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Volume 25 No. 88

On The Ground: Winter Games

Los Angeles ’28 has begun a search for the top executive of the joint venture it will create with the U.S. Olympic Committee to sell combined domestic Olympic rights through the 2028 Games, Chairman Casey Wasserman said.

IOC rules require the host city to consolidate commercial programs with its national Olympic committee during the run-up to the Games, to avoid competition and balance the interests of the one-off organizing committee with the ongoing business of Team USA.

Wasserman said he’s already conducted one interview for the top job and said, “I’ll be shocked if we weren’t significantly staffed by summer.” The plan currently is targeting $1.76 billion in domestic sponsorship sales.

LA28 can begin selling these combined rights in January 2019. Every existing USOC deal expires in 2020, and those current rights holders have a right to first negotiation, but not to match.

Details of the body’s organization chart are still to be determined, but Wasserman has told all USOC marketing staff, including CMO Lisa Baird, they’d have a role in the organization if they want it. “I’ve told them they all do, and we’re excited to have them,” Wasserman said. “It doesn’t mean they won’t have a new boss, or a new employee.”

The joint venture’s board of directors will include four LA28 appointees and two USOC appointees.

USA Luge suffered a body blow after the 2010 Winter Games when longtime sponsor Verizon ended its 30-year relationship with the governing body.

But two of the top moments in American luge history have occurred since then: Erin Hamlin’s bronze medal in the women’s singles in 2014 and Chris Mazdzer’s surprise silver in the men’s singles on Monday. Both were the first singles luge medals for the country in each gender.

The medals unlock substantial increases in cash assistance from the U.S. Olympic Committee, but on the commercial side, USA Luge executives credit a collection of smaller, obscure companies that have stepped in to try to fill Verizon’s shoes, like the Worcester, Mass.-based abrasives maker Norton Saint-Gobain.

“Four years, ago, when I came in, the biggest challenge we had was trying to find new sponsors,” said USA Luge CEO Jim Leahy. “When Verizon walked away after 2010, we struggled on finding sponsors, and although you’d like that one big sponsor who provides a ton of cash, what we’ve done is been able to fill the Verizon gap with a number of other sponsors, which has brought up to the financial level we needed.”

In the fiscal year ending August 2016, USA Luge posted revenue of $2.38 million, up 37 percent from 2011, the year after Verizon left. The top line is now 4 percent higher than Verizon’s last year in 2010.

Along with Norton Saint-Gobain, other key sponsors include Team Worldwide, a Texas-based global logistics provider; U.S. Venture, a Wisconsin distributor of energy, automotive and lubricant products; Duluth Trading Co.; Vulcan GMS, a Milwaukee maker of heavy industrial and medical products. White Castle sponsors a talent development program, too. (On the other extreme, global Olympic sponsor Dow is also a technical sponsor of USA Luge.)

Brad Johnson (center), vice president, Saint-Gobain Abrasives North America, hangs with USA Luge family members and fans at the women's singles event Tuesday in Pyeongchang.
Photo: Ben Fischer

Norton Saint-Gobain had been involved with USA Luge since 1980, before Norton was acquired by Saint-Gobain. Its decision to replace Verizon as the lead financial sponsor, albeit at a lower price point, was a way to create closer ties with a trusted friend, said Brad Johnson, vice president of Saint-Gobain Abrasives North America. Through joint research and development, the company helped create a new steel recipe for USA Luge’s sleds.

It’s a great fit, Johnson said, because they share a certain under-the-radar mindset. Also, the employees who work directly with USA Luge are motivated and energized by the partnership, and the luge athletes are big draws at company events.

“It’s not one of the glamour sports,” Johnson said. “It’s not skiing or ice skating. We felt these athletes, we could help them, not just financially but also with the technology. I noticed and saw a passion with the few employees that were working on it, and I thought we could expand that. … It’s a natural fit for our companies. We’re behind the scenes. We’re not the car, but we help make the car.”

As Leahy notes, most of the new-era sponsors are not involved in sports sponsorship elsewhere, so the USA Luge deal stands out. And working with smaller companies draws out a familial tie that would be difficult to create with a major corporation.

At the World Cup event that USA Luge hosted in Lake Placid in December, Norton Saint-Gobain brought 70 people. U.S. Venture sent about 50, and Team Worldwide nearly 40.

“If we had a major company, let’s just take Verizon, how many key executives from Verizon would actually show up at a Luge World Cup in minus 3-degree temperatures?” Leahy asked.

At the banquet after the event, Johnson surprised the parents of all 10 members of the Olympic team with $2,000 checks to help with their Korean travel costs. It was the result of a secret plan Johnson hatched in Sochi to put aside some money each year for that purpose.

Norton Saint-Gobain, which renewed through 2022 with USA Luge along with Team Worldwide and U.S. Venture that night, has baked the travel grants into its new deal, he said.

