Andrew Vaughan  /  AP file
Team USA skip Cassie Johnson is pictured delivering a stone against Team Canada at the World Womens Curling Championship in Paisley, Scotland in this file photo. When Johnson competes with the U.S. curling team at the upcoming 2006 Winter Olympics in Italy, she'll have an expanded entourage cheering her on, all making the trip to Turin courtesy of Bank of America.
updated 1/27/2006 1:47:33 PM ET 2006-01-27T18:47:33

When Cassie Johnson competes with the U.S. curling team at the Winter Olympics in Italy, she'll have an entourage of friends and relatives cheering her on, all making the trip to Turin with help from Bank of America Corp.

Johnson is among hundreds of Olympians in Bank of America's "Hometown Hopefuls" program, part of its sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic Committee, a relationship the bank plans to review during the Turin games to determine its future.

Cathy Bessant, Bank of America's vice president for global marketing, said the period surrounding an Olympics — when coverage of the games will dominate television viewing and sports pages — is valuable for major sponsors, but the challenge is maintaining interest during the 30-month lag before the start of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing.

The bank declined to discuss how much it spends on its Olympic sponsorship, but one sports marketing expert estimated the cost at around $8 million a year. That's about 10 percent of Bank of America's annual spending in its crowded sports sponsorship portfolio.

No other U.S. bank spends more to sponsor athletics than Bank of America, which has deals with major and minor league baseball, the PGA Tour and NASCAR, as well as its name on the NFL stadium of the hometown Carolina Panthers.

"They have so many ways of putting themselves in front of the sports-minded public on a year-round basis," said sports marketing expert Marc Ganis, head of Chicago-based Sportscorp Ltd.

To decide whether to renew the sponsorship, expand it or possibly even drop it, Bessant and her team will look at tangible outcomes. After Turin, they'll consider how many more customers, deposits and loans the bank gathered because of its Olympic sponsorship.

What they've found researching surveys of consumers and customers clearly points toward keeping the Olympic sponsorship.

Bessant said 34 percent of consumers are more likely to buy a product or service from a company that supports U.S. Olympians. Other research shows an even broader "good vibe" that the bank gets from the Olympics.

"For example, 57 percent of our customers who consider themselves avid fans of the Olympics are highly favorable toward Bank of America," Bessant said.

The "Hometown Heroes" program was introduced for the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. About 230 athletes headed to Italy have signed up for the program, which can give a family of four as much as $5,000 a week in discounts on tickets, accommodations and other amenities, said USOC marketing head Jim Brice.

"I think it's a real nice idea to give back to the people who have been your No. 1 fans since you got into this sport," said Johnson, whose parents introduced her to curling as a child.

Bessant said that kind of connection with the athletes makes it harder to consider walking away from the USOC sponsorship, which started in 1992 under Bank of America predecessor NationsBank.

"We are a company that approaches sports and the platform in a spirit of partnership," she said. "We do not write a check and walk away."

But there is a difference between the marketing needs of a mostly domestic company like Bank of America and global corporate behemoths such as Visa and Coca-Cola Co., who participate in the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Partners program. That deal gives the companies exclusive worldwide marketing rights to both the Winter and Summer Games, as well as the right to use the Olympic rings in their marketing and branding.

"Some other companies may struggle with the decision on whether the Olympics in another country can be used in their marketing effort back home," said Peter Franklin, director of worldwide sports for Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, which signed its first Olympic sponsorship deal in 1928 and is under contract through 2020. "We do business in virtually every country in the world."

Visa spokesman Mike Lynch said the company boosts its value by sponsoring qualifying events in non-Olympic years.

"The Olympic Games have been a tremendous strategic fit," Lynch said.

Whether it will remain such a good fit for Bank of America is the question facing Bessant and her team. Bill Chipps, senior editor of the IEG Sponsorship Report, applauded Bank of America's decision to ask the question.

"More power to them for trying to track and measure whether this partnership is really building business," Chipps said. "The days of throwing money at signs and brand awareness are long gone."

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