• Ohno, Liukin, Griffin will carry torch for Subway campaign

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    It is as certain as the sun rising: If this is an Olympic year, there’s a Subway Olympic marketing effort in the works.

    We were certain that when the brand signed Apolo Anton Ohno early last year it wasn’t just so that he could run the New York City Marathon, which Subway also sponsors. Sure enough, once we dug through the restaurant chain’s current love affair with the avocado, it turns out Ohno will be featured on point-of-sale material in Subway’s 25,000 U.S. stores during the London Games and on TV ads that will run during Subway’s heavy NBC Olympic buy.

    Winter Olympian Apolo Anton Ohno will co-star with avocados in some of Subway's summer advertising.
    Since McDonald’s is the longtime International Olympic Committee TOP sponsor in the quick-service restaurant category, IOC rules prevent Subway from using decorated swimmer Michael Phelps or any participating athletes in marketing just before or during the Games. Ohno, a Winter Olympic athlete, will do the job nicely, the same way Phelps was featured in Subway ads during the 2010 Winter Games.

    Ohno will continue Subway’s relentless sales push for sandwiches with avocados.

    Other Subway endorsers to get some airtime include gold-medal gymnast Nastia Liukin, who did not qualify for this year’s U.S. Olympic team. Blake Griffin, off the USA Basketball squad after knee surgery, will also appear in some ads. Even new Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III will be featured in his first TV ads for Subway.

    “There are very few places left where you can reach a large and diverse media audience, but the Olympics are one of the best and one of the only places to get that, especially in the summer,” said Subway CMO Tony Pace, adding that Subway has been working with all of its Olympic-tied “famous fans” for some time and continues to feature them within an “official training restaurant” platform.

    Any love letters yet from McDonald’s, which wasn’t thrilled with Subway’s use of Phelps during the Winter Olympics?

    “There’s always some arm twisting, but we are sticking to long-term themes with our athletes,” Pace said. “We’ve always abided by the rules and we both know that the preponderance of Olympic revenue comes from broadcast rights. Obviously, we are a big supporter of NBC and the Games in that regard.”

  • PGA Tour execs Finchem, Votaw in London as golf prepares for ’16

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    Commissioner Tim Finchem and Executive Vice President Ty Votaw will represent the PGA Tour this week in London, as the sport of golf prepares for its modern Olympic debut in 2016.

    Votaw said he’ll be traveling with his family and will arrive in London on Thursday and stay a week for what he described as “part business, part family vacation.” He said he’s most looking forward to the Opening Ceremony, beach volleyball and tennis at Wimbledon during his stay.

    More importantly, though, Votaw, a representative of the International Golf Federation, will be meeting with various IOC administrators and organizers of Rio 2016, where golf will make its comeback as an Olympic sport. Finchem and Votaw have helped spearhead the inclusion of golf, which has been missing from the Olympics since 1904.

    “I will be observing the operations of the Games in preparation for the IGF’s participation in the 2016 Olympic Games,” Votaw wrote in an email. “I will be attending with my family and will use the opportunity to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience with them.”

  • On The Ground: The Olympics’ enormity, drama can change any skeptic

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    The people who call it a Movement told me the Olympics would change me.

    It’s an event unlike any other, the proselytizers said. Sports and culture collide in ways you can’t understand. The values of peace, sustainability and good sportsmanship are in every event. You’ll see.

    But I didn’t believe them. I’m paid to be skeptical, and words like values, movement and family sounded like the language of an international cult. I’d seen the Olympics. I’d watched as NBC highlighted the tears of gymnasts and snowboarders. I wasn’t buying it.

    That was four years ago, and a lot has happened since then.

    I’ve seen 2,008 Chinese men rise from the floor of the Bird’s Nest in Beijing and simultaneously pound on drums. I’ve sat in Wukesong Stadium and heard Chinese fans ooh and ahh as Kobe Bryant pulled up for a jumper. I’ve watched an Australian swimmer stand on the podium and cry as her country’s flag rose to the rafters. And I’ve witnessed Shaun White celebrate a perfect run down a halfpipe by hooting and hollering with his support team.

    Attending the Beijing and Vancouver Olympics definitely changed me.

    I may not call the Olympics a “movement,” refer to national governing bodies as being part of an “Olympic family,” or believe the Games will lead to world peace. But I’ve joined the proselytizers on one point: The Olympics are an event unlike any other.

    Completely won over by the size and scope of the Olympics and the dedication of Olympians, I’ve spent the run-up to the London Games trying to convert someone else.

    This will be my colleague John Ourand’s first Olympics. Usually, he spends the early part of August every four years watching the Orioles and wondering why people care about swimming and gymnastics. I’ve spent the last few months telling him that will change. And here’s why.

