This business cycle is revolutionary

Marketing: Discovery Channel hopes to ride a slipstream of publicity created by Lance Armstrong's success.

Tour De France

July 20, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

For most of the past 20 years, sharks have been the biggest stars in the on-air firmament at the Silver Spring-based Discovery Channel.

But it's hard to slap advertisements on said man-eaters, and they don't give the best speeches either, so in an effort to raise its global profile, the cable network is sponsoring a predator of a different sort - one Lance Armstrong.

The company has never linked itself so publicly with one person, much less an athlete. And few, if any, television networks have thrown their lots so clearly with individual sports stars.

But Armstrong seemed a perfect complement to the network's traditional programming, said Michelle Russo, spokeswoman for Discovery Communications.

"Our mission has always been to tell great stories about the world around you," she said. "And Lance's story is just amazing."

Discovery Communications - which reaches about 1 billion viewers worldwide on its myriad networks - announced its three-year, multimillion-dollar deal with Armstrong's team before last year's Tour.

In April, the golden goose said he would retire after this year's race. But Discovery officials foresaw that possibility and included provisions for Armstrong to become an on-air personality after ceasing competition.

The benefits for Armstrong and his team are obvious. Between travel, equipment and medical training, cycling is an expensive sport, one in which riders rely on sponsors to defray the costs of doing business.

But sports marketing specialists say the deal is also a smart gamble for Discovery as the network attempts to raise its profile in Europe, where Armstrong is alternately revered and villified but rarely unnoticed.

"It's worldwide branding," said Ryan Schinman, president of New York-based Platinum Rye Entertainment, which matches celebrity endorsers with large companies. "Maybe people internationally don't know what the Discovery network is. Well now, they'll be in the news every day worldwide for three weeks. That's not something that's easy for Discovery to do otherwise."

Schinman said the deal helps Discovery on many levels. First, the company is receiving more concentrated exposure over a month than it could through any normal advertising campaign. Second, it has hired one of the most sought-after spokesmen on the planet. Third, the network will get a versatile producer of content, who could do anything from commenting on future sporting events to starring in scientific programs about lung capacity.

"It's an organic relationship," Schinman said. "It's not something that seems out of place, and I think that gives it a lot credibility."

Russo agreed.

"There are so many stories that resonate off of Lance," she said. "You get tremendous value with Lance on the bike, and you get tremendous value with Lance once he's off the bike."

Russo said the value of the deal - reported to cost about $10 million a year though Discovery won't confirm that - may not be easily measured in revenue. But she said the news clips piling up in her office tell her the Discovery name is spreading as never before.

Armstrong's power is clear. He's introduced words such as "peloton" into the American lexicon, made the Outdoor Living Network required summer viewing and turned yellow, rubber bracelets into a universal fashion statement.

Heck, we Yanks even wax expertly on cycling tactics these days (you know, Bill, he gave up the lead on purpose so he wouldn't be tuckered out in the Alps).

An American company could hardly find a more perfect emblem, said Daniel Coyle, who followed Armstrong last year for his recently released book, Lance Armstrong's War.

"Who else has his credibility, his authenticity?" Coyle said. "He's really peerless when it comes to that."

But Armstrong may not be quite as pure a marketing vessel in Europe, Coyle said. He equated the situation to a Japanese baseball team coming to America and sweeping the Yankees over and over.

"Would they be such a good marketing tool?" he said. "I'm not sure. You get the sense in Europe that the whole continent is looking at its watch and waiting for [Lance] to go away."

Coyle also writes that European fans see more credibility in doping allegations against Armstrong. He details a meeting of concerned Discovery officials in June 2004, after a book was released on the continent detailing Armstrong's alleged doping connections. But the book seemed to lack proof, Coyle writes, so Discovery stuck with the sponsorship deal.

Schinman said the deal could lose some luster if Armstrong doesn't win a seventh Tour title this year.

But not much.

"I think he'll be a big star as long as he's breathing," he said.

As for future, Lance-free races, Russo said Discovery will rely on the experts at Tailwind Sports (the team partially owned by Armstrong) to find the next generation of talent.

"It's one of the best managed sports teams in the world, so we're not worried," she said.

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