Bobsled, can you make us watch the 2014 Sochi Games? With a U.S. Olympic team lacking lots of start power going into the Games, it may be bobsled, with technology on the course, and star-power off the course (on the women’s side) that may deliver the best branding stories of the Games, if all goes well.
First there is the unique work that BMW North America, a German company but a USOC sponsor, is doing to activate its partnership around Sochi. Not only are they doing many of the traditional sponsor activations, they have used their engineering expertise to re-design the American sleds to make them faster and more technologically advanced, which, if all plays out right, can help the American men capture their first gold since 1936, and help the U.S. women advance the medal count they have had the last three Winter Games.
The two-man sleds are shorter and have different weight distribution, whose design dated to 1992. BMW moved weight from the front to the center of the sleds to improve handling and to help maintain momentum during the directional changes on the track and helped driver Steven Holcomb of the U.S. win the World Cup title, with Elana Meyers finishing second overall among the women. It is a unique way in which a sponsorship can be tailored to actual performance, which if played out correctly can open additional commercial research categories for sponsors going forward. While much of the focus for USOC sponsors goes to amassing dollars to help athletes train, the BMW deal uses the engineers the company has to actually help craft a better vehicle. While Speedo can certainly design a better swimsuit, it is pretty rare that a brand can take invested dollars and turn it into a tangible advantage such as a sled, and the story that can be told can assist BMW grow not just as an Olympic sponsor, but in technology and in the consumer space away from Sochi, where there need for speed and safety is what their brand confidence is all about.
Then there are the personalities of bobsled. While Holcomb and Meters are among the bobsled lifers on the team and prime for medals, other newer team members like Jazmine Fenlator and Lolo Jones can really help lift the sport away from the track. Jones is a lightning rod for brands and attention from her days during and prior to the London Olympics, where her personality drew almost as much attention as her performance, and she brings that telegenic base, along with some controversy real or contrived, to Sochi. Last week the talk centered around whether she made the team as a way for NBC to drive ratings, something denied by all involved, but even the accusation, as well as the unveiling of the teams sleek body suits, drew new light to bobsled at a time when most Americans were thinking Super Bowl. Fellator, another track star turned bobsledder, may end up being Jones’ sled partner, and brings another great story to the Games, coming from an All-American track family who lost their house in Superstorm Sandy while she was off training. As a pair of powerful African American women (Fellator being not far from New York helps drive the story as well) they can transcend the die-hard Olympic following with their style and their athleticism and even with a bit of an edge, something that these Games seem to lack going into the opening ceremonies. More importantly they stir debate, and come into the Games with tremendous marketing potential to help lift the profile of all in the sport well past the final medal ceremonies, if they are successful on the track.
Some may say the glitz and glamour doesn’t help the Games; that the traditional will help raise the sport. Not in the least in an environment today where you need both steak and sizzle to be successful and cut through the clutter. Jones’ name on her own will turn heads, and her performance will draw new eyeballs who may look elsewhere when she is not on. It also will not erode a core following that is distinctly female and is also looking for the best story lines, which Jones and Fellator can provide.
So figure skating and hockey will bring the safest bets for good numbers during the Games, with the hope that some of the newer events will pull in a younger audience. Who knows, curling may also provide some unique opportunities as well. But going into the Games with a proven name in Lolo Jones helps get interest moving much faster for NBC and for all with a casual interest, and that interest can open doors for others. It’s not to say that suddenly all race fans will switch off the Daytona 500 to go and watch bobsled every week. But in a world where speed is king, fast sleds built by an elite name brand, with some non-traditional athletes at the helm can certainly lift bobsled, and there is no downside to the extra exposure for the brand, the USOC and an Olympics that has been more about angst and caution than athletic performance during its lead up. Welcome bobsled, take us along for the ride.