    Olympians aren’t your average pro athletes. I don’t mean that they make less money or don’t get arrested or are less well-known. All of which is true. What I mean is: Most Olympians spend their entire life training in one sport for one shot to compete on the world stage.

    Unlike the NBA or NFL, there is no “next year” for Olympians. There is no chance to go off to a rowing competition or swim meet that the world is watching. For most of these competitors, this will be it, and because they’re acutely aware of that, it means that much more when they stand on that podium and watch their nation’s flag rise to the rafters.

    All of that becomes clear the first time you watch a podium ceremony. It’s something you don’t forget.

    The other thing that’s unforgettable is the scale of the Olympics. Imagine three Daytona 500s, two Nationwide Series races and a Camping World Truck race taking place simultaneously. Or a Super Bowl, World Series and NBA playoff game happening in the same city. Then add more venues and more spectators and you’re coming close to the vastness and complexity of an Olympics.

    There are 32 summer sports and each one has countless events spread across a mere 17 days. There’s one day on my calendar next week, Friday, Aug. 3, when there are 24 sports that will be played that day. Twenty-four sports!

    Because NBC (until this year) hasn’t made all the competition available live online, it’s been tough to understand how sprawling and complex the Olympics are unless you’re in attendance. And even when you are in attendance, it’s tough to understand.

    I’ve explained that to John. Admittedly, it’s been a tough sell, and recent events in London haven’t helped matters.  The last few weeks there were marred by a security plan that imploded right before the Games, rain that refused to stop, and a litany of complaints from Londoners about everything from transportation delays to sponsor exclusivity.

    But there’s so much potential for these Games to be great. There’s so much potential for them to change the perspective of skeptics the same way Beijing changed me.

    London is one of the world’s most diverse cities, filled with people who speak 300 different languages. It can literally have fans for every country that fields an Olympic team, creating an atmosphere unrivaled at recent Olympics.

    And while most events will take place in the East End, the organizers have mixed the city’s most historic sites into competition. Cyclists will race past Buckingham Palace and beach volleyball players will rise for spikes behind 10 Downing Street. It will make for a dramatic juxtaposition of the historic and contemporary.

    Those are the type of things that can change the mind of a skeptic. There’s no doubt that they changed me.

  • 'Today’ show prepares executive producer Jim Bell for London Games

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    NBC Executive Producer Jim Bell
    New York was still lurching to life when Jim Bell, the executive producer of the “Today” show, bounded up a flight of stairs and pushed open a door to Rockefeller Center’s plaza. It was 6:30 in the morning, and he wanted to be sure the rain forecast for later in the day would hold off long enough for his “Today” show anchors to use the outdoor set.

    It was one of his last steps of preparation for the show’s 7 to 11 a.m. broadcast, a live, four-hour window of organized chaos that mirrors a sports broadcast in its length and complexity. Bell’s success in managing the show for the last seven years was a major reason NBC Sports Chair Mark Lazarus named him the new executive producer of the network’s Summer Olympics telecasts, which begin in two weeks. The 45-year-old not only grew up at NBC Sports and worked on eight Olympics, but also proved at “Today” just how adept he could be at organizing a live broadcast, keeping a large audience and making critical decisions with ease.

    On a morning in late May, Bell showed just what that meant. Wearing a navy suit jacket, gray slacks and a blue shirt open at the collar, he tilted his head back and peered skyward through a pair of trendy, rectangular eyeglasses. There was no rain, so he hustled back downstairs to the control room.

    UB40’s “Red, Red Wine” was playing over the control room’s speakers as he settled into a desk in the middle of the room. Everyone around him was bobbing to the music, waiting for the show to begin in a few minutes. As cameras zoomed in on “Today” show reporter Thanh Truong, he began to tug on the lapels of his suit and dance for the producers.

    “All hell has broken loose,” Bell said, as laughter rippled across the control room.

    Everyone was relaxed and prepared for that day’s show. Then, less than three minutes before 7 a.m., someone in the back of the room shouted that a suspect had implicated himself in the homicide of Etan Patz, the Brooklyn boy who disappeared in 1979 on his way to a school bus stop. The first five minutes of the show had to change.

    As the team scrambled, Bell was calm.

    “Can we get [NBC New York investigative reporter Jonathan] Dienst?” Bell asked.

    “Fifteen,” someone shouted, beginning a countdown to the show.

    “We can make it the second item, if that helps,” a producer said.

    “Ten … nine … eight …”

    “It does,” Bell said. “Put in the phoner. Put in the phoner.”

    “Four … Three … Two …”

    The show was live, but producers still hadn’t connected with Dienst. One producer leaned forward in her chair and pressed the phone to her ear, trying to get him. Bell barely moved. He waited for word that Dienst was on the line, then watched a split second later as “Today” news anchor Natalie Morales asked for Dienst’s report.

