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Sponsorship Money Pouring into Sochi Games at Record Pace

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USA TODAY
October 8, 2013 Tuesday
FINAL EDITION
SPORTS; Pg. 8C
974 words
Selling their stories for Sochi
Rachel Axon, @RachelAxon, USA TODAY Sports

At 12 years old, freeskier Torin Yater-Wallace landed on Target's radar. The young athlete was participating in the Dumont Cup, a competition hosted by Simon Dumont, a Target-sponsored athlete.

The company signed him to a sponsorship in January 2011, months before the International Olympic Committee announced halfpipe freeskiing would be added to the Olympic program in Sochi.

With the Games four months away, Yater-Wallace is now drawing the attention of U.S. Olympic Committee sponsors. A talented, young athlete who has won six X Games medals in the last three years, Yater-Wallace has signed a sponsorship with Kellogg's and is expected to add other USOC sponsors.

It is representative of a pre-Olympics push by corporations to nab the most marketable athletes. In the final months before the Games, USOC sponsors are finalizing rosters of athletes to represent their brands.

"The nice thing about freeski is that, until this year, they've all had sponsors and income without the Olympics," Michael Spencer, Yater-Wallace's agent, said last week at the USOC media summit. "So those sports are driven on a year-to-year basis by something completely different, so we don't have to rely on it either. Some athletes here, they're relying strictly on what's the potential in the Olympics."

Target's roster includes Yater-Wallace, Dumont, Canadian freeskier Rosalind Groenewoud and, most notably, snowboarder Shaun White.

"Our guests recognize and admire Target's athletes for much more than their participation in the Olympics -- though we know that's how many of them became household names," said Dan Griffis, director of events, strategic partnerships and lifestyle marketing for Target.

"The influence of our athletes reaches far beyond their individual sports -- they are driving trends in fashion, music and wellness, with varied interests that make them relatable to a wide audience."

Money is pouring into the Games at a record pace. NBC Universal announced it reached $800million in ad sales for Sochi, topping the previous high of $750million for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 and Vancouver Games in 2010.

Lesser-known athletes or those in less popular sports can draw small amounts -- from $7,500 to $30,000 -- from sponsors, while superstars can earn low- to mid-six figures, said Evan Morgenstein, an agent who has represented several Olympians. A range of athletes can fall in between, and they sometimes accept less cash in exchange for widespread exposure from USOC sponsors.

In general, a compelling story and medal potential make athletes a good match for sponsors. But more and more, companies are looking to social media influence, agents said.

In some cases, that means signing a big name. Of the sponsorships that have been announced, a handful of athletes have signed multiple deals.

Figure skater Evan Lysacek, Alpine skier Ted Ligety and women's hockey player Julie Chu have each added three sponsors. They all have medaled in previous Games. Paralympic sled hockey player Rico Roman, an Army veteran who had his left leg amputated after an IED explosion in Iraq, also has added three USOC sponsors.

"The advertisers have a much smaller target to hit in terms of the (athletes) they're going after," Morgenstein said. "People like Evan Lysacek are going to clean up.

"There's going to be the haves and the have nots."

But some companies have chosen to sponsor lesser-known athletes. Liberty Mutual became a USOC sponsor in January and has a roster of 13 Olympians and Paralympians, including Roman, bobsled pilot Jazmine Fenlator and hockey players Monique and Jocelyne Lamoureux.

"When we looked at athletes, we looked at, where do they train? Where do they live? How that might match up with where our major offices are," said Paul Alexander, Liberty Mutual's chief communications officer.

The company sought stories of athletes overcoming adversity. Fenlator lost her family's home in Hurricane Irene in 2011. Skeleton athlete Katie Uhlaender overcame the death of her father and shattering a kneecap in a snowmobiling accident to compete in Vancouver.

"What you're seeing in some sports is the wealth being spread out not just to your Olympic medalists, but it's being spread to everyone depending on what your story is," said agent Brant Feldman, who represents several Winter Olympians.

"At the end of the day, if you don't have a story, a sponsor can't spin that another way."

For the athletes, any additional sponsorship helps.

Slopestyle snowboarder Chas Guldemond comes from a sport where endemic sponsors sign athletes in their early teens. Year-to-year funding isn't as big of a problem as it is in other sports.

"When you're competing at this level, the more support you can get, the more opportunities you can create," he said. "That's what's going to take you to the top of the podium."

Rules keep outside sponsors from getting involved. The Olympic charter restricts athletes from appearing in ads shortly before, during and after the Games. Athletes get waivers for appearing in ads for USOC and IOC sponsors during that time.

"The reason why you're not seeing other companies maybe sign up Olympians is the fact that they don't want to be seen as an ambusher paying very few dollars and look like they're trying to rip off the public perception that they're an Olympic sponsor," said Rob Prazmark, the CEO of 21 Marketing.

For some sponsors, the deals with athletes extend through the Games. Ultimately, though, while pulling in sponsors before the Olympics can be profitable to the athletes, it's the post-Games push that can lead to long-lasting sponsorships.

"The story coming out of Sochi will not be the superstars but the names you don't know today that you're going to know March 1," Prazmark said. "That's going to be the scrum between the sponsor community -- who is the next great superstar that we don't know of?"

photo Russell Isabella, USA TODAY Sports
October 8, 2013

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