SBJ/November 17 - 23, 2003/Marketingsponsorship

Super-tight Olympics security is forcing decisions: Go or stay home?

The 2004 Athens Games will be only days old nine months from now. As the countdown intensifies, corporate sponsors and their guests are fast approaching decision time. The choice: attend the most security-laden Games in history or stay away.

"Security issues are obviously big for all of the sponsors; it goes without saying," said Rana Kardestuncer, director of event and sponsorship marketing at Carlson Marketing Group.

Carlson recently added Royal Dutch/Shell Group as a client. The agency will handle on-the-ground logistics and hospitality for the company's Greek unit, Shell Hellas, a domestic sponsor of the Athens 2004 organizing committee. Carlson's other clients are global Olympic sponsors Eastman Kodak and Xerox.

Whether Greece and supporting governments will be able to secure the geographically vulnerable Games — even with budget estimates approaching $1 billion to establish technological and human shields against various threats — was called into question yet again amid a recent visit to Athens by FBI Director Robert Mueller. During his stay, three banks in central Athens were struck by orchestrated bombings that were mostly symbolic and produced no reported injuries.

Mueller's meetings and activities during a one-day visit were veiled in secrecy. Secrecy is the lifeblood of security, but it also fuels uncertainty.

"That is part of the problem," Kardestuncer said. "People are concerned. It is one of those be-prepared-for-what-you-can't-be-prepared-for type of things. Everyone recognizes there are always going to be ways to disrupt the Games. But I think most [sponsors] are feeling fairly comfortable. We know that executives say they are coming. You can't let that kind of fear [of terrorism] paralyze you."

A U.S. Olympic Committee delegation of more than 150 recently returned from a week of inspections in Athens.

"We are confident that ATHOC, working in close coordination with the appropriate law enforcement agencies in Greece, will implement an aggressive security plan," said USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel. "In addition, the United States and six other countries are working to support the efforts of ATHOC and the local authorities."

THREE STRIKES: The improbable and unprecedented elimination of a U.S. team

Mexico’s Heber Gomez (left) makes the play on USA’s Justine Leone in an Olympics qualifying game Nov. 7.
in Olympic baseball's qualifying tournament means no tie-ins to the Athens Games for sponsors of USA Baseball. But the federation's director of marketing, David Perkins, said sponsor contracts were not contingent on Team USA qualifying for the Games.

"We've always tried to have the Olympic year falling in the middle of a sponsorship cycle," said Perkins, indicating most current deals are through 2005 or '06. He said no sponsor had made Athens ticketing or hospitality commitments ahead of the recent regional Olympic qualifier in which Mexico upset Team USA, the defending Olympic champion, in Panama City.

Equipment and apparel sponsors All-Star, New Era, Rawlings and Under Armour renewed their deals earlier this year, Perkins said.

Ironically, one of the federation's sponsors is the Major League Baseball Players Association, which funds youth baseball programs. Team USA did not need funding in Panama City. It needed the MLBPA's members. But international eligibility rules allow only those professional players not on MLB rosters as of Aug. 31 to suit up for the Olympic qualifiers or the Games.

COMPUTATIONS: A domestic sponsorship the U.S. Olympic Committee most likely will not be able to renew or sell after 2004 is in the personal computers category. If, as expected, China's top PC maker, Legend Group, signs on as a global Olympic sponsor starting in 2005 — which automatically gives it U.S. rights — existing USOC sponsor Gateway would be out.

Meanwhile, some observers assume General Motors grabs the coveted automotive category available in China from 2005-2008 through organizers of the Beijing Games. But GM's operations in China are largely joint ventures with government entities, which make sponsorship programs specific to the Games complex to negotiate and operate.

ON THE MARK: Marketers lusting over a potential pairing of 1972 Olympic swimming legend Mark Spitz and 2004 Olympic hopeful and Spitz heir-apparent Michael Phelps in pre-Athens advertising might be a bit ahead of themselves. Eighteen-year-old Phelps, thought capable of matching or surpassing Spitz's seven-gold-medal performance in Munich three decades ago, told media in a recent conference call that he is still waiting for an introduction.

"I have not spoken with [Spitz] at all," said Phelps, who recently agreed to a multimillion-dollar, six-year deal with apparel and equipment maker Speedo that includes a $1 million bonus if he collects seven gold medals next summer in Athens or in Beijing in 2008. "I've never actually really seen him, either."

Octagon's Peter Carlisle, Phelps' agent, said in a recent interview that "a core group of corporate partners" is expected to be on board with his client by year's end.

RING TOSSES: Even a revenue powerhouse like the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games apparently can't escape the threat of red ink as part of its legacy. With projected operational costs over the next decade exceeding revenue forecasts for the Utah Athletic Foundation's speed skating oval, ski jumps and bobsled/luge run — facilities built for the Games — UAF officials have launched a private donor campaign. Despite sitting on a $75 million endowment passed along by Games organizers last year, the foundation is soliciting as little as $25 and as much as $5,000-plus from potential donors. ... Look for the USOC's overhauled branding campaign to roll out by year's end. The USOC's new agency partner, Austin, Texas-based GSD&M, will deliver it. ... The weekly newsletter Around The Rings reports that Olympic sponsor Visa will operate its 2004 Olympians Reunion Center, a private hospitality program, out of the Athens Tennis Club in central Athens.

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

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