    When the segment ended, he uncapped a plastic water bottle and drained the last third of it in one, long chug. He pitched the bottle in a trash can three feet away, leaned back in his seat and put his arms behind his head, completely relaxed.

    This, after all, is how Bell has spent his mornings the last seven years. He spends days carefully planning the first four hours of NBC’s cornerstone show and often finds himself changing entire sections in response to the unexpected. His ability to do so swiftly and calmly has been part of the reason the “Today” show has dominated morning ratings.

    His unflappability and ease at adjusting to the unexpected was a major reason Lazarus tapped him to succeed his mentor, Dick Ebersol, and become the first new executive producer of a Summer Olympics in two decades. He never loses composure, and this year has been no exception.

    Since last August, Bell has juggled the Olympics position with his "Today" job during one of the most turbulent periods in the long-running morning show's history.
    Since being named to the Olympics position last August, Bell has juggled two jobs, and he’s done so during one of the most difficult periods at the “Today” show. In March, the “Today” show became embroiled in a scandal after it was revealed that an audio clip in the Trayvon Martin case was edited to make shooter George Zimmerman sound racist. In April, its 852-week streak as the top-rated morning news show ended. And in June, it abruptly removed anchor Ann Curry from her position and replaced her with Savannah Guthrie.

    Through all of that, Bell also worked on the Olympics. For most of the last year, he offered feedback on Olympics features, responded to emails from Olympics staff and spent Fridays at NBC Sports offices in Connecticut making key programming decisions about what events and features should air. In May and June, he increased that to two to three afternoons a week, and he moved into his Olympics role full time this month, taking over a position that will go a long way to determining whether the network attracts the roughly 25 million prime-time viewers necessary to make its $1.18 billion investment in the London Games worthwhile.

    The responsibilities at “Today” or the Olympics alone would pack enough pressure to weigh down most TV executives, but colleagues say Bell never showed it.

    “He’s a guy who’s under a tremendous amount of pressure, yet he’s extremely cool,” said Don Nash, the “Today” show’s senior broadcast producer. “It blows me away sometimes. He never gets flustered planning for the next week, planning for the next month. I’ve said to him, ‘I don’t know how you do this.’ In the office he’s extremely, extremely cool.”

    NBC Olympics Coordinating Producer Molly Solomon added, “He’s not complaining about going to work at 5 a.m., and going to his second job in Connecticut hours later. You can tell he’s embracing this. It’s remarkable to watch someone work that hard.”

    Solomon, like many others, has known Bell since he started at NBC more than two decades ago.

    Bell landed a job with the network literally by accident. He was in Spain in 1989 taking a year off between graduation and law school when he got a call from NBC’s human resources department. Someone in the department knew his father, an attorney at GE, and wondered if Bell, a 6-foot-4 defensive lineman at Harvard, would assist NBC Olympics Chief Operating Officer Randy Falco, who had blown out his knee playing basketball, during a trip to Barcelona.

    After the trip, Falco offered Bell a job as a production assistant in NBC’s Olympics profiles unit. Bell spent the next two years going to Cuba, Africa and other far-flung locales gathering material for athlete features aired during the Barcelona Olympics. He then spent more than a decade producing NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball games. He also climbed the Olympic production ladder from co-producer of daytime in 1996 to producer of CNBC’s coverage in 2000 to coordinating producer of afternoon and late-night coverage in 2004.

    When “Today” show ratings began to slip in 2005, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Zucker turned to the then-37-year-old Bell to take over as executive producer. Zucker wanted someone from outside the news division, and both Falco and Ebersol recommended Bell. He became the third person to take the helm at “Today” in four years and he took over at a time when its lead over “Good Morning America” had shriveled to 45,000 viewers a day.

    Bell threw himself into the job, pulling up tapes of the show stretching back 10 years and looking for ways to improve it. He ultimately decided the show had become too scripted and encouraged its hosts, then Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, to talk to each other more, and he extended that when the show brought on Meredith Vieira as its new anchor in 2006. The move helped widen the show’s lead over “Good Morning, America” and extend its run as the No. 1-rated morning show for seven more years with 5.4 million viewers.

    “He changed the fortunes of the ‘Today’ show by coming in when he did,” said Brian Stelter, a New York Times reporter who is writing a book about morning news shows called “Top of the Morning.” “With morning shows what’s most important is the anchors, and it’s about producing to their strengths. Jim was successful in forming and strengthening his relationship with the anchors. He had, and has, a knack for talent.”

