Media Research data.
Armstrong is an online and off force. His Twitter account has 2.5 million followers. And Armstrong hobnobs with ex-president Bill Clinton and music legend Bono. In addition bicycle product sponsorships, he shills for household names such as Nike (NKE), Nissan (NSANY) and Michelob beer.
He Always Had One Eye on Marketing
Dave Scott, a six-time Ironman World Champion, used to race against Armstrong in the 1980s. Even then Scott could see the wheels spinning for the teenage athlete.
"He'd pick races that were popular and where sponsors would show up," said Scott, who runs a Boulder, Colo. company that specializes in fitness consultations. "He was cocky, brash and one hell of a rider."
Scott considers Armstrong a marketing icon. He has transcended the sport of cycling, Scott said. Armstrong's very public battle with cancer in 1996 made him a household name.
"He touches the lay-person like no other athlete," Scott said. "Not only did he survive, but he came back and won the Tour de France, seven times." Marketers couldn't write a better story.
Along the way Armstrong never forgot what he went through. Nike has sold more than 70 million of its yellow LiveStrong bracelets, inspired by Armstrong, and the LiveStrong Foundation has raised $325 million for cancer research.
And what about this latest comeback, is it just another marketing move? Scott, at the age of 40, returned to the storied Ironman race after five years off only to finish second. He knows the challenges of being a champion, taking time off and then returning.
"Lance has mellowed over the years, but as soon as he gets on his bike, he's a ferocious competitor and I guarantee everyone in that race knows he's a contender to win," Scott said. "Either way, this is not the end of the Lance story."
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