• Skiing in Russia is a lot like these Games: Difficult but awesome

    In Sochi, they built it. They built venues. They built hotels. They built ski resorts.

    Now, the big question is: Will they come?

    I decided the best way to find out was to go skiing. (I know what you’re thinking: Skiing? Tough day at the office, right? But you can report on the lift between runs. Seriously. And I had to come up with some way to justify a ski day to my editor.)

    In the mountain town of Krasnaya Polyana, they have built three new resorts since they won the Olympics in 2007. Russian Oligarch Vladimir Potanin built Rosa Khutor, where alpine events are taking place; Russian-bank Sberbank built Gornaya Karusel; and Russian gas company Gazprom developed a resort that’s hosting biathlon and cross country.

    Like seemingly everything with the Sochi Games, trying to go skiing was more difficult than I imagined. But once on the slopes, like the Sochi Games themselves, things were breathtaking and smooth and amazing and fun and foreign … and all those troubles getting there were just bumps in the past.

    Just another day at the office: Our hard-working reporter poses with Katarina at the top of Gornaya Karusel.
    I left at 8:30 in the morning from the main media center. The bus veered right in Adler and took a brand-new highway that cost $8 billion. Esquire (in Russia) determined that building it with Beluga caviar would have been cheaper. It winds up a valley alongside the Mzymta River, a broad, fast-flowing waterway that snakes its way through a rocky and barren valley to the Black Sea.

    Evidence of Sochi’s security operation was visible the entire hour-long ride. Solitary policemen stand guard between the road and a nearby riverway, and the occasional army tent can be seen tucked into stumpy evergreen trees along the river.

    There were a few villages and some industrial-looking facilities like a sewage treatment center along the way, but nothing is near the road until the bus emerged from a mile-long tunnel and snowcapped peaks came into view. A series of peach and cream apartments, brick and stucco condos and backhoes stood along the highway. This was Krasnaya Polyana.

    The town, like all of the Sochi Games, remains a work in progress. Every other shop is shuttered, and each day new stores, coffee shops and other businesses open. A vacant building one day is a snowboard shop the next.

    I took a second bus to the base of Rosa Khutor and arrived at a ski rental shop at 10 a.m. The shop was downstairs and there was no sign outside. I only found it because I saw ski gear through the window. But finding the shop was only half the process.

    “You check to see if you rent equipment,” the guy at the shop said. “Cash desk 14. Ask — can take equipment on mountain? Buy ticket. Come back.”

    The views at the top of the mountain were well worth the difficult and sometimes frustrating trip to get there.
    At cash desk 14, I showed them my accreditation and asked if I could ski at Rosa Khutor. The woman nodded and entered my passport information into the system. She gave me a card that I took back to the ski rental shop where they set me up with boots, skis and a helmet for 1,100 rubles (a very reasonable $30). Then I slid my gear through an X-ray machine and boarded the gondola to the mountain.

    The gondola climbed up the mountain a few thousand feet. Then I got out and boarded another gondola that climbed another few thousand feet. Then I climbed out and got in line for another gondola that would take me to the top of the 5,000-foot resort. Or tried.

    “Your credential doesn’t go there,” a ski operator said.

    “But they told me at the bottom I could rent equipment,” I said.

    “No. You see the sign,” he said, pointing to a sign that showed that athlete, coach and other credentials worked but not media. “You can maybe come back at 3 o’clock. They are not so strict then.”

    It was noon. I should have already skied a few runs. But I hadn’t even reached the top of the resort. I skied down a little ways and got back in the gondola. I’d been told there was another resort — Gornaya Karusel — that was open, so I returned my gear and headed there.

    I rode a bus back into Krasnaya Polyana and spent another hour getting suited out for rental equipment. Then I stood in line with a lot of people in plain clothes, who were buying tickets to ride the gondolas to the summit.

    The gondola climbed up the mountain a few thousand feet. Then I got out and boarded another gondola that climbed another few thousand feet. Then I boarded another gondola and rode to the top. After six hours of effort, I was finally ready to ski. And the view was amazing.

    Snow-covered mountains stretched into the distance to Georgia. White. Jagged. Stunning. I felt like a mountaineer who had just summited K2 or Everest.

