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Gold medalist doesn't rush into deals

Shea takes time picking endorsements that fit

By Theresa Howard

Monday, March 18, 2002

Olympic gold medal winner Jim Shea Jr. may be devil-may-care when he's sliding head-first at 80 mph. on his skeleton sled down a twisting, ice-covered chute, but he takes it a bit slower and more carefully in signing endorsement deals.

"My phones are ringing off the hook," says Shea, who went into the Games with a deal with Sprint PCS. "But I haven't signed with anybody yet. I'm trying to be cautious."

Shea, who took the gold medal in the skeleton despite physical and emotional challenges, may be one of the most marketable athletes to come out of the 2002 Winter Games.

For starters, his extreme sport, which returned to the Games this year after a 54-year absence, has edginess and a popularity with younger consumers that marketers want.

"If bobsled is the champagne of thrills, skeleton is the moonshine of thrills," says Shea, speaking from one of his three Sprint PCS phones, including one that "rings" with the tune of the song Low Rider. Shea, the phone and the song are featured in a Sprint ad that ran before and after the Olympics (athlete ads for non-sponsors can't run during the Games). Fans now sing the tune to him.

While the sport is hot, however, it's this man that marketers want. A-list brands such as Budweiser are among those calling for Jimmy. And Sprint would like to get him to re-up, extending the one-year deal it signed with Shea last June.

"It's safe to assume Jimmy will be one of the top three to four athletes (out of the Winter Games) for endorsements and appearances," says Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships, a Miami Beach company that represents the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation. "He truly exemplifies the Olympic spirit."

Shea showed that spirit when he won the gold in the face of both personal heartache and a foot injury that will require surgery in the next few months. The personal tragedy was the death of his grandfather Jack, a 91-year-old former Olympian who was killed by a car just 28 days before the Games.

"What he had to overcome to get there is what really makes Jimmy special," Becher says.

Though Shea is being selective about the calls he takes, he says Sprint is at the top of the list. A deal is expected to be announced soon that keeps Shea involved in advertising and marketing the Sprint PCS wireless brand.

Meanwhile, he's also spending some time giving back to the community and enjoying the perks of his sudden celebrity, such as getting a key to New York City and landing appearances with late-night talk show rivals Jay Leno and David Letterman in the same week.

He says he's also recovering emotionally from the highs and lows of his victory, achieved while comforted by his grandfather's funeral card tucked into his helmet and a small medal of his grandfather's worn around his neck.

When it comes to deals, Shea, 33, says he wants to ensure that companies and brands he might sign with "share similar interests."

He says Sprint, which has been involved with winter sports for a decade as a sponsor of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Association, has been very supportive.

"I'm still under a great contract, and I'm hopeful it will continue for the next five years," Shea says of Sprint. "They enabled my family to go to the Olympics."

Family is something that's extremely important to Shea. He is a third-generation Olympian whose father, Jim Shea Sr., 63, competed in the 1964 Games. His late grandfather won a gold in speed skating in 1932. The two appeared side-by-side in Shea's Sprint ads. Shea will continue to split his time between his hometown, Lake Placid, N.Y., where his family still lives, and Park City, Utah.

"My interests are family-oriented and lie in youth programs and getting kids involved in sports," says Shea. "I'm going to try to promote the sport and encourage others and let them know they can achieve the same thing with hard work and determination."