    When Ebersol resigned from NBC last year, Lazarus wanted to hire someone within the company as executive producer for the London Games. Bringing in an outsider would have been too disruptive to the team of Olympics producers already in place, and it didn’t make much sense because many of the feature segments had already been produced.

    Lazarus chose Bell after a corporate event to celebrate NBC’s success in extending its Olympic rights through 2020. During the event, he caught a glimpse of Bell celebrating the rights deal with Solomon and Peter Diamond, Olympics senior vice president. Lazarus was impressed by the genuine happiness they shared. He also believed Bell’s experience at the “Today” show, which draws a female-heavy audience much like the Olympics, equipped him with the skills necessary to oversee the London Games.

    “It’s like an air traffic controller,” Lazarus said. “The ‘Today’ show is very similar to the Olympics. Planes are flying everywhere, and you have to decide what lands and when.”

    Lazarus was concerned Bell might have trouble juggling his “Today” show responsibilities with the Olympics, but Bell said it hasn’t been an issue largely because of his familiarity with NBC’s Olympics team.

    “What some people would do in a day or couple of days we can accomplish in hours,” Bell said of the Olympics team. “We have common history. We have stories. We’ve been to dinners and seen each other’s children born. That trust and relationship and confidence we have in each other leads to the efficiency in this pre-Olympic phase that allows us to accomplish a lot.”

    In addition to delegating to the Olympics team already in place, Bell met with Ebersol almost weekly for lunch. He considers himself one of Ebersol’s protégés and is deeply influenced by the former NBC Sports and Olympics chairman’s approach to storytelling. He said Ebersol had been invaluable in offering recommendations such as where to program certain sports during an Olympics taped for prime time.

    When pressed for specifics, Bell grinned.

    “When in doubt, go with diving,” he joked.

    Bell will manage more live programming than his predecessor ever did. NBC will show every event live and deliver a total of 5,500 hours to Olympic viewers. The schedule for what events will air online and on TV is largely set by Diamond, but decisions Bell makes during the Games to pull an event for that night’s prime-time broadcast will have a domino effect that requires a reshuffling of that day’s plan.

    But most people tuning in to the Olympics this summer won’t be able to tell that a different executive producer is behind the broadcast. Bell’s plan for the Games is very similar to Ebersol’s. Athlete stories will drive the production, features will skew toward the sentimental, and prime-time broadcasts will emphasize swimming, gymnastics and track and field.

    Watching Bell work at the “Today” show this spring underscored just how true that would be. He spent most of the morning responding to email, checking Twitter, jumping in and out of websites like TMZ and Cooks Illustrated. But around 8:20, he put on his headset and focused on the monitors.

    “Quiet,” he said to his team in the control room. “Stop talking.”

    A feature began to play about a man who was raising awareness of breast cancer by posing for self-portraits in nothing but a pink tutu. The story has what could be described as a trademark NBC Olympics feel: It was sentimental, courageous and inspirational. The image of a chubby man stripping down to his underwear and slipping on a pink tutu wasn’t all that different from the story of a blind Mongolian marathoner whom Bell watched cross the finish line at the Barcelona Games.

    As Morales narrated the man’s story and talked about his wife’s battle with breast cancer, the music of Sigur Rós, an Icelandic band, crescendoed in the background. Bell asked his colleagues what the song was and then bought it on his laptop.
    “Can we get that on the way out?” he asked.

    As the segment came to an end and images of the man in a tutu flashed on the screen, a producer plugged the music from Bell’s laptop into the broadcast. The swelling music complemented the images and gave the final moments of the segment depth before it faded to black.
    “Nice,” Bell said.

    Two hours after the tutu segment, the “Today” show staff gathered in Bell’s office to talk about the next day’s show. Nash, the show’s senior broadcast producer, went around the room of 19 people asking what items they had for the next day’s show.

    Only one person wasn’t there — Bell. He had another job to do.

    Staff writer John Ourand contributed to this report.

  • Unplugged: Octagon Olympic agent Peter Carlisle

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    Two weeks away from the Opening Ceremony of the London Summer Games, Octagon’s Peter Carlisle, who represents Michael Phelps and manages a division with more than 50 other Olympic athletes, talks about the challenges of marketing Olympic athletes, and his plans while staying in London:

    “It’s always been very hard to market an Olympic athlete outside of their home country. … It’s very difficult to take an athlete to another market, to work with the media there and try to generate enough exposure and follow up. Everyone watches the Olympics and you see these athletes, but then if they disappear for four years, there’s not much of a platform there. It just takes a lot of time. You can do it, but it’s always been a struggle.

    “One of the things I find very encouraging going into London is the global activation. Now, Visa and Head & Shoulders and others are marketing these athletes in other countries that are really important markets for the athletes. It’s quite a difference when you’re receiving for approval marketing materials from Pakistan. That’s a significant development, and it’s going to present a huge opportunity for these athletes to become global icons.”

