- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 11, 2009

The U.S. Olympic Committee apparently learned a thing or two from President Obama.

With major corporate support declining because of the recession, the USOC moved to a more Web-savvy brand of fundraising, reaching out directly to Americans in an effort to collect smaller but more frequent donations to help athletes train.

The “America Supports Team USA” campaign runs through July 4, pressing the theme of patriotism.

“It is an uncertain time for Americans in our country because of the economy,” USOC chief marketing officer Lisa Baird said. “Sports, as we’ve seen, is not immune to the current situation. Yet it seems like the right time to tie America’s team and America’s athletes to the national pride that we have now more than ever.”

To help form the campaign, USOC hired Blue State Digital, a New York-based firm with offices in the District that worked on Obama’s online strategy leading up the presidential election.

The recent economic downturn underscored a common misconception: The USOC is flush with cash because of the hefty funds it receives from the federal government.

In reality, the committee is funded solely with revenue from broadcast rights, licensing, sponsorships and investment income, leaving it particularly vulnerable during tough economic times.

Like many organizations, the USOC has been dealing with a decline in corporate support. Major companies like Bank of America, Home Depot and General Motors recently decided not to renew multimillion dollar sponsorships.

Others, including Anheuser-Busch, reduced their level of spending. Baird said the USOC is optimistic it can replace lost sponsorship revenue, though deals are taking longer to complete.

“Our value proposition is still as compelling as it was in another economy,” she said. “We’re finding that people are open to us. It takes a little bit longer in this environment. … I’m pretty bullish and confident that we have a very positive outlook.”

The fundraising campaign comes as the USOC is broadening its use of social media, making the teamusa.org Web site more interactive and allowing mentions of the Olympics to appear more frequently in places like Facebook and Twitter.

“The USOC saw - in part from the Obama campaign but also what other charitable and philanthropic organizations are doing - that it is possible to raise meaningful sums of money from individual donors now online,” said Rich Minthz, Blue State Digital’s vice president of strategy. “I think they’re hoping they build some authentic person-to-person programming online and create a narrative that’s consistent over time in the communications with their supporters and donors.”

USOC officials and athletes said that while the fundraising is essential, so is being able to connect more directly with supporters.

“Knowing that we have support behind us from a broad spectrum here in the U.S. is extremely important, extremely empowering and comforting,” said Picabo Street, who won a gold medal in the Super-G skiing in Nagano. “Even if it’s something as small as a $5 donation or a T-shirt, it’s that empowerment that grows with us. Even if it’s a small donation, you have a part of it, and it’s very impactful for the athletes.”

• Tim Lemke can be reached at tlemke@washingtontimes.com.

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