Words in the wind

Volvo regatta sponsors aim at elite clientele

April 23, 2006|By HANAH CHO | HANAH CHO,SUN REPORTER

The sails say it all.

Ericsson, Pirates of the Caribbean, Brasil, Brunel, ABN AMRO, movistar.

And if you don't know what Brunel, ABN AMRO and movistar are, you'll likely learn they represent a Dutch recruiting and consulting company, an international bank and a Spanish mobile phone operator, respectively, by the end of Volvo Ocean Race's Baltimore and Annapolis stopover. They're all corporate sponsors of the eight-month regatta that is here through May 7 and provides one of sailing's most elite prizes.

Besides bragging rights, these companies are getting global brand exposure and a pipeline for potential customers by putting up millions of dollars to showcase their names, according to executives and marketing experts.

Sponsors and others acknowledge that sailing does not appeal to the same kind of mass audiences that football or NASCAR does, which may be why the race is receiving little exposure on U.S. television.

But sailing's niche marketing appeals to companies with products or services targeted to a more affluent clientele or to those who want to elicit a certain image or message related to the sport, experts say.

"It may not be a mass audience, but a passionate audience," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You're probably paying less than to get a mass market appeal. It gives you a focused way to reach the core of the brand."

Race organizers say it costs $12 million to $15 million to sponsor a yacht racing team. That price tag, however, doesn't include other costs, such as hospitality suites that follow the race's eight-month tour, for instance.

Locally, Ocean Race Chesapeake raised $3 million in corporate and public sponsorships to be host to the Baltimore stopover, said Gregory H. Barnhill, chairman of the nonprofit's board.

To attract sponsors for the international race, organizers pitched the every-four-year event as a unique marketing opportunity, said Carmeron Kelleher, public relations director for Volvo Ocean Race.

Besides being fairly cost-effective compared with other sports sponsorships, the race provides global media exposure and less confusion among brands, Kelleher said.

In comparsion, it would cost companies $15 million to $20 million to sponsor a top-tier NASCAR team, said Darren Marshall, who directs sports marketing research at Knowledge Networks, a consumer information company.

"Sponsors of the ocean race tend to be more focused on business-to-business rather than business-to-consumer type of marketing," he said. "It allows sponsors to network with each other and do business with each other." For Volvo, which bought the event in 1997, any mention of the race includes its name and the race teams are identified by the corporate sponsor's brand.

"Your brand gets a fair chance to build awareness, have a presence and provide a return on its own," Kelleher said.

For instance, the Disney-backed Pirates of the Caribbean team, whose yacht is named the Black Pearl, is promoting this summer's release of its namesake movie sequel.

Another race entry features the Brazilian government, whose trade and investment agency is sponsoring the Brasil 1 team. The agency, in turn, solicited corporate sponsors such as Motorola, Qualcomm and HSBC Bank.

The South American country is hoping to "have the chance to show the world the diversity of its industry," according to the team's Web site.

While the race has formed partnerships with international television stations for coverage, U.S. viewers must turn to public television channels. Here, Maryland Public Television is providing weekly broadcasts of race highlights.

ESPN 2 aired coverage of past Volvo Ocean races, in 1997-1998 and 2001-2002, but no telecasts are planned this year because of programming scheduling issues, said spokeswoman Tilea Coleman.

Kelleher, the race's spokesman, said event organizers are in discussions with several potential national broadcasters here, but did not provide further details. The race is scheduled to end about June 17 in Sweden.

Gary Jobson, of Annapolis, an America's Cup sailor and an ESPN sailing commentator for past Volvo Ocean races, said the event needs broader television exposure to attract a wider audience and more corporate sponsors. One way, he suggested, was to market the race like the Olympics.

"If sailing wants to make itself intriguing to the non-sailors, the casual sports fans, it has to sell nationality," Jobson said.

Fans want to say: "How's the American boat doing? How's the Swedish boat? That's a big mistake Volvo has made," Jobson added.

Kelleher disagreed, saying that the race is marketed as a multinational competition that includes Brazil, movistar from Spain and the American-backed Pirates of the Caribbean.

Ericsson, the Swedish telecommunications giant, made a calculated decision to participate in the race for the first time, said Dusyant Patel, the company's director of marketing and operating officer for its namesake racing team.

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