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Volume 25 No. 28

On The Ground: Winter Games

U.S. Ski & Snowboard would prefer its athletes didn’t leave South Korea when they still have Olympic events left. But is Red Gerard, the 17-year-old Olympic champion snowboarder who’s become an overnight sensation, going to stay in Korea when fame and fortune await him in America?

“As the first medalist, and with Red’s story, of course I’m leaving,” said his agent, Ryan Runke of Evolution Management + Marketing. “I’m getting him out of here right away. A, we’re not going to miss the opportunity for all the press hits, and B, it’s a good break for him to get out of here for a while. Thirty days is a long time [to be in Korea].”

Snowboarding gold-medalist Red Gerard has been an overnight sensation in the U.S.
Photo: Getty Images

The moment Gerard won, the clock started ticking on the ephemeral Olympic fame window, and Runke strategized with three people at the foot of the Phoenix Snow Park: U.S. Ski & Snowboard communications director Tom Webb; Fuse’s Lauren Machen, who is working for Gerard’s beverage sponsor, Mountain Dew; and Laura Anderson Sanchez from the publicity agency MFA.

The itinerary for his American media tour was set by 7 p.m. on Sunday, not eight hours later. Mountain Dew, which as a non-rings rights holder must tread carefully during the Olympic blackout period, is paying for the trip and hired Red’s brother Malachi to act as his personal manager, videographer and social media aid.

They decided Gerard would fly home Tuesday, do “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” then head to New York for “Good Morning America,” “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” “CBS Evening News,” Sports Illustrated, People and whatever else they can book. Only then he’ll return to Korea, where he still has the big air competition on the last Friday of the Games.

(Incidentally, USS approved Gerard’s trip after it was clear he could do the media tour and still be back in time to acclimatize and prepare for big air.)

Gerard is the classic action/Olympic sport crossover — he’s been a well-known personality in snowboarding for several years but still fits the bill for the mainstream Olympian breakout star. He wasn’t a prominent part of NBC’s advance promotions, and his personal sponsorship roster only recently added U.S. Olympic Committee sponsors Comcast, Hershey (Ice Breakers) and Oakley.

Working on six hours of sleep in two days, Gerard’s agent Ryan Runke talks about his client’s media tour at Paris Baguette in Phoenix Snow Park on Tuesday.
Photo: Ben Fischer

The situation is a massive business opportunity for Runke and Evolution, which recruited Runke and Gerard away from Prime Sports + Entertainment in January 2016. Non-endemic mainstream brands that hesitated on Gerard in the last year have already reached out.

“The phone started ringing,” said Runke, working on just six hours sleep since the gold medal two days earlier. “People started calling, saying, ‘Hey, we might want to be interested.’ Great, I’m glad you said no, or didn’t call me back two weeks ago, because now it just got more expensive.”

For Evolution, Gerard is just the first of several serious medal contenders in Pyeongchang. Clients Ben Ferguson and Chase Josey advanced to the finals of the men’s snowboard halfpipe on Wednesday, and freekiers Maggie Voisin, Maddie Bowman and Alex Hall are still to come next week.

“It’s the start of a good run, knock on wood,” said Tom Yaps, who helped recruit Runke to Evolution two years ago. The agency has the most American snowboard and freeski athletes of any single agency, though Wasserman does have a large international roster.

Sean Messing, Oakley’s global marketing manager, said Gerard is the total package: a star and a personality ideal for lifestyle brands. Oakley signed Gerard on Jan. 1.

“He’s a great contest rider, he’s super stylish, people are always watching to see what he’s doing,” Messing said. “But on top of that, he’s not just going from contest to contest, he’s out there filming, doing backcountry and traveling.”

Oakley will have to negotiate a longer deal to keep Gerard with the glasses brand. “This was to get him into the program,” Messing said. “I think we proved it in the first month that it made a lot of sense.”

Los Angeles ’28 Chairman Casey Wasserman’s role at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics feels a bit like the job description of a modern European king: Show up, eat well, make friends and under no circumstances actually do anything.

A relaxed Casey Wasserman in the lobby of the Kensington Flora Hotel
Photo: Ben Fischer

I caught up with Wasserman just hours before the opening ceremony on Friday, in an empty restaurant inside Pyeongchang’s Kensington Flora Hotel. Clad in a snow camouflage parka and sporting a light beard, he explained that the International Olympic Committee has asked LA28 to refrain from making formal presentations to the IOC session as future host cities generally do because it’s such a low priority compared to earlier Games in Tokyo, Beijing and Paris.

So he’s left to attend the IOC President’s Dinner and maybe take in a few sporting events (though his itinerary for Sunday of the men’s downhill and the women’s giant slalom were both canceled due to weather) and watch the show unfold.

“[I’m] trying to imagine what is going to be important or fundamental to what we do, so just being here and seeing the experience here — your experience, what’s the press experience? How do fans get into Olympic park?,” he said. “That’s all the stuff when you don’t have to build anything you can actually focus on, and the best way for me to get my head around what we should be focusing my energy and opportunity on is to experience it myself.”

The substantive high point of his three days in Korea was Saturday night, when he had dinner with new IOC sponsor Alibaba’s executive team and then attended the debut of the unified Korean hockey team. Alibaba is one of the only sponsors, along with Omega, to have already extended past Paris ’24.

