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Winter Olympics Advertisers in a Spin Over Miracle on Ice

January 25, 1994|BRUCE HOROVITZ

Just a few months ago, the Winter Olympics seemed about as thrilling to marketers as watching a Norwegian iceberg melt.

There are many Americans who cannot identify a luge--even if one were to ram them from behind.

With viewership of the Winter Olympics far less than the Summer Olympics, skeptics have said that sponsors who invest big bucks in Winter Games are tossing their money into the snow. But when Coca-Cola, Visa and six others agreed to pay a fee of $40 million each to globally link their products to Atlanta's 1996 Summer Olympics, the rights to the Winter Olympics were thrown in for free. And for the 1994 Winter Olympics, that could prove to be as good as gold.

As Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding bone up for their own World Heavyskate Championship next month in Lillehammer, Norway, the industry buzz is that the Olympic sponsors may have stumbled upon the sports marketing gig of the year--if not the decade.

Authorities are compiling evidence to determine whether Harding helped plan an attack earlier this month by a man who tried to disable Kerrigan at a Detroit skating rink. While it remains unclear whether Harding will be permitted to compete in the Games, marketers say that even without her presence, Kerrigan will attract a huge viewing audience.

"There is a Winter Games countdown each evening on the nightly news," said Brian Murphy, publisher of Sports Marketing Letter. "It will be a ratings titan."

The Winter Games have always been the "weak sister" of the Olympics, said Lesa Ukman, publisher of IEG Sponsorship Report, a Chicago newsletter. But the publicity the attack on Kerrigan has generated, she said, "is the best thing that has ever happened to the Winter Games."

Indeed, CBS has only "a few" available spots left for its entire 120 hours of Olympics broadcast, from Feb. 12 to 26, said George Schweitzer, senior vice president of the network. It expects to be sold out of commercial time by the end of this week, he said. In 1992, the network was still selling air time on the day the Winter Olympics began.

Since most Winter Olympics viewers will probably focus on the women's skating finals, CBS is expected to tease curious viewers with an avalanche of updates on everything from Harding's latest pool hall exploits to the color of Kerrigan's tutu.

"This will raise the ratings through the roof," said Don Franken, president of the Los Angeles sports marketing firm World Class Sports. "The trick now is for sponsors to heavily market their sponsorships." Sponsors who do it right, he said, could see sales increase.

It might not be that easy to figure out who is a real Olympic sponsor and who is simply running ads that seem to tie the advertiser to the Games.

Good ol' Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy's hamburger chain, will appear in TV spots in which he dreams of "winning gold" in everything from ski jumping to bobsledding. In one ad, he even asks 1992 Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi to skate with him in competition.

But Wendy's is not a so-called global sponsor. Those companies have paid $40 million each just for the rights to say they are "official" worldwide sponsors. Some of them will spend up to $40 million more for the production of ads and for air time. Other sponsorships are far less costly. Since Wendy's has purchased air time during the CBS telecast--and paid the network a stipend--it can refer to itself as a "sponsor of the CBS telecast" of the Games.

Won't some viewers be confused? "It's possible, but that's not our intention," Wendy's spokesman Mike Jenkins said.

One of the largest global sponsors is Coca-Cola, which will air 165 TV spots during the Winter Olympics. "In terms of enhancing our global leadership position, the Olympics make perfect sense," Coke spokesman Bob Bertini said.

Xerox is putting an Olympic spin on almost every marketing or promotional campaign it has going. "The ice skating incident has put the Winter Games smack in front of everyone's eyeballs," said Terry Dillman, Los Angeles-based manager of Olympic marketing for Xerox.

"We're trying to 'Olympicize' every program we have," Dillman said. At trade shows, Xerox brings along banners, T-shirts and pins that have the Olympic insignias. And its ads include the familiar Olympic rings.

For the past year, every package of Kodak film sold has also featured the rings. "We're leveraging our association with one of the world's most recognized symbols," explained Gregory Walker, marketing manager at Kodak.

But the most recognized symbol of the 1994 Winter Olympics might be Kerrigan. And two sponsors that have link-ups with her are taking full advantage of it.

Reebok was in Los Angeles last weekend filming a new Kerrigan TV spot to be aired during the Games. In the ad, which shows Kerrigan in training, she talks about all the obstacles she had to overcome to make it to the Olympics. But Kerrigan will make no mention of the incident in Detroit in the ad.

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