NEW YORK (AP) — On the eve of an Olympics where NBC is already expected to lose more than $200 million, the injury to American skier Lindsey Vonn means the network could suddenly be without its most bankable star.
The two-time reigning World Cup champion revealed Wednesday that she has a shin injury that could keep her out of the Olympics.
In setting the stage for coverage of the games, NBC has focused primarily on four Americans: Vonn, snowboarder Shaun White and speedskaters Apolo Anton Ohno and Shani Davis. Vonn's star shone brightest, like swimmer Michael Phelps heading into the 2008 Summer Olympics, because of her potential for multiple medals.
Her cover shot on Sports Illustrated, in a skintight ski outfit with flowing blonde hair, didn't hurt, either. She also wears a bikini in the magazine's annual swimsuit issue, a shot given the full back page of the New York Daily News on Wednesday with the headline, "Go For Gold."
"She has been the face of the Olympics — her and Shaun White," said Brad Adgate, who studies Olympic media trends for Horizon Media. "If she can't compete, it will be a blow."
For NBC, it brings back unpleasant memories of the Turin Games four years ago, when it built a publicity campaign around American skier Bode Miller only to see him fail to win any medal.
NBC badly needs stars to emerge out of these games. It has already said it will lose money on the Olympics for the first time ever, the result of a too-generous bid to televise the Vancouver Games and false expectations that advertising prices would continue to rise. NBC also needs prime-time success to divert attention from its sagging prime-time lineup and late-night executive bungling.
Vonn had been expected to be a contender in several different events, which would have given NBC time to spread her star power around. She was due to race in the super-combined on Sunday, and NBC planned to showcase her in prime-time on the night each week that generally boasts the most TV viewers.
The Olympics that are most remembered in the United States are the ones where big American stars emerged, like Phelps in 2008 or the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding soap opera in 1994, said Marc Berman, an analyst for Media Week. Americans are also going into the games without big-name figure skaters, generally a marquee prime-time event.
"We want to have a few people who we want to root for in the United States," he said. "You need that star power in the Olympics. Without it, it can really fall flat."
NBC, which broke the news of Vonn's injury on Wednesday's "Today" show, had no immediate comment on what her loss might mean to the coverage. One executive suggested privately that she might be able to compete in some but not all events.
That in itself can be played into an attention-grabbing drama: Will she or won't she ski? If she guts it out and wins despite the pain, Vonn could become an even bigger star than she might have without the injury.