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Going for Gold on the Cheap

Sponsoring second-tier Olympic sports can be a bargain

By Jay Weiner in Salt Lake City and Mark Hyman

Monday, February 25, 2002

Mike Cofrin of the U.S. Speedskating Team has had a golden experience in Salt Lake City, and he hasn't laced up a skate. Cofrin is the marketing director for U.S. Speedskating, and, so far, one of his athletes carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony of the Winter Games; another briefly broke a world record and won one of the first medals for an American athlete; still another won a bronze medal; and on Feb. 12, Casey FitzRandolph grabbed the gold in the 500 meters. Besides that, a speed skater with some of the sport's sponsors prominently displayed on his uniform was on the cover of Sports Illustrated's Olympic preview issue.

Some of the corporate sponsors backing offbeat events

Bobsled and Skeleton
HK Systems
    Speed Skating

"That's the first thing I pull out of my briefcase," Cofrin says of the SI cover story. It's evidence that sponsors of out-of-the-mainstream sports can score big, too. After all, Cofrin says a full-page color ad in SI goes for more than $200,000. "And a cover? Who knows what it's worth?" he asks.

Unlike the Visas, Cokes, and McDonald's of the Games -- official sponsors that pay $60 million apiece to own a piece of the five rings -- plenty of well-known corporate names are getting an Olympic ride on the cheap.

Take Verizon Communications Inc. Since 1985, when it was known as Nynex, the telecommunications giant has been USA Luge's key sponsor, paying about $1 million a year. "Without Verizon, we'd be dead," says top-ranked American luger Tony Benshoof, who pocketed a grand total of $12,000 last year en route to his national title.

Verizon recently bought into the U.S. Bobsled & Skeleton Federation, which also has backing from athletic-shoemaker Adidas, global shipper AIT Worldwide Logistics, and Advocare, a marketer of nutritional supplements. "Marketers are figuring out they have an opportunity to be the first man on the moon," says Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships Inc. in Miami Beach, which cuts deals for the bobsled and skeleton teams. "It's pretty uncluttered."

Dan Field, owner of Aurora Solutions & Wireless, a $1.5 million computer service and sales outfit in Madison, Wis., knows from uncluttered. By providing about $25,000 worth of free work for the U.S. Curling Assn., Aurora has become one of a handful of sponsors of a sport that can be loosely described as shuffleboard on ice. "What do you get for a million dollars anyway?" asks Field. "You get a little decal with the Olympic rings in your window."

Novell Inc., a software company based in Provo, Utah, bought into U.S. Speedskating last year to connect with its home-state Olympics. "As a large sponsor in a smaller group [of sponsors]... you get more of an affiliation with your sport," says Novell's Bruce Lowry. "Besides, it's good optics. Our products are about acceleration and speed, and so is speed skating." Included in the "several hundred thousand" dollars Novell laid down -- a relatively cheap date for a billion-dollar company -- was the right to put its logo on pre-Olympics uniforms.

Because corporate markings aren't allowed during the Games, except for apparel suppliers such as red-hot Root, you'd think that would be a largely worthless part of the deal. But as security giant ADT Security Services Inc. discovered, uniforms-as-billboards can deliver the sort of advertising bonus money can't buy. As speed skating's top corporate funder -- with a four-year, $1.2 million sponsorship agreement -- ADT gets the most prominent location on skaters' skin-tight uniforms. That put ADT front and center when Sports Illustrated featured star shorttrack skater Apolo Ohno on its cover.

So maybe the corporate behemoths that throw some $13 million a year at the U.S. Ski & Snowboard Assn. and lavish more than $11 million a year on the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. need to ask themselves a simple question: How much bang are we really getting for all those big bucks?