U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association CMO Vying for Fans, Sponsor, and Olympic Inclusion
CHICAGO (AdAge.com) -- Brand-building is hard enough. Now imagine building a brand that's looking for a spot in the next Winter Olympics. That's one of the challenges for Andrew Judelson, the chief revenue and marketing officer for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association, a nonprofit national governing body of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Halfpipe skiing -- think alpine skiing meets snowboarding meets a halfpipe -- is one of a handful of action snow sports under the freeskiing discipline vying for inclusion at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Last month for the first time at the Visa U.S. Halfpipe Grand Prix, held at Copper Mountain, Colo., both snowboarding and halfpipe skiing events were held at the same tournament. The event helps build the sport's growth with action-sports fans and gets it closer to becoming an Olympic discipline, pending approval by the International Olympic Committee.
In addition to staging such events to build support for freeskiing, the USSA invests in skiers and snowboarders looking to become the next Lindsey Vonn or Ted Ligety. And those current and future medalists on the World Championship circuit or on the Olympic level excite the sport's growing fan base, too. The 100-year-old group last spring laid the groundwork to develop a business model that isn't dependent on the four-year Olympic cycle. Part of that model is restructuring ways to boost revenue, so the USSA last month centralized all its commercial business enterprises, from sponsorships, licensing and suppliers to digital and TV, under Mr. Judelson, who joined the USSA eight months ago and reports to CEO Bill Marolt.
The former CMO for the Sports Illustrated Group and senior VP-corporate sales and marketing for the National Hockey League is bringing his sports-marketing experience to the ski group as he seeks to overcome a unique marketing challenge: The snow sports industry is very fragmented, he said, making it tough to "reach, impact, engage and mobilize consumers with scale." So he's looking to build out three marketing "pillars" for USSA that will "calendarize" its year and package media events to present to brands.
We spoke with Mr. Judelson, who said his sole goal is for the business side of the USSA to mirror the success of its athletes on the slopes, and explained why the Olympics are a "double-edged sword."
Ad Age: How does the USSA reach fans and help to grow participation in these sports, beyond what advertising or promotions the manufacturers or the resorts do?
Mr. Judelson: From the competitive-race perspective, we are affiliated with 400 ski-race clubs across the country. We have a very specific pipeline down to race participants, so if you race in this country as a youth, you have to be an accredited member of ours -- we have 30,000-plus members -- so that's how we reach down to that level in terms of the influencers on the mountains that the recreational participant is looking up to.
The other piece of this that we don't have formalized but is a vision I have and hearkens back to my days with the NHL. ... If I'm the league, my member clubs are called resorts, and if I'm effective in developing programs where I can drive down to the resort level, then I can touch consumers on a recreational basis.
We're already executing X number of domestic events a year on these mountains -- we already executed at Aspen, at Beaver Creek, at Copper, at Telluride, we're going into Lake Placid. We go in for three days and bring in our events and our world-class athletes and execute there. What I'd like to see us doing ... is greater and closer alignment with Nastar [publisher Bonnier Corp.'s national recreational ski racing program where recreational skiers can test skills on courses set up at resorts across the country].
Ad Age: So what are the ways you're building these programs to reach fans and sponsors?
Mr. Judelson: One of the things I've done working with the team is outlined three marketing pillars that we're going to develop and outline by which we can calendarize our year. The first one would be when the season starts, a centralized rallying cry by which the snow-sports industry comes together and celebrates the start of the ski season. ... For example, why can't we make the announcement about our premiere alpine team a big deal? The communications team took the vision and actually created something; we had an alpine team announcement in Vail Beaver Creek this fall where our team was training and we created an event where over 1,200 people in the Vail Valley came out to see our athletes and it was a big press event. Historically we would've just done a press release but instead we staged an event, we engaged consumers, we created content and we created meaning. And next year if we're smart and good we go out to the marketplace and sell that [to a presenting sponsor].
Ad Age: With respect to your business, how important are the Olympics, both for activating consumers and attracting sponsors?
Mr. Judelson: It's a double-edged sword, the Olympics, and I say this with all the respect to the Olympic movement and what it represents. ... From a business perspective the first thing I came in and kept pounding on the desk about was, we can't be a once-every-four-years proposition. In the minds of corporate America and consumers, for this organization to grow, we need to deliver value and meaning 24/7, 365, not only in the Olympic year but the other three years.
The good news is, if you look at the partner renewals and the partners we brought in in an out-year of the Olympics [2010-2011], we got everyone back for multi-year commitments.
If you want to partner with us, you partner with us throughout a quad vs. a one- or two-year relationship to leverage the Olympics. That is my mandate; that is the direction we are taking.
Ad Age: Are there any sports associations or marketers whose strategies and sponsorship moves you admire, even try to emulate?
Mr. Judelson: The NFL. They are the 10,000-lb. sports-business and -marketing gorilla for good reason. They run a sound, tight and strategically grounded business. They leverage their strengths, address their weaknesses and continue to grow -- as measured by consumer interest, TV ratings , rights fees, consumer-products sales -- while other sports properties are cyclical.
Ad Age: Other than Lindsey Vonn's knees, what keeps you up at night?
Mr. Judelson: What keeps me up at night between my 4- and 2-year-old kids and a third kid on the way -- and the avalanche canons going off -- is ...if under my leadership we are not successful at growing the top line, I have kids all over this country whose dreams are not going to be able to be fulfilled because we do not have the funding in place to help them.