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Volume 21 No. 2


Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

If you plan to go to the Sochi Games next year, you’ll need to bring more than just your Visa.

Organizers of the Sochi Olympics plan to require ticket holders to have a “spectator’s pass” in order to enter the Olympic Park and attend events. Those passes can only be secured in advance by providing the Russian government with background information ranging from passport details to biographical information.

The passes are required to “ensure the secure, hospitable and friendly atmosphere of the Games,” organizers say, but the plan to require each ticket holder to have a pass has created concerns among hospitality companies and national Olympic committees, and it could create issues for the International Olympic Committee.

The passes could force hospitality companies to hire extra staff to help process paperwork from clients attending the Games. National Olympic committees will have to assist the families of athletes in navigating the process and make sure their sponsors secure the necessary credentials. And the IOC could face questions about a vacant Olympic Park, which will be accessible only to people with passes, or vacant seats, which won’t be easy to resell or transfer to people without passes.

To date, Sochi organizers have provided limited information about the passes. They haven’t said what information will be required, when they will need to collect it, how long the process will take, if it will cost anything or when the passes will be granted.

A spokeswoman for the organizing committee wrote in an email that those decisions won’t be made until after the organization has finished testing the spectator-pass system at the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships later this month. She described a test of the pass at the Biathlon World Cup in March as a “success.” Organizers expect 100,000 people to attend test events this year. More than 1 million tickets are typically sold for an Olympics.

The Russian government, which has pushed for the spectator-pass system, last month said it doesn’t want to create problems for fans. It has pushed for the system for security reasons.

Olympic hospitality agencies are awaiting final word from Sochi organizers about how the system works before they begin requesting information from clients. Each of the IOC’s 10 worldwide sponsors brings more than 1,500 guests to a Winter Olympics. That means that just among TOP sponsor guests, Sochi organizers would need to check the information of roughly 15,000 people.

SportsMark CEO Steve Skubic, whose hospitality agency works with Visa, Procter & Gamble and other Olympic sponsors, said the agency is considering hiring more staff to process the paperwork, and its legal team is preparing to evaluate the system to make sure any information it shares from guests won’t be passed on by Sochi organizers to a third party.

“We have compliance issues around protecting data security,” Skubic said. “If we give the information to someone else, we need to be sure that information is going to hold and stay with them.”

Skubic said he thinks the spectator-pass system will be manageable, but SportsMark has begun encouraging its clients to make guests aware that they may have to undergo a background check. That shouldn’t be an issue, but the lack of flexibility could become a problem in some cases.

“A lot of our clients run consumer promotions and don’t know who those people will be until affidavits get signed, or if you have VIPs with last-minute changes, you want those seats filled,” Skubic said. “You run the risk [with spectator passes] of not being able to do a last-minute change.”

Jet Set Sports, which has the exclusive Sochi ticket sales rights in the U.S. and provides many of the USOC’s sponsors with hospitality packages, declined to comment.

The IOC has encouraged Sochi organizers to make the system as simple as possible.

The spectator-pass system builds on the system that Beijing organizers developed for the 2008 Summer Olympics. To attend the opening and closing ceremony, ticket holders had to provide passport information and a photograph. The requirement, which was adopted for security reasons, created considerable paperwork demand for sponsors and agencies. But the organizers didn’t require similar credentials for every ticketed event, which meant they had to check the information and issue credentials for a maximum of 180,000 spectators.

During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, organizers adopted a different but similar system designed to prevent secondary-market ticket sales. Each ticket buyer had his name printed on his ticket, and German organizers occasionally checked the name against the ticket before letting people into matches.

Host cities for the Winter Games typically sell more than 1 million tickets. In Sochi, about 70 percent of tickets are expected to go to Russians and 30 percent to buyers from around the world. International guests already have to provide extensive background information to secure a visa before entering the country.

The Russian government plans to evaluate the system after the ice hockey competition this month and make a final decision on what information it will require and how the system will work.

“If they’re feeling this needs to be in place to make a safe and worry-free experience happen for guests, then we’ll make that work,” Skubic said.

A Winter Olympics has a quarter as many sports and athletes as its summer counterpart, but NBC plans to roll out just as big a marketing program for the Sochi Games as it did for London in 2012.

The broadcaster and U.S. Olympic Committee next week will host nearly 100 athletes at Smashbox Studios in West Hollywood. It will spend five days interviewing and photographing the athletes on 15 stages, and the material it collects will be used in a yearlong promotional campaign and on outlets ranging from the “Today” show and “Access Hollywood” to E! and local affiliate stations.

Lindsey Vonn (top) and Shani Davis are among nearly 100 athletes taking part in a promotional shoot next week.
It is the largest promotional shoot that the broadcaster and the USOC have undertaken for a Winter Olympics, and it’s comparable in size and scope to the West Hollywood shoot that preceded the London Games.

“It’s larger because the American team is quite good, and there are a lot of athletes we want to feature,” said John Miller, NBC Sports Group’s chief marketer. “The London model seemed worth following because we did well with that.”