    A guy named Alexander from St. Petersburg was standing right beside me taking in the view, too. He’d been skiing all morning, and I asked him where I should go.

    “This is amazing,” I said. “Do you think you’ll come back?”

    “Maybe, but I don’t think so,” he said. “Here I noticed two things. It’s three to four times cheaper than Austria, but I don’t think people will come. Southern people (in Sochi) are different. I’m not so sure.”

    To Russians in Moscow and St. Petersburg, southern Russians are different. There’s more Georgian influence here. More ethnic diversity. A Russian agent for a Russian hockey player told me last night, “They’re like hillbillies here.” And Alexander and other Russians aren’t convinced they want to hang out with “hillbillies.”

    But a local resident named Katarina who was out skiing in a Team USA Nike jacket had a different opinion. With all the new hotels and resorts, she was confident people will come. Why?

    “For the skiing, of course,” she said. “I’m sure of it. Lots more tourists come.”

    I took a photo with Katarina and then hit my first slope. The sun was bright and it was so warm that I only had on a T-shirt under my jacket. The snow on the groomers was soft, and the run was fast. After six hours of effort, it felt great just to be going fast.

    On my ride up the new quad chair, I sat beside a 21-year-old snowboarder named Sergey Godov. He was in town from Yekaterinburg in the Ural Mountains. Half a world away in another part of Russia. He usually skies in Italy but he was here for the Olympics, and he said he would come back.

    “More people will know about it,” he said. “I will tell my friends it’s pretty OK here and advise them to come here.

    “For a couple of years, (the hotels will) be almost empty, but quite pretty and new. The quality can be shitty sometimes in Russia, but in a couple of years, they’ll arrange things. People will come.”

    I skied the next two hours trying to figure out who was right: Alexander? Katarina? Sergey? Would anyone come back? I, for one, was having a great time, but I also knew there was no way in hell I would ever take a 17-hour trip to come back here and ski. No matter how cool it was. And it was cool.

    Apres consists of kabobs, vodka and dated rap music. A blonde in a pink helmet and a slim-fit black ski suit raised her hands as “Riding Dirty” thumped on the loud speaker. I walked over to buy a beer and found myself in line behind a man in a Squaw Valley jacket.

    “Squaw?!?” I said. “I used to live there.”

    I lived in Tahoe for two years and skied Squaw all the time. The guy’s son went to Squaw Valley Ski School and he was out skiing with U.S. skier Travis Ganong’s aunt, Barbara Ganong, and a small Tahoe contingent.

    “What’d you think?” I asked.

    “It was great,” he said.

    “Skiing’s always great, but would you come back?”

    Barbara jumped in.

    “I know I would,” she said. “I think I’d fly to Europe, ski a few days, and then come here.”

    “Wow,” he said. “Wouldn’t that be great!”

    We all skied down together. A group of five with Tahoe connections skiing half a world away. I savored every second of that run. I may not come back, but I always will be able to say something I never imagined: I skied in Russia … and it was awesome.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: For more from Tripp Mickle's travel blog, click here.

    Tags: Russia, Olympics
  • Knock, knock … who’s there … Vladimir Putin at the USA House

    Russian President Vladimir Putin (center) chats with executives at USA House last Friday.
    On the way to a USA Hockey game last Thursday, Lisa Baird’s phone rang. The USOC marketing chief was in the middle of Olympic Park. Music was blaring from speakers spread across the park. People were streaming past her. It was loud and she strained to listen.

    “Lisa, this is Mikhail,” the caller said.

    She had known Mikhail, who works in the Russian government, for a couple of years because of her work with Sochi 2014 organizers. She listened as he explained that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to visit USA House the next day.

    “Would that be OK?” Mikhail said.

    “Of course,” Baird said.

    She hung up the phone a little startled and slightly confused, and turned to the group of people walking with her to the game. No head of state had visited a USA House since she joined the USOC. And they had never had a visitor remotely as well known worldwide as Putin. It didn’t make sense.

    “I just got a call that Putin wants to visit USA House,” Baird said. “I think Canada is punking us.”

    The USOC and Canadian Olympic Committee have been pranking each other all Games. The USOC has joked that it planned to steal the COC’s beer refrigerator, which only opens for Canadian passports. And they scheduled a street hockey scrimmage later this week.

