The games are showcasing nearly 700 Paralympians from 45 countries who are competing for 64 metals in six sports—alpine skiing, snowboarding, cross-country skiing, biathlon, curling and sled hockey. The multiplatform package is being supported by six exclusive USOC sponsors—BMW, BP, Citigroup, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Procter & Gamble and The Hartford—who are its sole national advertisers.
Driven by a confluence of media exposure, public interest and their athletic excellence, Paralympians are on the verge of marketing stardom.
"There are immense opportunities moving forward for the Paralympic movement to take it to another level, pushed by the power of media," said Jeremy Snyder. Founder of The Factory Agency, he represents several Paralympians, including Taylor Lipsett, who despite suffering from a serious bone disease is a member of the U.S. sled hockey team that won the gold medal at the Vancouver Winter Paralympics four years ago.
This heralds not only a turning point in media coverage of the Paralympics, but also in the sports sponsorship arena. "We have seen a growing appetite from the American people in wanting to engage in the Paralympic Games and learn about the Paralympians," said Lisa Baird, chief marketing officer for the USOC. "Our research shows significant increases in both awareness and understanding of the Paralympics."
Focus on the Paralympics and its athletes hasn't come easy. Consider that for the 2010 Winter Paralympics in Vancouver, NBC aired only a highlights show and nothing live, with a similarly slim package for the London Summer Paralympics in 2012. (NBC and CNBC are part of NBC Universal). Those games, however, were extremely popular in the U.K., both in attendance and coverage on Britain's Channel 4. "There was so much demand for tickets, which were priced less than for the London Olympics two weeks earlier," said Tripp Mickle, the Olympics beat writer for the Sports Business Journal, "and Channel 4 aggressively promoted its coverage."
Another reason for the increased interest in para-athletes are the inspiring, well-publicized stories of American veterans, wounded in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and living with amputations and other physical impairments, who have pursued sports to rehabilitate their lives. "There is a push by corporate America to get involved in supporting those returning soldiers," Mickle pointed out.
In fact, 18 of the 80 Paralympians on TeamUSA in Sochi are veterans, including four members of the sled hockey team. Roman, who lost his left leg in 2007 while serving his third tour of duty in Iraq, is currently starring in ads for Citigroup, Chobani and Liberty Mutual.