    Where are you staying:
    Hilton near Covent Garden. I wanted to stay somewhere that allowed me to travel above ground while I’m there.

    When do you leave for London: July 25

    How many people from your division will go: 8

    Do you have a favorite restuarant in London: I lived there when I was 21 … off of Baker Street. There’s a pub called The Globe, and it’s one of the few places that I could afford to eat back then.

    Is your family coming over: My wife is planning to come over for four or five days. I am scheming to bring my two boys around that same time.

  • Coke targets moms, along with teens, in Olympic marketing

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    Gymnast Shawn Johnson
    When Coca-Cola’s global marketing team decided to develop an Olympic campaign that targets teens, the company’s North American unit felt it needed a complementary marketing strategy to hit another important customer group: moms.

    The company this month is rolling out an Olympic-themed marketing effort that is designed to appeal to moms who are shopping, watching TV, surfing the Web and visiting big events. It’s all part of a concerted effort to use one of the company’s key marketing platforms, the Olympics, to connect with one of its biggest consumer groups.

    “Moms in the U.S. are decision-makers, and we want to continue to push the way our company promotes healthy, active living, and we want to continue to do that through mom,” said Sharon Byers, Coca-Cola North America’s senior vice president of sports and entertainment marketing partnerships.

    Paralympic swimmer Jessica Long
    The Olympics draw more female viewers than most sports events. During the 2008 Beijing Games, 49 percent of the viewers of the Olympic coverage on NBC were women ages 18 and older, and many of them were moms. That has led companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble and others to develop marketing campaigns that speak directly to mothers.

    Coca-Cola North America signed eight U.S. athletes (see chart) who form the backbone of its marketing in the U.S. The athletes are featured on limited-edition eight-pack cans, and the company developed five advertisements showcasing the athletes that will air on NBC throughout the Games. The spots were developed by Ogilvy & Mather, Wieden & Kennedy and Leo Burnett.

    Coca-Cola Olympic Athletes

    Shawn Johnson*
    , gymnast
    Henry Cejudo*, wrestler
    David Boudia, diver
    Marlen Esparza, boxer
    John Isner, tennis player
    Jessica Long, Paralympic swimmer
    Alex Morgan, soccer player
    David Oliver*, hurdler

    * Past Olympic medalists who did not qualify for the London Games.
    The packaging and advertising will be complemented by a digital initiative in which moms can use Coke Rewards points to enter a sweepstakes for the chance to have Olympic hurdler David Oliver visit their child’s school. The online campaign is designed to encourage families to be active.

    Finally, the company has given its mobile sampling unit, known as the Coca-Cola Swelter Stopper, a renovation to include Olympic elements such as a photo station that allows visitors to take pictures in front of London backdrops and video screens with Olympics images. The 50-by-70-foot vehicle will visit 80 events such as last week’s Essence Music Festival in New Orleans and this week’s BB&T Atlanta Open tennis tournament. The company estimates that it will host approximately 400,000 consumers over the next month and a half.

    Byers credited the multidimensional campaign, which includes retail, television, online and experiential elements, with helping Coke get more marquee retail space with both national and local outlets. It has Olympic displays in market now with 130 different customers, which is far more than the 27 unique customer programs developed for the 2008 Beijing Games.

    Hurdler David Oliver
    “The take-rate has been exponentially higher than Beijing,” Byers said. “That’s because it’s fully integrated. You can see the package come to life in TV commercials, you can meet David Oliver. There’s a lot of tenets [of the marketing program] that apply for many different customers.”

    The domestic campaign complements the marketing program Coke developed called “Move to the Beat.” The global campaign is built around British music producer Mark Ronson, who has worked with artists such as Amy Winehouse. Ronson recorded the sounds of athletes competing and made a song out of it. Coke features the song-making process in a commercial campaign and directs consumers to a website where they can make songs of their own using sounds Ronson recorded.

    Both Coke’s global “Move to the Beat” ads and Coca-Cola North America’s ads featuring athletes will air on NBC throughout the London Games.

  • NBC Olympics, Adobe Partner To Create Apps For Live Streaming

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    NBC Olympics has partnered with Adobe to launch two apps that will live stream all Olympic events to authenticated iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Android users.

    “It’s really mind-blowing that we have come this far in 10 or 12 years,” said NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel said. “What I personally marvel at, having lived through the evolution of Olympic media, is that 12 years ago when we went to multichannel from single channel, the dream was always to make the Olympics accessible on digital devices. Here we are now with a tablet and smartphone that contains essentially every frame of Olympic competition. It is mind-boggling.”

