SBJ/April 14 - 20, 2003/Marketingsponsorship

Negotiations break down, leaving this champion off the ice for tour

In agreeing to become title sponsor of the 25th anniversary edition Champions on Ice figure skating tour, General Motors' Chevrolet division surely expected the current women's Olympic gold medalist on the marquee. So did skating fans.

Instead, Chevy's "We'll Be There" advertising theme would more closely reflect reality among potential ticket buyers if adapted to: "Unlike Sarah Hughes, We'll Be There."

Hughes, the 2002 upset winner of Olympic gold in Salt Lake City, backed out of the tour in late March after her father and agent, tax attorney John Hughes, reached an impasse in negotiations with Champions tour founder Tom Collins. The decision, which will cost Sarah Hughes as much as $300,000, enraged Collins and others because promotional materials featuring Hughes and American rivals Sasha Cohen and Michelle Kwan had circulated for much of this year.

Champions on Ice, sanctioned by the U.S. Figure Skating Association, is an annual showcase for Olympic, world and national medalists. The sanction allows top skaters to retain Olympic eligibility while receiving compensation to perform. This year's 27-city tour opened April 3 and continues through June 1.

Collins said he will not pursue legal action against John Hughes, though he'd received a letter of agreement from Hughes. John Hughes did not return phone calls to his Manhattan office, but in early April he told the Chicago Tribune that no such agreement existed.

"That's the end of her [with the Champions tour]," Collins said of Sarah Hughes in an interview following the tour's third show.

Collins wouldn't project ticket sales for the current tour, trimmed from last year's 90-city schedule following Salt Lake. He does not expect Hughes' absence to impair attendance. "Not one person so far has said a word," he said. "Not one person has asked for a refund."

Chevy might accrue a subtle benefit from Hughes' absence. Kwan, a Chevy endorser under a separate contract, last month won the world title, her fifth. Hughes, a high school senior in New York, was not a factor in that competition. Said Chevy brand promotional manager Mary O'Connor: "We did [the tour sponsorship] for the great entertainment value. It is not based in any way on an individual athlete."

Smucker's Stars on Ice, operated by IMG, just ended a 61-city tour during which, according to an agent who requested anonymity, skaters performed in front of several thinner-than-usual crowds.

"We got spoiled in the middle '90s," said Collins, referring to the sport's surge in popularity. "Now we are back to reality, back to the '70s and '80s."

Some speculate that Hughes might end her Olympic-eligible career and consider a lucrative offer from IMG and the star-depleted Stars on Ice, which does not have a USFSA sanction. A drawback for Hughes is the tour's fall/winter dates, which would conflict with her stated goal of attending an Ivy League university later this year. Harvard already has accepted her.

"We'd love to have her in the [Stars] tour," said IMG's Gary Swain, co-executive producer of Stars on Ice. "I don't know if she has any interest, but as reigning Olympic champion, yes, we'd love to have her."

SARS WATCH: The International Olympic Committee's launch of an information tour across China geared to potential domestic sponsors of the 2008 Beijing Games apparently is on hold. Like many sports organizations, the IOC is monitoring the spread of an untreatable virus, severe acute respiratory syndrome, which health officials believe has origins in China.

Since earlier this year, IOC marketing director Michael Payne has said the China marketing "road show," a joint effort with Beijing Olympic organizers, would begin May 21. Last week, however, IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said the date "has not been set" and will hinge on "how the [SARS] situation develops."

The IOC is anxious to begin lining up its China-specific sponsorship categories for 2008. Expectations among industry sources are that some of these categories might carry price tags higher than global sponsorships, or as much as $100 million.

RING TOSSES: Representatives from the Canadian apparel maker Roots attended a U.S. Olympic Committee product licensee workshop last week in Colorado Springs, Colo. A source said Roots remains close to signing a deal to provide parade attire for the U.S. team as it marches into the opening of the Athens 2004 Games. ... A fragile economic climate demands increasingly detailed sales pitches as the USOC enters a pivotal period of renegotiating with existing U.S. Olympic Team sponsors. Their deals expire at the end of 2004. "The old model was pretty basic," said IMG's president of Olympic sales and marketing, Robert Prazmark, who brokers deals for the USOC. "We'd say, 'Here are the [Olympic] marks, we'll get back to you.' Now we look at what do they end up with four years later?" Prazmark said sponsor packages now include detailed blueprints for on-site hospitality during both the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, and the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. ... The inaugural Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool, April 6 in Indianapolis — a USA vs. Australia showdown — was a break-even financial proposition for USA Swimming, but marketing director Rod Davis said discussions are already taking place about how to improve the property. It attracted 3,600 swimming fans (a sellout) and lines of visitors to an adjacent "Aqua Zone" fan experience site. Mutual of Omaha, V8 Splash and Speedo had signs throughout. Last weekend's Saturday and Sunday telecasts were the first non-Olympic Trials swimming competitions seen on NBC since 1998. Davis said a biannual Ryder Cup format is a possible next step.

Steve Woodward can be reached at swoodward@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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