SBJ/September 12 - 18, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Sports building momentum for Turin

Marketers are turning to power in numbers when it comes to attracting fickle American spectators to the sports and prospective stars of the next Winter Olympic Games, and proving to sponsors it is an audience worth reaching.

Verizon has been a longtime sponsor of the U.S. Bobsled team and leverages its relationship with the sport both in the summer and winter.
The U.S. federations governing bobsled, curling and luge are partnering on ICE 2005, a televised package showcasing their pre-Olympic competitions that is scheduled to appear on NBC Dec. 10-11 (4-6 p.m. Eastern).

Although they lack the sponsorship revenue and, thus, financial clout to independently buy hundreds of thousands of dollars of airtime on a network, ownership of four hours of taped action on NBC is manageable with all three bringing advertisers to the table, and thanks to a television production company committed to the bundling concept.

ICE 2005 does not have a confirmed title sponsor — Verizon owned the rights in 2003 and ’04, and is considering a repeat role — but federation officials are confident that enough ad inventory will be sold to pay for the production and time. Coming just two months before the start of the 2006 Winter Games in Italy, they are pitching advertisers on the event’s potential for drawing wider than usual viewing audiences. The inaugural ICE attracted more than 2 million households during its second day, a Sunday afternoon window.

“Our goal is for the guy in Des Moines with a six-pack being able to sit back and say, ‘Oh, I get it,’” said Bob Hughes, executive producer of Carr-Hughes Productions, whose company produces the two-day package. “NBC loves it because, frankly, they are not burdened by an hour of luge, or an hour of curling. Our show last year on a Saturday beat [measured by Nielsen ratings] a college basketball game on CBS.”

U.S. Luge marketing director Gordy Sheer, a 1988 luge Olympian, said he expects as many as three of the federations’ sponsors to advertise in ICE 2005. Verizon is a major and longtime sponsor of both bobsled and luge, supplying both cash and product.

“Last year, we dropped [in ratings] a little bit in the face of competition from two NFL [playoff] games,” Sheer said. “But it is a unique opportunity that allows sponsors to amortize their investment over two days in a meaningful show with Olympic ramifications.”

With the Olympics back on the radar for winter sports after more than three years, winter sports are scrambling to make breakthroughs with new fans, sustain current sponsor levels and, with a bit of luck, perhaps pick up a new partner or two.

Some — luge and speedskating among them — are engaging in joint marketing agreements with the U.S. Olympic Committee and its stable of sponsors, including newcomer Hilton Hotels, to find additional partners with deep enough pockets to take a gamble on a sport out of the mainstream.

Way out of the mainstream remains curling and its guy-next-door athletes who attracted considerable buzz during the 2002 Salt Lake Games. Then the Games ended.

“[Sponsor interest] is not happening overnight as some of us here anticipated or hoped,” said U.S. Curling spokesman Rick Patzke. “A couple of sponsorship arrangements are pending. Because of NBC [in 2002] and the coverage [on ESPN and NBC since], they see some potential.”

Two of curling’s sponsors, a cargo carrier (AIT) and an information technology firm (AmerAust), bring “a tremendous amount of value to us by keeping our computers running,” Patzke said.

USA Hockey, with a new executive director (Dave Ogrean) recently installed, once again will showcase its women’s national team during the Turin countdown because the men’s team, mainly composed of NHL players, is selected close to the eve of the Games. Team USA won the women’s world championship in the spring.

Curling is trying to recapture some of the buzz the sport generated during the 2002 Olympics.
After a selection camp in late August, USA Hockey named its women’s national team and simultaneously announced a Hilton-sponsored “Skate to 2006 Tour” visiting 10 cities between September and December for a series of Olympic tune-up games against Canada, Finland and selected all-star teams.

In addition to Hilton, USA Hockey recently closed a deal with Wal-Mart, a first-time partner, to join its supporting sponsors of the women’s pre-Olympic tour. Already under contract: brewer Labatt Blue; Nike; Chase (formerly Bank One); National Car Rental; and United Airlines.

Federation senior director of corporate affairs and fund-raising Mike Bertsch said television dates for the tour are under review. “There is a huge interest in the skill level and how far our women have come,” Bertsch said.

USA Hockey in July extended a sponsor deal with Play It Again Sports, its official skate and equipment retail sponsor since 1998.

Verizon leveraged its bobsled and luge relationships during the summer months by underwriting recruitment tours during which officials from the two sports hit the road in search of athletic talent previously unexposed to opportunities to pursue Olympic glory.

U.S. Bobsled marketing director Dmitry Feld said the Verizon tour from May to July provided the sponsor valuable exposure in major markets — such as 30-second scoreboard recognition in New York’s Yankee Stadium over three consecutive days — and produced half a dozen prospects the coaching staff believes “can be ready to compete for spot on a World Cup team within two years.”

Steve Woodward is a writer in Illinois.

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