    Baird was convinced they were messing with her. She double-checked, though, and found out the truth: Sure enough, Putin was coming to visit.

    People in USA House, a large, temporary, one-room building on the edge of Olympic Park, knew something was up the next day when Russian security members showed up in the courtyard. The head of the security team even tasted drinks and sampled food before Putin arrived. He showed up shortly after 6:30 p.m. and visited with USOC Chair Larry Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun in the courtyard.

    The USOC didn’t tell any media about the visit. It opted to break news of the visit on its website, teamusa.org, because it wanted to drive traffic there and control the message. A few staff members from USA Today happened to be there, as did NBC’s Jimmy Roberts. They reported it later.

    The visit was one of a series Putin has made to the hospitality houses of countries competing in the Games. He went to China House last week, as well.

    USOC Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird, shown in 2012, thought the Canadians were pulling a prank on the U.S. staff when she got word that Putin wanted to visit USA House.
    Baird, who runs USA House, is still buzzing about his visit to USA House. She oversees the hospitality center at the Games, and she says she has been encouraging Sochi 2014 organizers and people close to Putin like Mikhail to bring the Russian president by the house for the last two years. She ran the Olympic torch in Russia before the Games and said he had an open invitation. But she still can’t believe he came.

    “He visited our house,” Baird said, two nights later, still stunned. “How cool is that?!?!”

    Baird tells the story about the call she received and Putin’s visit so often that she’s developed a standard ending.

    “You know who’s coming Wednesday?” she asks. “The Stanley Cup.”

    She pauses and grins.

    “You know who’s coming Friday?” she asks. “Bono.”

    It’s tempting to believe her. After all, Putin did visit. But she breaks into a grin before you even have a chance to ask if Bono is at the Olympics.

    “Naaaah,” she says. “I’m just kidding.”

    It’s just a joke … a real one this time.

    Tags: USOC, Russia, Olympics
  • TV Timeout: Oshie, Quick relive U.S. victory over Russia

    Focus turned toward Saturday’s U.S.-Russia hockey game on Monday, as THE DAILY offers some of the sound bites from the last few days of Sochi Olympic on-air conversation.

    T.J. Oshie and
    Jonathan Quick, two stars of the U.S. men’s hockey team, appeared together on “Today” this morning to discuss their shootout victory over Russia on Saturday. NBC’s Matt Lauer said the game “lived up to its billing.” Oshie said of scoring multiple goals in the shootout, “I had a feeling I was going to go again. I didn’t know I was going to keep going, so I was running out of moves there. Really happy the last one went in.” Lauer said, “When it comes right down to it, this is not ‘Miracle On Ice II.’ It’s not 1980 — the game has changed, the world has changed, the way you come up with Olympic teams has changed. But nonetheless, the history is there. … Did you understand the significance of taking on the Russians on their home soil?” Quick said the U.S.-Russia rivalry since the Lake Placid Games “has maybe died down a little bit.” However, he added, “Playing any team on their home soil during the Olympics is pretty special” (“Today,” NBC, 2/17).

    Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney discussed the excessive amount of money the Russian government spent on hosting the Sochi Games and said, “You don’t need to spend $50 billion dollars, as Russia has or as China did, to put (on) an Olympic sport. Olympic sport can be demonstrated at $2 (billion) to $3 billion, and all that extra money can be used to do some very important things in terms of fighting poverty and fighting disease around the world.” He said there is “no question” that Russia President Vladimir Putin views the money as well spent. However, Romney added, “I think the International Olympic Committee is going to have to take action to limit how much is spent on an Olympic Games” (“Meet the Press, NBC, 2/16).

    Under Armour’s controversial racing suits that the U.S. Speedskating team debuted in Sochi garnered a fair amount of discussion over the weekend. The Boston Globe’s Bob Ryan asked, “What sense did it make to make this change just prior to an Olympics? Dumb timing.” Dallas Morning News columnist Tim Cowlishaw asked, “What do they do in those four years between the Games? Don’t they test suits? Can’t they figure out whether this vent on the back is a really bad idea?” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 2/14). ESPN’s Keith Olbermann added, “Once the phrase was, ‘Must have been the shoes.’ Now it’s, ‘Must have been the skate suit’” (“Olbermann,” ESPN2, 2/14).