At the IOC President’s Dinner on Thursday night, Wasserman was at the head table along with the IOC executive board, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and, speaking of royalty, the royals who sit on the IOC.

Wasserman considered — but couldn’t bring himself — to ask IOC member Princess Anne (the oldest daughter of Queen Elizabeth II and brother to Prince Charles) about the hit Netflix show “The Crown,” which portrays her father, Prince Philip, as a particularly uncaring husband and father.

“I said to someone — it’s a long, narrow table, she wasn’t right across from me directly, but she was two over — and I wonder what she’d say if I asked her about ‘The Crown?’” Wasserman said. “But I’m probably not going to ask her, so I’m just not going to find out. My guess is, I’m not sure a lot of people have the balls to ask her about ‘The Crown.’”

Sunday night, he was scheduled to depart for NBC’s Olympic program in Jackson Hole, Wyo., before returning to L.A. on Tuesday.

KT Tape dispatched an emissary to South Korea on Monday night armed with 100 rolls of the brand’s “Gentle” line to give to Team USA after skier Ted Ligety wore KT Tape on his face to protect from the cold wind.

Once again, the Olympics have created a rare lightning-in-a-bottle opportunity for the Utah company, which first found serious traction after beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings and others conspicuously wore it during the 2008 Beijing Games.

U.S. skier Ted Ligety used KT Tape to protect from Pyeongchang's harsh winds and cold weather.
Photo: Getty Images

Ten years and a U.S. Olympic Committee licensing deal later, viewers are still managed to be surprised by the tape — in part because the tape often makes for a striking departure from the usual athletic look, and also because athletes find new ways to use it.

Ligety’s purpose — for warmth — is an “off label” use, said CEO Greg Venner. “I get it, but it’s not something we’ve really explored very deeply,” he said. “To recommend it to the world’s elite athletes, I’m not quite ready to go there.”

Nevertheless, KT won’t let the opportunity go by without throwing the full weight of the company behind it. Its marketing consultant, Guillermo Rojas of Torre Consulting, packed up 100 rolls of KT Tape Gentle and jumped on a plane Monday to Korea. As part of its ongoing USOC relationship, KT Tape Pro was made available to all athletes, but the Gentle version is best for sensitive faces, Rojas said.

“Should be enough for every outdoor athlete,” he said.

Stateside, KT Tape also is leveraging the social media attention it got from figure skater Mirai Nagasu, who wore a large piece of tape on her thigh during her performance Monday. Many Twitter users thought it might be a tattoo, and KT Tape’s social team was more than happy to clarify. As a result of Nagusu’s tape, KT Tape’s Twitter impressions in 24 hours tripled its usual weekly total, Venner said, and its website traffic doubled.

KT Tape does sign sponsorship deals with athletes ahead of time, but the best incremental gain in awareness often comes from surprises. Venner said the executive and marketing teams will watch for their product in sports, and if they see it, they’ll mobilize the social media team and look for chances to engage with users. They did the same thing when Tom Brady wore it on his thumb in the Super Bowl.

“I wouldn’t say it was a core competency as recently as 18 months ago,” Venner said, “but I think with the last Olympics round, we learned we have to be really prepared for it, and each time it happens we learn a little bit more and adjust our game plan accordingly.”

KT Tape was slow to enter the Winter Olympics, in part because its executives thought the cold weather meant less exposed skin and therefore fewer obvious places to display the tape.

Ben Fischer

So much of the Winter Olympics feels very foreign. Obviously, right? It’s an international event.

But this is my first Winter Games, and unlike the Summer Games, where the marquee sports are played in high schools and on fields in all 50 states, the Winter Games are full of oddities like biathlon, ski jumping and luge, along with their unfamiliar rules, lingo and traditions.

So my trip to the women’s snowboard halfpipe finals was a welcome return to Americana, at least for a couple hours. What do I mean by that?

First of all, Americans took three of the top four spots. But also, the event just felt more American — pop music playing, English public address commentary that verged into humor at times, and prominent branding. (Officially, snowboard is no different from any other Olympic event in the limits placed on brands, but when the replay video board shows Chloe Kim, mid-flip, the bottom of her board may as well be a Burton billboard.)

Chloe Kim's dominance in the halfpipe seemed as much a coronation as a competition.
Photo: Getty Images

Kim won in dominating fashion, posting a 93.75 on her first of three runs. It turns out she could have slid down the halfpipe on her butt in her next two runs and still won gold.

But, here again displaying an American — or perhaps Jamaican-Usain Bolt — mentality, she still had a show to put on. After her second run, she took to Twitter and said: “Wish I finished my breakfast sandwich but my stubborn self decided not to and now I’m getting hangry.”

On her third run, she tried back-to-back 1080s and nailed it, improving her score to 98.25.

If there was a downside to the event, it was the lack of drama. China’s Jiayu Liu’s second run scored an 89.75, but no one else came within eight points of Kim’s first run. Most of the last half-hour felt like we were waiting for a coronation, which of course we were.

Kim has been projected to win this event by a wide margin for years, but U.S. Olympic history has enough seemingly sure-things who never quite closed the deal for today still to be celebrated. Now, Kim will turn to another American tradition: The intense media and appearances tour that will turn her from a snowboarding star into a national icon.