Hard eco­nomic times hin­der Win­ter Olympic hope­fuls

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY TIM LEMKE

Casey Puck­ett is 37 years old and has two chil­dren, in­clud­ing a daugh­ter with se­vere lung prob­lems. His brother, a fi­nan­cial plan­ner at the in­vest­ment firm Ed­ward Jones, of­fered to help find him a cushy job with the com­pany.

But Puck­ett’s medium-length beard and sun-worn face sug­gest where his heart and am­bi­tion lie — out on the slopes, not be­hind a desk.

The four-time Olympian isn’t ready to give up his pur­suit of gold as a mem­ber of the U.S. Ski Team de­spite a tough econ­omy that has cut his prize and en­dorse­ment money and made it more dif­fi­cult to bal­ance the fi­nan­cial de­mands of rais­ing a fam­ily and pur­su­ing his dreams.

“At this point, a 9-5 of­fice job wouldn’t re­ally fit,” Puck­ett said. “It’s a great honor when you’re named to an Olympic team. I don’t know, maybe I’m ad­dicted to it. I love the life­style.”

Puck­ett isn’t alone. As the 2010 Win­ter Games in Van­cou­ver ap­proach, ath­letes are find­ing that the stress of full-time train­ing now comes with the added worry of de­pleted bank ac­counts in hard eco­nomic times.

Puck­ett left com­pet­i­tive ski­ing af­ter the 2002 Win­ter Games in Salt Lake City to coach. He now is try­ing his hand at ski cross, a fledg­ling Olympic sport that fea­tures skiers racing side by side on a ser­pen­tine track.

Puck­ett is one of the best in the world at the sport, but he’s hardly a wealthy man.

Most ath­letes re­ceive stipends of just a few hun­dred dol­lars a month from the United States Olympic Com­mit­tee. Puck­ett’s mul­ti­year spon­sor­ship agree­ments with Visa, Uni­ver­sal Sports and oth­ers will carry him through the Games that be­gin in Van­cou­ver on Feb. 12, but those deals barely cover his train­ing costs.

Puck­ett tried coach­ing on the side to earn more money, but those jobs are dif­fi­cult to fit into a sched­ule that al­ready in­cludes com­pe­ti­tions and high-level train­ing.

And the eco­nomic down­turn has taken away much-needed ex­tra in­come that ath­letes once used to make ends meet.

Skiers, for ex­am­ple, had been able to earn prize money at pro tour events, but that source of ad­di­tional cash dis­ap­peared as hurt­ing com­pa­nies dropped sup­port for the tours.

That de­vel­op­ment pro­duced yet an­other fi­nan­cial rip­ple: The de­cline in the num­ber of tour events led to a drop in spon­sor­ship cash for in­di­vid­ual ath­letes.

“We had all th­ese pro events, and now they’re nonex­is­tent,” Puck­ett said. “They went away. That was an­other source of racing, train­ing and in­come. To lose that was not only dif­fi­cult be­cause of los­ing the prize money and the ex­pe­ri­ence, but some of my spon­sors counted on that for TV ex­po­sure. So I got cut back by some of my spon­sors.”

Ath­letes in sports rang­ing from speed­skat­ing to curl­ing all have learned to do more with less and to find new ways to sup­port their Olympic dreams.

Get­ting creative

Shan­non Bahrke turned to cof­fee.

The pink-haired mogul skier from Ta­hoe City, Calif., al­ready was a con­nois­seur of the java bean when, af­ter be­ing side­lined with an in­jury, she put to­gether a busi­ness plan for “Sil­ver Bean Cof­fee” to sell her own blends as a way to gen­er­ate in­come for her and her team­mates.

Bahrke of­fers ski-themed cof­fees with names like “Pow­der” and “Vel­vety Groomer.” And for ev­ery bag of “ath­lete blend” she sells, $1 goes to an Olympic ath­lete and the char­ity of the cus­tomer’s choice — money that will come in handy for skiers who, like Bahrke, find them­selves pay­ing for part of their train­ing out of pocket.

Bahrke says she’s spent about $20,000 of her own money to train this year.