During the London Games, NBC posted its highest ratings and viewership totals for a Summer Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta

Games. It averaged a 17.5 rating and 31.1 million viewers for its 17 nights of taped London Games coverage. Miller hopes to replicate that success during the Sochi Games.

The broadcaster plans to offer the same amount of promotion ahead of the Sochi Games as it did for the London Games. More than 75,000 tune-in spots will air on cable, satellite and telecommunications networks during the next year. Earlier this year, Miller estimated that every person in the U.S. will see a tune-in spot 25 times before the opening ceremony next February.

“We’ll begin showing them during high-profile sports events all summer long,” Miller said. “When we get into the fall and the fall season, it will ramp up a little bit and be more noticeable in ‘Sunday Night Football’ and ‘The Voice.’ Then other channels carrying the Games will do their own campaign, and when we head into Thanksgiving, that will be the start of it in force. We’ll head into promotional carpet bombing.”

Much of the footage for those promotions will be captured next week in California. Miller said that NBC plans to highlight several well-known Olympians in its national advertising campaign, including skier Lindsey Vonn; snowboarder Shaun White; speedskaters Shani Davis and J.R. Celski; snowboard cross competitor Seth Wescott; figure skaters Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner; and women’s snowboarding, which will likely feature a mix of Kelly Clark, Hannah Teter, Gretchen Bleiler, Elena Hight and others.

Vonn, whose public profile has risen since she announced she is dating Tiger Woods, injured her knee and broke her leg earlier this year, but Miller said she will still be one of the central figures in NBC’s promotions.

“She’s got the heart of a lion and work ethic of Adrian Peterson,” Miller said. “I have no doubt that she will be on skis in the late fall and competing.”

Among the other invitees who NBC and the USOC plan to highlight nationally and locally are several athletes expected to make their Olympic debuts, including teen skiing phenomenon Mikaela Shiffrin, freestyle skier Devin Logan, speedskater Heather Richardson and ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson.

“The Olympics are unlike other sports that are result oriented,” Miller said. “They are journey oriented, and a lot of these athletes have interesting stories about their journey.”

The USOC will have its own area in the studio next week where it will capture footage and interview time to use on its website, Facebook page and YouTube channel. It also will collect photographs for a lifestyle public relations campaign, and it will work with NBC to pitch the photographs and information on Olympians to publications such as GQ, People, Vanity Fair and others.

“It’s huge for us because it really gets the story of our athletes in the hands of people who wouldn’t come across them in a sports area,” said Patrick Sandusky, the USOC’s chief communications and public affairs officer. “It gets the athletes in front of people who watch the Olympics for the stories behind it. It drives viewership interest and people to the Web.”

The USOC and NBC last fall began working to put together the West Hollywood event. NBC tells the USOC what athletes it wants to highlight. The USOC recommends other athletes and then it requests that the athletes attend. The event isn’t required, and the USOC covers athlete travel costs.

Nike will use its deal with Gracie Gold to promote its women’s workout apparel.
Nike is close to signing U.S. figure skater and Olympic hopeful Gracie Gold.

Gold, 17, will be the company’s second figure skater. Nike signed Sochi 2014 hopeful Ashley Wagner, a 21-year-old from Virginia, earlier this year, and it plans to feature both athletes in public relations and marketing efforts aimed at driving the company’s line of women’s workout apparel.

Terms of the agreement weren’t available.

Historically, apparel and footwear brands refrained from signing endorsement deals with figure skaters because the athletes wear costumes in competition rather than branded apparel. But as the women’s apparel category has expanded in recent years and become more competitive with retailers like Gap, and the yoga brand Lululemon appealing to new consumers, traditional sportswear companies have looked to broaden their appeal beyond the sports of running, tennis, soccer and other areas.

Nike, in particular, is pushing into training, which can include everything from Pilates and yoga to running and crossfit. The company saw figure skaters Gold and Wagner as vehicles to connect with women in those areas.

“It goes back to how you speak to the consumer beyond competition,” said KeJuan Wilkins, a Nike spokesman. “How do you connect consumers with athletes when they’re not in season or on television or on competition? That’s what we set out to do with these two athletes. What they do to train — a lot of it will be running and other aspects that many athletes do — but their training regimen extends to yoga, Pilates and other things.”

IMG agent David Baden, who represents Wagner, added, “Nike is not just showing the grace and beautiful side of the sport, but that these are athletes that work out hours and hours not only on the ice but off the ice.”

The U.S. Figure Skating Association, which doesn’t have an official apparel sponsor, helped connect Nike with Wagner and Gold. The company’s only previous involvement in figure skating was endorsing the figure skating pair Rockne Brubaker and Keauna McLaughlin, who failed to qualify for the Vancouver Games.

“To have them use our athletes and feature them in marketing raises the profile of our athletes and that raises the profile of the sport,” said Ramsey Baker, USFSA’s chief marketing officer. “It’s a win for us.”

Gold, who finished sixth at last month’s World Figure Skating Championships, is represented by IMG agent Yuki Saegusa. Nike is her first endorsement deal.

Wagner, a two-time U.S. national champion, has a two-year deal with Pandora.