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The U.S. Figure Skating Association is gearing up for the biggest event of its season -- as far as skaters and sponsors are concerned -- as athletes look ahead to the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Winners of next month's State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Philadelphia will be factored into the selection process for the U.S. team going to the Games in Nagano, Japan, in February.

But the USFSA says the appeal to sponsors of its events transcends the Olympics these days.

"Most winter sports rely on the countdown to the Olympics to help generate sponsor excitement, but we have a very healthy level of sponsorship quite apart from Olympics fever," said USFSA Executive Director Jerry Lace.

Only two USFSA sponsors -- General Mills, which signed on this year, and Visa USA, a longtime association sponsor -- are also worldwide Olympic sponsors.


At the championships, about 20 sponsors including General Mills and Visa will execute heavy on-site product marketing and sampling backed by network TV commercials. ABC-TV is USFSA's long-term broadcast partner through a $100 million-plus deal.

Longtime USFSA sponsors include Campbell Soup Co., Nestle, Thrifty Car Rental and General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.'s Nice n' Easy haircare brand is a new sponsor this year. Donna Karan's DKNY apparel brand also has assumed a new sponsorship role in a unique, under-the-radar capacity.

The designer recently named Winter Olympics hopeful Tara Lipinski spokeswoman for its activewear, and it will supply 250 skaters, coaches and officials with full wardrobes at Nagano, excluding official Olympics events. DKNY also has designed costumes for Todd Eldredge, another top skater. A new rule prohibits athletes from wearing visible apparel logos for any official Olympic appearances.

"We've found a way to showcase DKNY apparel without spending a lot of money . . . even though there isn't an official role for us at the Olympics, DKNY products will be demonstrated in action and there will be lots of publicity," said Dee

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