    Tags: Russia, Hockey, NBC, Olympics
  • Octagon pitching in with Mikaela Shiffrin’s representation

    18-year-old U.S. alpine skier Mikaela Shiffrin
    Octagon is working with Mikaela Shiffrin’s agent, Kilian Albrecht, to represent the alpine skier globally.

    The agency’s Olympic division, which is led by Michael Phelps’ agent, Peter Carlisle, will provide marketing, communications and legal support to Albrecht and collaborate with him on managing Shiffrin’s endorsement career.

    “For an athlete like Mikaela, you need a whole team,” Albrecht said. “It makes sense to work with Peter because he’s been working with the best. Michael Phelps is the best, most successful Olympian.”

    Carlisle said, “We plan to help Kilian manage her through a long-term, dynamic Olympic career, which we hope Mikaela has. It helps to have a good amount of experience with Olympians, which we have.”

    Shiffrin, 18, is considered a favorite to medal in Friday’s slalom competition and is a contender in Tuesday’s giant slalom. She’s established herself as the most talented young skier on the U.S. team with seven World Cup wins and 13 podium finishes in the last two years.

    Albrecht, a former Olympic skier from Austria, has worked with her since 2011. He has helped secure her deals with Atomic, Oakley, Leki, Snap Fusion SuperCandy, Proctor & Gamble and Barilla, the Italian pasta brand.

    Octagon assisted Albrecht on the P&G deal. Carlisle said that their focus will be on adding endorsements with companies that are interested in promoting Shiffrin globally.

    “Our biggest challenge globally is figuring out how to leverage her in Europe (where skiing is popular),” Carlisle said. “There are different countries, different companies, and they all have their own athletes. It’s hard to get them to activate globally.”

    In addition to Phelps, Octagon works with snowboarders Kelly Clark and Hannah Teter, swimmer Natalie Coughlin and others.

    Albrecht had been working with Wasserman Media Group’s Michael Spencer on Shiffrin’s business in the U.S., but they cut ties last year. He initially was interested in finding someone who could assist him in securing deals in the U.S. market, but he ultimately decided to partner with Carlisle and pursue deals globally because of Carlisle’s management of Phelps and others.

     “They have a great legal team and that’s not my main expertise, and everything they’ve done in marketing with Phelps has been great stuff,” Albrecht said. “Mikaela is my client, and I want to give her the best service. I want to find the right people to work together with to provide her the best of the best.”

    Shiffrin is the highest-profile alpine skier Octagon has worked with. The agency currently represents Nolan Kasper, and it previously worked with Kirsten Clark and Megan Garrity.

    Albrecht’s other clients include Veronika Zuzulova and Lina Durr.

    Tags: Octagon, Olympics
  • NBC Saturday night is lowest Olympic prime-time rating since '06

    NBC earned a 9.6 fast-national rating and 17.1 million viewers for Olympic coverage on Saturday from 8:30 to 11 p.m. ET, down sharply from comparable coverage during both the 2010 Vancouver and 2006 Turin Games. Saturday night’s telecast from Sochi included gold-medal finals for women’s super G, men’s short-track speedskating, men’s speedskating, men’s ski jumping and men’s skeleton.

    The 9.6 rating is the lowest for any Olympic prime-time telecast (Summer or Winter) since the Turin closing ceremony drew an 8.9 rating (14.8 million viewers). Despite the drop, NBC had an easy win on Saturday in prime time.

    The comparable Saturday night from Vancouver drew a 14.7 rating and 26.7 million viewers, while the same night from Turin drew an 11.3 rating and 19.7 million viewers. Through Saturday night, NBC is averaging a 13.2 rating (23.5 million viewers), up 14 percent from Turin, but down 10 percent from Vancouver.

    Tags: NBC, Olympics
  • U.S.-Russia matchup marks record hockey audience for NBCSN

    The U.S.-Russia game struck gold for NBCSN.
    The U.S. men’s hockey team continued to pay dividends for NBC Sports Network, as Saturday’s U.S.-Russia matchup drew a record audience for any hockey game on the channel. The 4.1 million viewers for the game, which was played from 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. ET, outpaced the 4.0 million viewers for last year’s Blackhawks-Bruins Stanley Cup Final Game 3. U.S.-Russia peaked at 6.4 million viewers during the 10-10:30 a.m. window, when the game went into an eight-round shootout. That figure marked the most-viewed 30-minute window in NBC Sports Net history.