    NBC Olympics Live Extra will live stream more than 3,500 hours from all 32 sports and all medal events. A second app, NBC Olympics, will have highlights, live results and serve as a second-screen for Olympic viewers.

    “I have no doubt that it will intensify the conversation around the Olympics and the sharing of content and, ultimately, the viewing on television in prime time,” Zenkel said.

    Meanwhile, NBC has gone live with its media site, NBCSportsGroupPressBox.com, for the London Olympics. The site has access to press releases, bios, photos and schedules. After the Olympics, it will remain live as a site for press covering NBC Sports.

  • Facebook, NBC Olympics collaborating on broadcast features

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    NBC Olympics and Facebook will announce a partnership later this morning that will promote the Olympics on TV via Facebook while at the same time send Olympic TV viewers to Facebook to discuss the Games. NBC Olympics has set up its own page on the social networking site which will carry exclusive content including highlights. Facebook and NBC will produce social media segments that will be carried on NBC’s various TV and digital platforms. Facebook also has committed to launch “Talk Meter,” which occasionally will alert TV viewers to the stories and results that many fans are discussing on the social media site.

    Facebook users can also let their Facebook friends know when they are reading NBC Olympic-related stories or watching NBC Olympic-related video.

  • USOC, corporate partners launch new sustainability program

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    The USOC today announced it will launch a sustainability program called the “The Green Ring” that will see it work with its corporate partners to adopt environmentally friendly practices.

    The most significant initiative of the new program is the result of a partnership with BP that will see the oil and energy company provide carbon offsets for Team USA’s travel to the London Games. In addition to that, the USOC will adopt sustainable practices at its three Olympic Training Centers.

    Dow, an IOC TOP sponsor, will analyze fertilizer used at the center in Chula Vista, Calif.; GE will provide products like motion detectors to control electricity use; and the organization will develop a recycling program and add water efficient toilets and faucets. The USOC’s fleet of vehicles at the training centers will be carbon neutral as a result of offsets provided by BP.

    USOC partner Deloitte worked with the organization to develop “The Green Ring” program. The organization expects more sponsors to participate in the future, including McDonald’s, which will investigate farm-to-table options for food at training centers, and Anheuser-Busch, which will undertake a water management audit.

  • The Agitator: Unconventional agent provokes, thrives in Olympic world

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    Evan Morgenstein was drunk.

    Olympic agent Evan Morgenstein.
    The Olympic agent was at the lobby bar of a Hilton in Dallas last month during the Team USA media summit, buying drinks and railing against the U.S. Olympic Committee’s exploitation of athletes. It hardly mattered that the people he was talking to worked there. That actually made him more exuberant.

    He spent $300 at the bar that night and irritated several people. But it was worth it. There’s nothing Morgenstein enjoys more than provoking the establishment. He’s practically built his career out of it. In the process, he’s become the most polarizing figure in the Olympics business.

    Haters believe he is litigious, brash, inappropriate, dishonest and narcissistic. Fans believe he is smart, funny, loyal, blunt and a crusader for athletes’ rights.

    About the only description both sides agree on is that he is scientifically unprofessional. He has been known to show up to business meetings wearing flip-flops, gym shorts and a tank top. He has threatened to beat up a rival agent for speaking negatively about his client. And he has a Twitter feed where he tweets about overweight people on airplanes and tells newlyweds that 67 percent of marriages end in divorce.

    Despite that, and largely because of it, Morgenstein has thrived as an agent as long as anyone in the Olympic world, and he has amassed a depth and scope of Olympians that rivals large agencies like Octagon, CAA and Wasserman Media Group. Last week, some 15 swimmers he represents, including Dara Torres, Amanda Beard, Jason Lezak and Eric Shanteau, as well as gymnast Nastia Liukin competed at the Olympic trials for a chance to go to London. Two other clients, diver David Boudia and beach volleyball player Phil Dalhausser, have already qualified for the Games.

