Bobsled underdogs sign with PR shop

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The Jamaican bobsled team, the climate-challenged underdogs who endeared themselves to fans during the 1988 Winter Olympics, now are making an even unlikelier run.

The team has signed the Cincinnati office of promotion shop CoActive Marketing Group to secure $1 million in sponsorship support by next year. It plans to use the money to get a top-ranked coach and better equipment, reach finals of the 2006 games in Torino, Italy, and win medals in the 2010 games in Vancouver.

Jamaican bobsledders, now in their fourth generation, have competed in every Winter Olympics since 1988. But while the sprinters who make up the team excel at the break of each race, they've never been serious contenders down the stretch because of sub-par sleds and driving.

"Those are things money can fix," said Anders Vestergaard, a former U.S. bobsledder and agent for the Jamaican team. The athletes are already scheduled for bobsled driving lessons in Europe, and Mr. Vestergaard hopes to sign a new coach by winter.

He e-mailed Rod Taylor, VP-sports marketing and promotion for CoActive, last month, and Mr. Taylor agreed to take the unusual pitch to clients.

"They were a novelty act in 1988," Mr. Taylor said, but the novelty has worn off. So he said he told Mr. Vestergaard he wouldn't participate "if you're going to be marketing yourselves as the cute team that's the great underdog. If you're serious about being on the podium, I'll talk to you."

That was exactly Mr. Vestergaard's plan. And having raised, according to executives familiar with the matter, nearly $1 million from Coors Light for the Virgin Islands bobsled team in 1994, the agent figured a similar amount for the original Caribbean contenders was reasonable.

`activation'

"He hit a home run in the first at bat," said Mr. Taylor, who doubts a single sponsorship will hit $1 million but believes five or six combined will. CoActive isn't looking to make much money brokering sponsorships. Rather, it's hoping to develop "activation" programs for the sponsors.

To that end, CoActive is creating a new logo and sled graphics, new promotional items and a team Web site to sell them, which will supplement two stores in Jamaica and one in Utah that already handle team gear.

The Jamaican Bobsled brand, if you will, clearly has legs, Mr. Taylor said. "Everybody I talk to about these guys, they smile."

To allay concerns that supporting the Jamaican team will seem unpatriotic, Mr. Vestergaard and Mr. Taylor have reached a joint marketing deal that will allow Jamaican sponsors to simultaneously support the U.S. bobsled team.

Even though the Jamaican team is looking to move beyond gimmick status, its heritage will still help the team appeal to sponsors and consumers, said David M. Carter, president of Sports Business Group, Redondo Beach, Calif. "It's very vivid and positive imagery with some nostalgic value," he said, but the promotion "will really only work if they're taken seriously."

Brands looking for a whimsical association are likely to be interested, Mr. Carter said, but he sees a potentially big promotional payoff for sponsors, too. "I think there's potential for a huge groundswell of popular support globally for this team," he said. "This is one of the few real feel-good stories in all of sports."

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