    The network also averaged 2.9 million for its daytime window, marking a record for that 6 a.m. to 3 p.m. window.

    Tags: Russia, Hockey
  • IOC reprices TOP deals at $200M

    The International Olympic Committee has set a new price point for TOP sponsorships, nearly doubling the cost of four-year global sponsorships from $100 million to $200 million.

    SBJ Podcast:
    From Sochi: SBJ Olympics writer Tripp Mickle and Tom Shepard, former Visa marketer and current 21 Marketing partner, discuss the Sochi Games and how sponsors are faring on the ground.

    Panasonic last week became the first TOP partner to sign an agreement beyond 2020. Sources familiar with the deal said the eight-year sponsorship, which runs from 2017 to 2024, is worth $350 million to $400 million overall.

    IOC TV and marketing services director Timo Lumme declined to discuss financial details but said that the IOC had secured an increase.

    “The last pricing [of TOP] was done in 2005 to 2010, so it’s appropriate for there to be a repricing, and the price increases are significant, which reflects the value of the TOP program,” Lumme said.

    Since 2005, four-year TOP sponsorships have been valued at $100 million to $120 million. (TOP prices vary from category to category.) The Panasonic deal has the potential to increase TOP prices to $175 million to $200 million over four years and could allow the IOC to increase its sponsorship revenue from $1 billion to as much as $2 billion for the 2021 to 2024 period.

    “We’ve always said the program has been undervalued the last five or 10 years, and if they’ve corrected the pricing, it’s long overdue,” said Rob Prazmark, founder of 21 Marketing, which evaluated the TOP program for the IOC in 2009. “Those numbers will be difficult for some companies to adjust to, but other corporations will step up and fill the void of those that decide not to keep pace because of the value there.”

    Related stories:

    The Panasonic deal, which was announced just before the Sochi Games opened, caught the IOC’s other TOP partners by surprise. At a workshop last year, the IOC had said it was considering changing the TOP program and didn’t plan to sign any deals beyond 2020.

    Coca-Cola, Dow, Procter & Gamble, Visa, GE, Omega, McDonald’s and Atos Origin had all signed deals through 2020. Only Panasonic and Samsung had deals that ended in 2016.

    Following the IOC’s selection of Tokyo as the host city of the 2020 Olympics, Panasonic was eager to sign a new deal. The IOC, which prefers to sign eight-year deals, took advantage of the company’s interest to secure a huge price increase and set the future value of TOP.

    Executives at Coca-Cola, which had always been the first TOP sponsor to extend its Olympics deal, were not happy about the extension, according to sources. Other TOP sponsors were frustrated by the IOC’s move.

    “They told us one thing and then did another,” an executive with a TOP sponsor said. “What changed?”

    At the IOC session in Argentina last fall, Lumme said the IOC was looking to increase prices and possibly reduce the number of global sponsors from 10 to 12 to five to six. He said last week the IOC could still change TOP’s structure and opt to have fewer partners, but for now, the plan is to preserve the status quo.

    The IOC is in extension talks with Samsung and plans to open negotiations with other TOP partners soon. It also is looking at adding one or two new sponsors in industrial and consumer categories.

    “We’re in the fortunate position where we could stop the program now, but we’re not going to,” Lumme said.

    Lumme said that the IOC is looking to deliver more value to the sponsors. It is exploring ways to have signage in future Olympic Parks, looking to create programs for sport development and hoping to develop an Olympic network that offers new media value.

    “The core proposition as a global program that gives exclusivity in a category across all Olympic stakeholders won’t change,” Lumme said. “What may change is what we put into the pot in terms of goodies (and) the way we allow partners to activate.”

    Tags: Olympics, Visa, IOC
  • IOC to explore channel launch

    Five years after shutting down an effort to launch an Olympic channel in the U.S., the International Olympic Committee is looking to launch a network of its own.