    Evan Morgenstein

    Premier Management Group LLC
    TITLES: President and CEO
    AGE: 46
    EDUCATION: Syracuse University, B.S., international relations, 1987
    FAMILY: Cheryl (wife); children Kyle (14); Lindsay (11); Jack (9); Jossy (6)
    LONDON OLYMPIC CLIENTS: David Boudia (diving), Clark Burckle (swimming), Tyler Clary (swimming), Phil Dalhausser (beach volleyball), Jessica Hardy (swimming), Kathleen Hersey (swimming), Cullen Jones (swimming), Jason Lezak (swimming), Eric Shanteau (swimming), Amanda Weir (swimming), Kate Ziegler (swimming)
    OTHER SELECT CLIENTS: Amanda Beard (swimming), Dominique Dawes (gymnastics), Janet Evans (swimming), Rowdy Gaines (swimming), Bruce Jenner (track and field), Jackie-Joyner Kersee (track and field), Nastia Liukin (gymnastics), Greg Louganis (diving), Mark Spitz (swimming), Dara Torres (swimming)
    This will be Morgenstein’s fourth Summer Games. Over the last 15 years, his niche athlete representation firm has evolved from a one-man shop in a 127-square-foot office in his house to an eight-person operation in a 3,700-square-foot office in Cary, N.C. He’s gone from representing what he and others considered second-tier Olympic athletes to handling the business of some of the biggest names in Olympic history, including Mark Spitz, Greg Louganis and Bruce Jenner. And he’s cut landmark deals like swimmer Cullen Jones’ reported $2 million, seven-year Nike swimwear agreement and Liukin’s partnership with Warner Bros. and JCPenney for a line of “Supergirl” apparel.

    Through the years, he’s earned enough of a reputation as a salesman and marketer that celebrity chefs (Darren McGrady), professional fitness personalities (Jennifer Nicole Lee), coaches (American Swimming Coaches Association) and properties (USA Synchronized Swimming) alike have hired him. His business success serves as proof that being nice and well-mannered doesn’t necessarily win clients, but working hard, landing them deals and championing their rights does.

    “He’s a fierce advocate for his clients even when it’s not in his best interest with sponsors and the media,” said Peter Carlisle, Octagon’s managing director of Olympics and action sports. “He’s smarter than people give him credit for. If he appears unfettered and reactive, there’s usually a reason for it.”

    Torres, a five-time Olympian going into last week’s trials, put it this way: “He’s who he is and will say what he thinks. Every once in a while it’s not the best thing and you might cringe, but he’ll stand up for his athletes. That’s the great thing about him. … I feel I can trust Evan.”

    And USA Swimming CEO Chuck Wielgus, who often finds himself opposite Morgenstein at the negotiating table, said, “He’s incredibly bright. He’s incredibly provocative. He’s incredibly entertaining. Some people find him incredibly difficult to work with, but like any good agent, he fights like a dog for his clients.”

    Morgenstein’s detractors have a different perspective. It’s not that they don’t respect what he’s done for his clients. For the most part, they dislike his style.

    “Agents I work with that I respect work for their athletes but at the end of the day want to get a deal done as fairly as possible,” said one agency executive, who declined to speak on the record out of concern that Morgenstein would use the quote as leverage in a future negotiation. “Everything with him has to include an argument. I’ve never thought of a deal we’ve done that went smoothly. He enjoys making it difficult.”

    Morgenstein shrugged when he heard that.

    “If you talk to someone at the IOC or the USOC, they don’t get me,” he said. “They’re a movement. They’re a family. Everyone comes into the house. My philosophy is: That’s not my house. I didn’t build it. I’m not invited. I’m the pariah. I’m the guy who wouldn’t shut his mouth. But I believe that they only will become a successful movement with the athletes when they give the athletes a seat at the table.”

    Morgenstein landed in the Olympic world by coincidence. It was 1997, and he had recently opened his own sports consultancy, PMG Sports, to do marketing work for brands and represent athletes such as beach volleyball player Rob Heidger and NBA player Eric Mobley. He was in Atlanta with his first major client, Jumpsoles, for the world’s largest sporting goods trade show.

    While he was sitting at the back of the brand’s booth, he watched a guy carrying three gold medals from the Atlanta Games walk up and ask for a free pair of shoes. As the guy turned to leave, Morgenstein ran after him and learned he was Josh Davis, the only man on the 1996 U.S. swim team to win that many golds.

    Davis was there signing autographs for a hot tub company for $1,000. The paltry number floored Morgenstein, who had spent the previous two years representing NBA players at Fluid Sports & Entertainment, an agency founded by former New York Knick Charles Smith.

    Morgenstein asked for Davis’ phone number and said he’d give him a call. Five days later, Morgenstein called and said he had three deals for Davis.

    “How cool is that?” Davis said, recalling the episode. “In five months, [my other agent] had gotten me zero deals. In five days, Evan had gotten me three.”

    Davis signed with PMG Sports immediately, and Morgenstein brought him deals with the shoe company Brooks, a safety swim vest sold on QVC, Speedo and others.

    When Davis became captain of the 2000 U.S. Olympic swim team, he recommended that his teammates sign with PMG. It wasn’t long before Morgenstein was representing more than a dozen swimmers, most of them what Olympic insiders call tier-two athletes — not the Michael Phelpses or Mary Lou Rettons of the world, but ones like Brad Schumacher, Angel Martino and Lindsay Benko.