“Peo­ple think that you must live in this huge house and drive this and I’m like, ‘Oh, you funny lit­tle thing,’ “ said Bahrke, a sil­ver medal­ist at the 2002 Win­ter Games in Salt Lake City. “I think as the econ­omy has got­ten hard, we’re kind of the first thing that com­pa­nies let go. It’s like, ‘We’re cut­ting em­ploy­ees, why am I pay­ing her to rep­re­sent our prod­uct?’ So that makes it re­ally tough.”

Team­mate Michelle Roark, who won the U.S. Cham­pi­onships in moguls ear­lier this year, tapped sim­i­lar en­tre­pre­neur­ial am­bi­tions as a means to help make ends meet.

Us­ing her de­gree in chem­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing, she opened Phi­nom­e­nal, a com­pany fea­tur­ing all-nat­u­ral per­fumes and colognes. She of­fers a per­fume named “for Real” and oth­ers called “for Fo­cus,” “for Con­fi­dence” and “for Bal­ance.” Roark also has branched out to sell spe­cially branded skis for women.

“I was al­ways looking for a way to sup­port my life­style,” Roark said. “I was looking for some­thing that could help me af­ford the life­style I love, keep pur­su­ing this dream and this pas­sion I have with moguls ski­ing.”

Nei­ther busi­ness has gen­er­ated much in­come as yet.

“I’m work­ing two jobs, and I have to pay for them,” Bahrke said of ski­ing and her cof­fee en­ter­prise. “Hope­fully, they’ll both turn into pay­ing jobs, and then I’ll be all set.”

Both women said they hope to use their busi­nesses to sup­port Olympic ath­letes, even af­ter they are done com­pet­ing.

“Some­thing we both have in com­mon is want­ing to leave a legacy,” Bahrke said. “I want to carry my com­pany into the fu­ture and sup­port the same pro­grams that got me this far. If I can sup­port ath­letes and their Olympic dreams [. . . ] that’s a legacy I’d love to leave.”

Sho Kashima was among the ath­letes who lost a job and was left scram­bling when re­ces­sion hit.

Kashima, also a moguls skier, once sup­ported his train­ing by work­ing at Home De­pot through a pro­gram that gave Olympians full-time jobs with flex­i­ble hours that al­lowed them to train. That pro­gram — and Kashima’s job — were elim­i­nated when Home De­pot pulled its USOC spon­sor­ship.

“I went to a few camps just to make a lit­tle ex­tra cash just to get through this sea­son,” Kashima said. “The USOC helps out a lit­tle to be­gin with and my per­sonal spon­sors I’m hop­ing will kick down a few bucks and maybe some in­cen­tives for per­for­mance and TV time.”

U.S. Speed­skat­ing was sent reel­ing in Oc­to­ber when Dutch Bank DSB went bank­rupt, void­ing a spon­sor­ship and leav­ing the team with a $300,000 bud­get deficit.

The team found short-term re­lief in the most un­likely of places: Co­me­dian Stephen Col­bert used his satir­i­cal news pro­gram, “The Col­bert Re­port,” to raise money and close the gap. Still, the team’s long-term fi­nan­cial sit­u­a­tion re­mains gloomy.

“The Col­bert Re­port is a nice plug for this year, but it’s not the same as hav­ing a spon­sor that’s on board for four years,” U.S. Speed­skat­ing Pres­i­dent Brad Goskow­icz said. “Af­ter th­ese games, we’ll be in the first year of the next qua­dren­nium, and every­one’s eyes will turn else­where. It will be a lot more dif­fi­cult to get spon­sor­ships af­ter th­ese clos­ing cer­e­monies are done — our wor­ries will be­gin again.”

Cor­po­rate pull­back

The stir­ring buzz that sur­rounded the Sum­mer Games in Bei­jing last year quickly was tem­pered by the col­lapse of the world econ­omy.

By year’s end, many com­pa­nies that once sup­ported the Olympics were strug­gling. Some de­clared bank­ruptcy. Oth­ers were un­able to jus­tify spon­sor­ship spending to their share­hold­ers.

Bank of Amer­ica, Home De­pot and Kel­logg’s ended their sup­port of the USOC this year. Ko­dak and John­son & John­son de­clined to re­new long-term spon­sor­ships of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee.

But USOC of­fi­cials were de­ter­mined to find a way to in­crease fund­ing to ath­letes de­spite the lost tens of mil­lions of dol­lars in sup­port.