    IOC President Thomas Bach received approval from IOC members during meetings at the Sochi Games to explore the viability of an Olympic channel. The IOC’s TV and marketing division and its production arm, the Olympic Broadcasting Service, will prepare a feasibility study for the IOC to evaluate at meetings in December.

    SBJ Podcast:
    From Sochi: SBJ Olympics writer Tripp Mickle and Sports Illustrated's Richard Deitsch assess the first week of the Sochi Games and NBC's performance.

    “On the one hand, you’re looking at different type of product — a traditional linear channel, digital, there’s various iterations of it — and asking, ‘What would it be?’” said Timo Lumme, the IOC’s director of TV and marketing services. “After that, you’re looking at the market side of it. What sort of penetration and what sort of audience are we looking at. And there’s a revenue side. Will this create revenue and be sustainable?”

    Lumme said that the IOC won’t begin answering those questions until after the Sochi Games. Its findings and recommendations regarding a channel will be presented to the entire IOC membership for consideration at the end of the year.

    The IOC’s pivot in the last five years from opposing an Olympic channel in the U.S. to exploring one reflects the change in priorities between former IOC President Jacques Rogge, whose term ended last fall, and his successor.

    When the USOC’s planned Olympic channel was squashed, the IOC was preparing to negotiate its TV rights for the 2014-2020 Olympics. It also was in the middle of a heated, revenue-sharing dispute with the USOC.

    Both issues have since been resolved. NBC agreed to pay $4.4 billion for the rights to the 2014-2020 Olympics, and the USOC agreed to a revenue-sharing agreement that gives the IOC a greater percentage of Olympic sponsorship and TV money.

    Bach revived the idea of an Olympic channel during his campaign for presidency because he believes it can raise the profile of Olympic sports outside the 17 days of a Summer or Winter Games and help the organization reach new, young viewers.

    “This is not now a question about money,” Bach said before being elected president last September. “This is a question about addressing youth. If you do not see enough Olympic sports on TV and the Internet, then these other sports will lose more and more (participants) and young athletes.”

    Lumme said that the IOC also wants the channel to promote Olympic values like peace and active living.

    “That’s a pretty broad canvas,” Lumme said. “My objective is to see what’s the best way to deliver against those objectives on a global basis.”

    The IOC already has a YouTube channel that shows mostly highlights and archival footage of past Olympic Games. If it opts to create a digital Olympic channel, it could look to expand the on-demand offerings on YouTube. It also has two sponsors who make televisions, Panasonic and Samsung, who could pre-load their Smart TVs with an Olympic channel as an option alongside Hulu and Netflix.

    In the U.S., the organization could partner with its broadcast partner, NBC, and convert Universal Sports, a channel NBC co-owns with Intermedia Partners, into an Olympic channel.

    “At this stage, there’s no such thing as a bad idea,” Lumme said. “There’s not one way to achieve the objectives we’re talking about. There are lots of ways depending on the market, so I’m eager to hear NBC’s thoughts.”

    USOC Chairman Larry Probst offered his support for an Olympic channel at the IOC meetings in Sochi, but he encouraged the organization to focus on digital. Probst, who’s also the chairman of Electronic Arts, reminded IOC members that young people don’t watch TV anymore.

    NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus also is supportive of an Olympic network.

    “I don’t think it would do any harm,” Lazarus said. “It could only help our business.”

    Lumme said the IOC is talking to other international broadcasters about the channel. Though he doesn’t know when or how the IOC would move forward on a network, he did say that the focus wasn’t on creating an asset that enriches the IOC.

    “This is not a college sports channel play or NFL channel play,” Lumme said. “This is about increasing the overall value proposition as part of our partnership for broadcasters, for partners, for our whole ecosystem.”

    Tags: Olympics
  • ‘New guard’ creates new feel with NBC

    Shortly after 4 p.m. last Wednesday, NBC Sports Group’s top executives gathered in a makeshift conference room within NBC’s massive Sochi compound.

    There was nothing remarkable about the meeting — it was similar to production meetings the group holds all 18 days of the Games.

    But the half-hour “whiteboard meeting” — where NBC executives of all stripes weigh in on that night’s prime-time show — reflected a more collaborative environment at the network and illustrated how different NBC’s Olympic operation in Sochi is from past Games it produced under the eye of the network’s longtime Olympics producer Dick Ebersol.