    “He handled that whole middle of the pack group that really had to crawl for anything they could get,” said Skip Gilbert, who was USA Swimming’s chief marketer at the time. “He was able to literally bring money to athletes that you would be shocked they could earn.”

    Morgenstein, shown in his Cary, N.C., office, has been known to show up at business meetings in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops.
    As he began to understand the Olympic system, he pushed USA Swimming to pay athletes more. His did so by describing swimmers as “indentured servants.” It was a term he said he chose because he knew it would bother Gilbert and other USA Swimming executives. When Gilbert, who didn’t remember the exchange, later told Morgenstein to back off or lose his access to the pool deck, Morgenstein felt he was onto something.

    “That made me feel that I was right,” Morgenstein said. “If a guy like that who is in charge of a sport doesn’t appreciate that the athletes have intrinsic value to the sport, then I’m going to keep signing athletes because you know what the athletes want? They want to believe that someone’s got their back.”

    That attitude is at the heart of PMG’s culture and a major reason athletes have signed with Morgenstein through the years. He typically signs two types of athletes: those who have similarly forceful personalities and big dreams of deals and success, and those who are more mild-mannered and gravitate to his forceful personality because they know he will stick up for them.

    Swimmer Tyler Clary, a silver medalist behind Ryan Lochte at the last two world championships, falls in the former category. He said he signed with Morgenstein in large part because, unlike three other agents he spoke to, Morgenstein knew about his times in the pool and understood his goals as a swimmer. He also believed Morgenstein would fight for him.

    “I like the fact that he’s not afraid to piss people off if he thinks it’s necessary,” Clary said. “If he were in the business to be everybody’s friend, he wouldn’t be as good at what he does.”

    Morgenstein’s style doesn’t work for everyone. Olympians Apolo Anton Ohno, Allyson Felix and Brendan Hansen all worked with him for a period and left. (All of them declined through representatives to speak for this story.) But most clients who sign with him have stayed for years.

    A big reason for that is because of the deals he brings them. Torres is an example of what he is capable of doing. Prior to signing with him in 2005, she said she wasn’t getting any deals. Today she has 13 deals with brands ranging from McDonald’s and HP to AmLactin, a skin-care brand, and Sleep Innovations, a mattress manufacturer. She is expected to make more than $2 million in endorsements this year.

    But not all of the deals he has brought to his athletes are clear-cut winners. In 2007, he put together a deal that saw swimmer Beard pose for Playboy. It’s an opportunity that Morgenstein said Beard chose to take, but it has had repercussions for both. It caused some blue-chip brands that had considered Beard for their roster of Olympians to ignore her, and it has caused parents of female Olympians to second-guess signing with Morgenstein, who has two daughters of his own, and tell him that they don’t want to see their daughter in Playboy.

    “It helped and hurt my career in ways I’m still feeling,” Morgenstein conceded.

    A lawsuit that 18 of Morgenstein’s athletes, including Jackie-Joyner Kersee, Torres and Spitz, filed earlier this year against Olympic sponsor Samsung has the potential to do the same thing. The lawsuit alleges the company did not have permission to incorporate the athletes’ names and photos into a Facebook application known as the Samsung Genome Project. No other agency or athletes have joined the lawsuit, but the PMG athletes, who Samsung removed from the Facebook app, stand by their decision to participate and said Morgenstein didn’t push them into the lawsuit.

    Though his name’s not on the lawsuit, Morgenstein knows he will be the one to deal with the fallout of it. Olympic sponsorship executives will wonder if they can trust him in the future. If his athletes are willing to sue Samsung, why wouldn’t they sue Coke or Visa or McDonald’s? But that’s beside the point, in Morgenstein’s eyes.

    “It’s not about me,” he said. “I never filed a lawsuit. … I never coerced anybody to file a lawsuit. Everyone needs to take a deep, big-boy breath and realize these athletes aren’t the cattle they think they are and recognize that each one of them deserves the respect of a conversation if they want to be involved [in a marketing initiative].”

    Twitter has become Morgenstein’s megaphone of choice in his crusade for Olympians’ rights. He has just 2,600 followers, but many of his 14,000 tweets raise questions about the IOC or USOC. Last week, as the IOC ramped up its investigation into black-market ticket sales for the London Games, he posted this tweet.

    “Find it interesting that the IOC is so concerned about athletes #tweeting yet their own members r scalping tickets for a fortune!”

    For Morgenstein, provoking the establishment will never get old.

    Among Morgenstein's clients are (clockwise from top) Dara Torres, shown in an ad for HP; Amanda Beard, featured in People magazine in 2010; Cullen Jones, who has a reported $2 million apparel deal with Nike; and Nastia Liukin, whose "Supergirl" line of apparel is sold at JCPenney.

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