- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2006

Olympic snowboarder Shaun White might be best known for his gold medal and floppy red hair, but millions of people probably noticed something else during his triumphant run this week — his duds.

That baggy gray snowsuit, complete with baseball-style pinstripes, patches and even a special control panel for an iPod was hardly something White snared from a sales rack. It was specially designed by U.S. snowboard team members for Burton, a Vermont-based company that also supplied White’s winning board.

“I’m sure Burton is absolutely thrilled,” said John Horan, publisher of the Sporting Goods Intelligence Newsletter. “Everyone is seeing their stuff.”

Burton is not the only company cashing in on Olympic exposure. As television coverage of the Games has increased, so has the marketing potential for outfitters and equipment suppliers. NBC and its cable partners will air 418 hours of coverage, and the network in recent years has shown more events and fewer profiles of individual athletes, offering companies additional chances to show off their bold logos. With so much coverage, there is value in outfitting everyone from the top snowboarders to biathletes.

“I think it has a huge impact,” said Roland Rust, the David Bruce Smith Chair in Marketing at the University of Maryland. “It’s become more important, rather than less, because mass media has become less effective. It’s particularly more effective than an advertisement, because people’s defenses are down.”

Consider Nike. The sports apparel company based in Portland, Ore., is providing uniforms to the U.S. speedskating, hockey and curling teams, and every American who wins a medal must wear Nike while standing on the medal platform. And for the first time, the company is permitted to sell merchandise featuring the Olympic rings, and has individual contracts with more than 25 athletes.

“We’ve always been involved in the Games, but this is on a completely different level,” said Nike spokesman Dean Stoyer. “This is one area we’ve been locked out of in the past. It’s an opportunity we’ve never had before.”

Analysts of Nike’s finances, though, were skeptical that the company would see a big boost in sales from its Olympic involvement, mainly because very few of its products are winter-oriented, and those that are — like turtlenecks worn under uniforms — aren’t likely to be noticed.

“Winter Olympics aren’t really their thing,” said John Shanley, an analyst with Susquehanna Financial Group in New York.

But for Toronto-based Roots, which is outfitting the U.S. Olympic team for the opening and closing ceremonies, the exposure has been unprecedented. Olympic berets, shirts and other items from Roots are frequently mentioned by NBC analysts, and the brand has been the subject of profiles on the “Today” show and CNBC. An online poll by “Today” lists the Roots beret as the “hottest Olympic item,” beating out Nike’s bobsled T-shirt.

“[NBC] is doing more with the Olympics, and it’s filtering down to other shows,” said Roots spokesman Robert Sarner. “It was all at their instigation. We couldn’t ask for more.”

Roots began outfitting Canadian athletes in 1976 and signed on with the U.S. Olympic team before the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. It reportedly sold $40 million worth of merchandise — including 1 million berets — during the 2002 Olympics alone but did not stretch its retail presence throughout the U.S. This year the company has made a strong effort to translate Olympic exposure to sales by partnering with 1,400 Target stores.

“We did have some arrangements in stores, but it was nowhere near the distribution we have this time around,” Sarner said.

But while Roots appears to be ubiquitous in Turin, other companies must rely on athletes’ success. Burton might have scored the biggest win after U.S. snowboarders won four medals in the halfpipe event, with nearly every run broadcast in prime time. But those involved with the U.S. ski team aren’t all jumping for joy. Top downhillers Bode Miller and Daron Rahlves, who race on skis made by Atomic, have had disappointing showings so far. And Atomic got some unwanted publicity during a bizarre incident in which Rahlves switched skis just minutes before competing in the men’s downhill. (He finished 11th, and one on-air analyst blamed the skis.)

On the flip side, Ted Ligety scored some publicity for German ski manufacturer Volkl on Tuesday when he won the men’s combined event.

And it’s the type of exposure that companies don’t get during non-Olympic events.

“The Olympics are the world’s biggest sports platform,” Horan said. “It’s the only event the whole world watches. It’s a unique opportunity for companies.”


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