Johnson traveled with the tight-knit luge family to Korea, and he saw Mazdzer’s silver medal win on Monday and saw Hamlin finish sixth in her last Olympic singles run. He said he was excited to be in person to support the families, and he hopes Mazdzer’s medal will spur additional deals.

“For me, it’s awesome because hopefully that will bring more sponsors in, because I think the luge team can do that,” Johnson said. “We provide money, and a lot of technical support, but this isn’t an exclusive thing.”

U.S. Ski & Snowboard Chairman Dexter Paine at Wednesday's men's halfpipe finals
Photo: Ben Fischer

A beaming U.S. Ski & Snowboard Chairman Dexter Paine stopped to take stock of the snowboard competition so far at Pyeongchang 2018 on Wednesday, moments after congratulating Shaun White and his runners-up at the snowboard halfpipe competition.

Not only have all four American gold medals come in snowboarding, but Paine also cheered Japanese boarder Ayumu Hirano finishing second and Australian Scotty James finishing third.

“This is exactly the podium we could have asked for, in terms of promoting the sport,” said Paine, also a board member of the International Ski Federation. “You had diversity in terms of Australia, Japan and the U.S. For us, it’s been a remarkable four days for our snowboard and slopestyle athletes— four golds in four days.”

First, Red Gerard and Jamie Anderson won gold in their respective slopestyle events, and then Chloe Kim and Shaun White did it in the halfpipe. They also represent a wide cross-section of ages: Anderson (27) and White (31) are veterans, while Kim and Gerard have yet to turn 18, good evidence the American domination of the sport is not likely to wane.

“I think we have a phenomenal team at USS — the people who run that program for us are terrific,” Paine said. “I think we’ve done a real good job of promoting the sport at a grassroots level, and that’s really the key, to have lots of kids out riding.”

Paine said the team now must make the most of the opportunity. USS sent its communications director Tom Webb back to L.A. with Gerard’s team to help his media tour. The plan is, Paine said, “You get our athletes on all the talk shows. You’ve got Red going back already; you’ve got Chloe, she will have a full schedule; and Shaun equally; and Jamie’s got big air coming up. You take advantage of the time people are focused on the sport, which for us is once every four years.”

Jesse Lichtenberg (right) with Erin Hamlin’s mom, Eileen, at the women’s singles luge competition on Tuesday
Photo: Ben Fischer

BDA Sports Management agent Jesse Lichtenberg represents three sliding sport athletes here in Pyeongchang, including Team USA opening ceremony flag-bearer Erin Hamlin. Lichtenberg never set out to conquer luge, bobsled and skeleton, but she leads all agents with three U.S. Pyeongchang participants, including bobsledders Jamie Greubel Poser and Steve Langton. I spent Tuesday night with her at the Olympic Sliding Centre, where she watched Hamlin’s final singles competition of her Olympic career along with Hamlin’s parents and a large contingent of the American luge family.

How did you get into representing sliding sports?
Over nine years ago, my old boss said to me one day, “Hey, Jesse, there’s this girl who just won the luge world championships, you should reach out to her.” I was 23 years old, and at that age you just listen and you don’t question that stuff. … A couple days later I got on the phone with Erin and her parents and she was still pretty young — I’m only a year older, so I guess we were all pretty young — and we decided it was a good idea. And my old boss said, “OK, you’re her agent.” I’m thinking, “Oh my God, what did I get myself into? What is luge?” Over the years I figured it out, and in 2009 I thought I was signing one athlete, and it turns out I got a gigantic family. They’re pretty incredible. I’m the luckiest.
Why do you like this so much?
There’s something special about sliding sports. They are truly just … they’re not only some of the best athletes in the world, they’re truly some of the best human beings, and I always joke that sliding sports are like quicksand. You get in there, you stick your feet in the water, you think you’re fine, and then one day you turn around and realize you’re so knee deep in sliding sports, you’re in for life. After Erin, several years later, it was Steve Langton. Erin said I should meet her good friend Steve. He was going to sign with another agency and wasn’t entirely comfortable. I ended up talking to his family, we had a really good conversation, and at the end of the conversation he asked me if I’d be his agent. And there was one more in skeleton, and then Jamie Greubel. They’re incredible, I’ve worked with a lot of athletes in a lot of sports in the last decade, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.
These aren’t the most famous members of the Olympic team. How do you go about getting them deals?
People don’t necessarily know about these sports, and it’s because they are smaller sports — luge is never going to compete with skiing in the U.S. … It’s always about being really, really creative, so even if they don’t have the biggest name outright, there’s something unique and special about them. Take Erin Hamlin, she comes from a town in upstate New York with a population smaller than my high school on Long Island, and I’m telling you if Erin sneezes it makes the front page of the newspaper there.
What’s the most creative deal you’ve done?
I loved doing Citibank with Erin, that was really fun. It was in 2014. I think this year’s United ads are incredible. They have them all being super heroes, and she really is.