They slashed bud­gets at USOC head­quar­ters, cut­ting back on travel and ad­min­is­tra­tive costs and lay­ing off more than 50 work­ers.

As a re­sult, the USOC man­aged to boost funds to its na­tional gov­ern­ing bodies (NGBs) from $11.1 mil­lion dur­ing the 2006 Torino Games to $16.5 mil­lion for Van­cou­ver.

“To­day’s econ­omy has made it very dif­fi­cult for our ath­letes and NGBs to main­tain con­sis­tency and con­ti­nu­ity of their pro­grams,” act­ing USOC CEO Stephanie Streeter said at the time. “We be­lieve this fund­ing is es­sen­tial in sup­port­ing our teams and help­ing our NGBs pre­pare their ath­letes and on the ground in Van­cou­ver next win­ter.”

USOC spokesman Pa­trick San­dusky pointed to new spon­sor­ships with Proc­ter & Gam­ble and re­newals with Deloitte and Touche and AT&T as pos­i­tive signs for Van­cou­ver. Terms of those deals were not dis­closed, but the val­ues typ­i­cally range be­tween $10 mil­lion and $25 mil­lion, de­pend­ing on the level of spon­sor­ship.

“We are pleased with the suc- cess the USOC has seen on the spon­sor­ship front head­ing into the 2010 Van­cou­ver Games, es­pe­cially in light of to­day’s eco­nomic chal­lenges,” he said.

Mar­keters said the pub­lic per­cep­tion about sports spon­sor­ships has im­proved since last year, when mem­bers of Congress ques­tioned whether sport­ing events were a wise use of cor­po­rate dol­lars dur­ing the re­ces­sion. But the re­cov­ery might be com­ing too late for Van­cou­ver.

“The prob­lem that ex­ists is that bud­gets have been spo­ken for for ‘09 and there was some un­cer­tainty for the early part of 2010,” said David Carter, prin­ci­pal of the Los An­ge­les-based Sports Busi­ness Group. “So it may be hard for th­ese com­pa­nies to be ag­ile enough to take ad­van­tage. Some of it is a tim­ing gap that will play into this.”

What’s more, Carter said, many com­pa­nies al­ready are set­ting their sights on the 2012 Sum­mer Games in Lon­don, which are ex­pected to re­ceive far more pub­lic­ity.

“The Olympics are a lit­tle bit tough this time around, sand­wiched in be­tween Bei­jing and Lon­don,” he said. “It al­most ap­pears you’re read­ing more about Lon­don than Van­cou­ver.”

Get­ting by

The abil­ity of the USOC to boost its sup­port of ath­letes for Van­cou­ver has, at the very least, kept top ath­letes on track to per­form well in Fe­bru­ary. And in re­cent months the USOC has been able to re­plen­ish some of its cof­fers with the Proc­ter & Gam­ble, Deloitte and Touche and AT&T deals.

“The Olympics still per­se­vere and peo­ple still care,” Carter said. “There’s still some­thing very spe­cial about them, and I think that gives cor­po­ra­tions a fair amount of cover. I think they like the brand­ing halo of the games and can make a very strong case for be­ing there.”

Carter said the Proc­ter & Gam­ble deal was a big one for the USOC be­cause of the num­ber of com­monly used prod­ucts that make for a sen­si­ble fit with ath­letes.

Un­der the terms of the Proc­ter & Gam­ble deal, sev­eral ath­letes, in­clud­ing speed­skater Apolo An­ton Ohno, skier Lind­sey Vonn and bob­sled­der Vonetta Flow­ers, will ap­pear in com­mer­cials for ev­ery­thing from cough drops to de­odor­ant.

“They’re a great, red meat Amer­i­can com­pany,” Carter said.

San­dusky said com­pa­nies have been ag­gres­sive in pro­mot­ing their ties to the Olympics since the 100-day count­down be­gan in Novem­ber.

“I have sev­eral spon­sors right now and am very thank­ful for that,” said short track skater J.R. Cel­ski, who has sup­port from Crest, McDon­ald’s and 24 Hour Fit­ness, among oth­ers. “The sup­port we get from th­ese guys is tremendous. It re­ally helps, it hon­estly does, be­cause Olympic ath­letes re­ally have a hard time get­ting by.”

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