The cameras and microphones that used to surround Lindsey Vonn now belong to 18-year-old Mikaela Shiffrin, who stands to make as much as $3 million in long-term endorsements as the most marketable female star of the Olympics.
"She's young, poised, and extremely camera-friendly," said Bob Dorfman, executive director at San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising.
Fewer than 16 months ago at a media event in Soelden, Austria, even the lone reporter talking to Shiffrin bolted the moment Vonn arrived. Seven World Cup slalom titles later, Shiffrin entered the 2014 Sochi Games as the only female U.S. Alpine skier projected to win a medal.
"Shiffrin, barring injury, could be the face of U.S. skiing for the next two to three Winter Games," said Dorfman, who predicted as much as $3 million in endorsements, speaking fees and current sponsor bonuses.
Shiffrin finished fifth today in the giant slalom in her Olympic debut. The slalom, Shiffrin's best event, is set for Feb. 21.
The 29-year-old Vonn, a two-time Olympic medalist, is missing the 2014 Games as she recovers from knee surgery. Shiffrin is already the youngest American to win a World Cup title in any discipline, and the only non-European to win four World Cup slalom races in one season.
"She is a global brand builder," said Matthias Steiner, Alpine racing sports marketing manager of Amer Sports Oyj's Atomic brand, which gave Shiffrin her first sponsorship.
Shiffrin already endorses Atomic, Barilla Holding SpA, Leki Lenhart GmbH, Oakley Inc., Snap Supercandy and Procter & Gamble Co. She said her marketing approach thus far has been to stick with products that she's familiar with and uses often.
"I'm trying to keep it limited right now, because I have a lot going on, I'm still young and I need to focus on the ski racing," she said during a media conference call. "At the same time, this is a really great opportunity to build my legacy and build my brand."
Vonn's absence as a Sochi competitor might accelerate the process.
Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York, and former chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said media outlets such as NBC probably will use Shiffrin to back-fill the coverage void left by Vonn. The younger skier was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympics preview issue, a spot Vonn had four years ago, and was featured in a one-hour special two weeks ago on NBC titled "The Making of An Olympian."
"Mikaela's talented and charismatic, and has been one of the featured athletes in our campaign for nearly a year," NBC Sport Group Chief Marketing Officer John Miller said in a statement.
Vonn, who had knee surgery in January, didn't win her first Alpine World Ski Championship gold medal until 2009, when she was 24. Shiffrin accomplished the feat a year ago at age 17. She won a World Cup season title the following month, becoming the youngest American to earn either distinction. She currently leads the 2014 standings.
The daughter of two skiers, Shiffrin's seven World Cup slalom race victories are second most by an American woman, trailing only Tamara McKinney (nine). She's already fourth on the U.S. career list of total World Cup race victories, trailing only Vonn (59), McKinney (18) and Picabo Street (9).
One of Shiffrin's greatest strengths is her proactive approach to criticism, according to Kirk Dwyer, headmaster at Burke Mountain Academy in Vermont, where Shiffrin started skiing when she was 11.
"She doesn't take it as criticism, she takes it as opportunity," Dwyer said in a telephone interview. "When you tell her something technical, it's an opportunity to go faster. The really strong skiers I've worked with all have that ability."
Shiffrin said she didn't consider competing at Sochi until last season, when she won her first World Cup race in Sweden.
"All of a sudden I went from being a star-struck teenager racing with my idols to being one of them," she said.
The transformation hasn't yet fully resonated with the American public. Shiffrin was known by 12 percent of the U.S. population heading into the games, according to the Repucom's Celebrity DBI data.
The next week could change that.
"There's an ''it'' athlete from every games," Burton said. "We have a culture predicated on youth and achievement and Mikaela fits perfectly in that sweet spot."