    Six members of NBC’s production and executive team ringed four tables pushed together at the center of the room. Executive producer Jim Bell, who led the meeting, grabbed a sheet off the table and uncapped a blue marker. He scanned the sheet and began scribbling on the board, humming as he filled in slots numbered 1 to 22.

    “Do you want Russian pairs or Shani?” Bell asked the group about a specific afternoon slot on NBC. The choice was between a profile of a Russian pairs figure skating team or a profile of U.S. speedskater Shani Davis.

    Joe Gesue, NBC senior vice president of production, pushed for the Russian figure skating profile to be shown, believing it would be the best way to tease NBC’s prime-time programming block, which was slated to show the figure skating competition.

    But NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus, standing behind the conference table, objected. He was OK with the tease, but he wanted to be sure that the figure skating competition wouldn’t air on NBC before prime time.

    “I’ve got an affiliate concern,” Lazarus said. NBC affiliates could be angry if the network showed clips of the figure skating competition before prime time. Showing the competition live on cable was fine; broadcast was not.

    Bell understood and nodded.

    These are the Games of Lazarus and Bell. There was no doubt that they were the ones in charge, with Bell focused on production and Lazarus on business. Tasked with replacing the legendary Ebersol as the Olympics’ producer for the London Games in 2012, they have developed a collaborative style that permeates NBC’s entire Olympic operation.

    SBJ Podcast:
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    Ebersol attended the London Olympics, spending his days in the NBC compound and participating in these types of production meetings. For Sochi, he is half a world away, staying in Hawaii as NBC produces the Games.

    Home base in Stamford, Conn., handles the
    digital effort behind the production in Sochi.
    Photos by: NBC
    The differences can be seen everywhere: whiteboard meetings that include both business and production executives; live daytime telecasts of figure skating on a cable channel; the streaming of every single winter competition.

    NBC’s Olympic strategy in Sochi presents a microcosm of the direction the network plans to take with the Olympics in the coming years.

    “There’s definite confidence in our strategy,” Lazarus said, shortly after the meeting. “There’s a sense we know what we’re doing,
    and we’re going to keep doing it.”

    ■ ■ ■

    The London Games were Lazarus’ first. From the start of them, he was under fire. There was criticism of the quality of NBC’s live streaming. There were complaints about the network’s tape-delay coverage. There was an entire social media movement: #NBCfails.

    Through the first week of the Sochi Games, things have run much smoother. Before the Games even started, Lazarus addressed NBC’s tape-delay, prime-time strategy with the press. He decided to put figure skating live on NBC Sports Network for the first time — potentially hurting the broadcast network’s prime-time ratings. And the quality of its video streaming online has been much better than it was in London.

    “We have a calmness,” Lazarus said. “We believed coming in that our plan would work. We’re more at ease.”

    The team around Lazarus, who oversees the business, and Bell, who oversees the Olympics production, has changed. Not only is Ebersol absent. So is Bucky Gunts, who directed prime-time Olympic broadcasts, and Molly Solomon, a longtime Olympics producer.

    In their place are longtime NBC employees who grew up in the Ebersol school of the Olympics but now are operating under the new regime. There’s Gesue, who is the production department’s second in command to Bell; coordinating producer Becky Chatman, a newcomer; prime-time director Mike Sheehan, who is new to his role; senior vice president of production Mark Levy; producer Brian Orentreich; and NBC Olympics President Gary Zenkel.

    “There’s a new guard,” Lazarus said. “Sitting in that control room is very different from the control room in London. Not better. Not worse. Just different. I feel very confident in that team.”

    ■ ■ ■

    Different is also a word NBC’s digital executives are using for these Olympics.

    It’s not just about NBC’s digital offerings (every event is being streamed live) or traffic numbers (digital growth is up 54 percent from Vancouver, NBC executives said last week).

    Rather, NBC’s digital executives have been given the mandate to have more fun. It’s a different mindset that highlights viral videos alongside live streamed events.

    “In the past, sometimes we’ve been accused of missing the quirky, cool stuff about the Olympics and being straight laced and focusing on the competition,” said Tom Seeley, vice president of editorial for NBCSports.com and NBCOlympics.com.

    As an example, Seeley pointed to video of Shiva Keshavan, an Indian luge athlete who crashed during a training run on Feb. 7 and managed to get back on his sled to complete his race. The video went viral and brought a lot of traffic to NBCOlympics.com.

    “We really wanted to make sure that we got that clip out there and make sure that folks knew that we had it, and if you wanted to see it, this was the place to go,” said Seeley, who is working his fourth Olympics. “We want to make sure that we’re feeding into what folks are looking for on the Web. They don’t have to go find a second-rate version of it. We have the video, and we will make it available to the most folks possible, not try to pretend that’s something we wouldn’t touch because it was something that isn’t part of our high-brow coverage.”

    Seeley and a group of about 400 NBC Digital employees are working out of NBC’s new offices in Stamford, Conn. He credits the fact that the entire team is working under one roof for the first time with helping NBC take ownership of these types of viral clips.

    A group of 75 people make up what’s called a Highlights Factory, tasked with watching every piece of Olympics coverage and identifying key moments. When Keshavan’s run ended, someone from the Highlights Factory walked down the hall to the newsroom to let them know a clip was coming.

    “We were able to get it out there pretty quickly,” Seeley said. “That still would have happened in the old system. But it would have been a lot of emails and phone calls and added steps to that process.”

    ■ ■ ■

    NBC has 2,700 employees in Sochi, working on everything from the Olympics to “Nightly News” to the “Today” show. Many, including Lazarus, arrived in January to begin preparing for the Games, which began Feb. 6.

    Sochi is significant, as it’s the first Olympics deal that Lazarus negotiated. NBC signed a $4.4 billion deal for the 2014-2020 Olympics shortly after he arrived.

    Every afternoon in Sochi, Lazarus and the rest of his team wait for NBC’s report card. Overnight ratings arrive around 4 p.m. local time. Lazarus was in his office when the ratings update arrived for the Wednesday night show NBC sketched out on the white board.

    The show earned a strong 13.3 overnight rating. The production team had to rework the show because Davis failed to medal in speedskating that day, but a gold medal for Team USA in women’s halfpipe helped the TV number.

    Lazarus nodded when he heard the number. For him, it was more confirmation of the strategy put in place for the Sochi Games. Advertisers are happy — NBC is meeting its ratings guarantees to them.

    NBC was dominating prime time and posting numbers slightly lower than Vancouver, a North American Olympics. NBC Sports Network viewership had soared to record levels.

    “There’s a strange obsession with prime-time ratings,” Lazarus said. “To us, this is an Olympic business, not a prime-time schedule. Prime time is important and it’s a big revenue driver, but the story is Americans … are watching in many forms in all parts of the day.”

    This view marks another example of the collaborative mindset at work. NBC no longer is focused on just building up the prime-time block. Its all-encompassing multi-platform strategy brings a lot more people to the table.

    Four years ago, when Ebersol produced his last Olympic Games in Vancouver, the tablet had yet to be introduced. Now, more people are using tablets to watch the Sochi Games than PCs or laptops. NBC is seeing record numbers not only for digital, but also for its cable sports channel, NBC Sports Network.

    There’s a new regime at NBC with a new mandate that goes beyond broadcast prime time. For NBC executives, it’s a change that already looks to be paying dividends in Sochi.

    Tags: NBC, Olympics, Russia, Media
  • SBJ Podcast: Peter Carlisle of Octagon

    SBJ Olympics writer Tripp Mickle talks with Peter Carlisle, head of Octagon's Olympic division, about representing Olympic medalists and how agents can make the most out of the marketing and media
    SBJ's Tripp Mickle (left) and Peter Carlisle, head of Octagon's Olympic practice
    opportunities that presents. Among Carlisle's clients are Jamie Anderson, gold medalist in women's slopestyle at Sochi, and Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history. Among the discussion:

    "The (first) 24 hours, the focus is on media. The window is so small generally because that story could be replaced the next day. … So you want to take advantage of the moment and make sure you get that story and that personality out there to as many people as you can. … I think it's a mistake to focus on commercializing that too quickly."

    "The hope is that if you can generate enough media over a long enough period of time, then it won't just be a hospitality appearance. It'll be an actual deal that might give legs into the future for these athletes."

    Tags: Octagon, Olympics, SBJSBD Podcast
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