Fast And Curious
The Spyder skiwear company would love nothing better than to stir a bit of controversy at the Games with its "slippery suit" and then ride to victory on the back of the Lindsey Vonn.
Thus far, Vonn has not diappointed.
Spyder makes the racing suits worn by the U.S. and Canadian Ski Teams, and unveiled this year’s model at the Games.
The so-called slippery suit has been re-engineered at an estimated cost of $500,000 to shave off precious hundredths of seconds from racers’ times.
“Remember the Speedo swimsuit in Beijing that garnered criticism because it allowed swimmers to be so much faster in the water?” asks Hillary Procknow of Backbone Media, which handles public relations for Spyder. “We are hoping to create similar buzz behind the new suit Spyder spent so much time engineering.”
Textile engineers refined the surface texture of the suit to reduce wind friction. They also reduced the volume of padding by 40 percent, using “intelligent” molecules that “lock together on impact to reduce shock,” according to a company press release.
Procknow admits the suit is legal according to current rules and will not be banned from Vancouver races, but she also acknowledged a mid-1990s precedent of the International Ski Federation, FIS, banning Spyder suits from use in future races.
Spyder was using a technology that contained a tripwire running down the length of the suit in certain places. American skiers Picabo Street and Hillary Lindh both won World Championships in the suit. In 1997, the Italian team complained that the technology was not available to them and the FIS banned its use in future races.
“Yes, we'll be pretty psyched if the suit creates some controversy,” says Procknow.
Well, it certainly worked well enough for Bode Miller, who won a bronze medal Sunday, after a disappointing performnace in Turino four years ago.
But Boulder, Colo.-based Spyder is hardly banking on controversy alone. The ski apparel company boasts a multi-pronged approach to this year’s Games, using Ski Team sponsorships and a ground-zero retail presence to leverage its brand against its competitors for the hundreds of millions of eyeballs viewing Olympic events.
Leveraging Olympic Sponsorship
Spyder, which is privately held, has been a sponsor of the U.S. Ski Team since 1989, supplying members with their racing suits and other gear. The company also sponsors the Canadian Ski Team as well as the Jamaican Ski Team’s single member and Vonn herself.
Corporate sponsors contribute 38 percent of the U.S. Ski Team’s revenue. Overall corporate sponsorship for the Vancouver Games is estimated to be just under $1 billion.
“We see our sponsorships as a long-term effort,” says Laura Wisner, communications manager for Spyder. "We like to focus on elite athletes and use their input in our product development. If we can satisfy their needs, we know we can make the best products for everyone else.”
Spyder has established a retail presence in the Whistler ski resort, where the alpine events will be held. The company rented SnowCovers, a longtime local ski shop.
“That’s our base camp,” says Kathy Carroll, Spyder’s marketing director. “We’ll have 2,000 square feet that oozes Spyder. With 60,000 visitors a day, we expect to sell some product. ”
Workers have installed custom fixtures to better display some 600 styles of Spyder apparel and gear. While Spyder will use SnowCovers as a retail base by day, it’ll become a party venue at night.
“At night, we’ll turn the space into a private area for invited guests to celebrate victories of the U.S. Ski Team, our longest team relationship. They will hold victory parties in our space.”
Spyder also has turned a section of SnowCovers into a media lounge.
“We’ve invited credentialed media to use it as a central hub where they can charge up their electronics, file stories, get coffee and rub elbows with members of the U.S. Ski Team," she says. "Yes, it’s self-serving, but it is of benefit to the media."
Vonn With The Wind
Then there's Lindsey Vonn, the two-time defending World Cup alpine champion, who's recent injury did not hamper her from convinvingly winning a gold in the women's downhill event Wednesday.
Vonn collaborated with Spyder to design eight race suits, one for each World Cup event. According to Spyder, the custom suits “incorporate patterns, plaids and vibrant colors that Vonn finds appealing.”
That’s Vonn on the cover of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, with the headline: “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever." She's got a Spyder race suit on, with Uvex helmet and goggles, Head boots and skis.
Vonn is already among the greatest female skiers in U.S. history. She has more World Cup wins than any American woman and has four World Championship medals, including two gold from 2009.
“I would put her in the category of Michael Phelps without any negative baggage," said Steve Sander, a Denver-based sports marketer.
Vonn is a veritable gold mine for her sponsors, which include Red Bull, UnderArmour , Nature Valley and Vail Resorts , so her absence would be a major blow to some.
“When a medal winner holds up a pair of Head skis, it can drive a huge amount of purchase money, and influence big buying decisions,” says Ken Gart, president of Specialty Sports Venture, a Denver-based sporting goods chain that owns and operates 130 stores in four states. "In Europe, ski racing is like the NFL. Europeans live and breathe ski racing, not like here.”
Of the slopes, Vonn will also be wearing one of 24 limited-edition Spyder jackets containing a rechargeable battery pack with a microprocessor that provides the power to heat the jacket as well as charge electronic devices through a USB port.
The company made the jackets for U.S. Ski Team athletes who are standing on the mountain between race runs and members of the media standing for long periods in the cold. The heated suits won’t be sold to the public until 2011 at the earliest.
Uphill Economic Struggle
Not all Vonn’s sponsors are aiming for the same big public splash as Spyder. In September, Vonn made a publicized switch toHead skis after former sponsor Rossignol cut her pay. But Head will keep a relatively low profile in Vancouver.
“Our main target is to support our athletes," said Klaus Hotter, executive vice president for Head, which makes the skis and boots Vonn uses. “We get more leverage out of a win by one of our athletes than a $50,000 party."
The whole industry at the moment is not in a situation to afford big parties,” Hotter added. “It’s a stressful situation with the decline in business, and we are very focused on how we spend our money. "Our main target is to support our athletes,” which include U.S. ski racers Vonn and Bode Miller.
Head is not alone in its frugal approach.
“In normal financial times, we’d do the VIP treatment in Vancouver, but not this year,” said Francois Goulet, president Rossignol North America. “We are looking at how we can grow our business by showcasing the performance of our products.”
Goulet estimated the cost of three weeks’ lodging and travel for the Rossignol technicians to be “in the low six figures,” he said. “I’m only going for four days, since we are in the midst of our selling season for next year.”
Some ski industry companies like Spyder, are going for the gold in Vancouver. The efforts of others, like Head and Rossignol, are more reflective of the recession economy.
Most ski companies are struggling these days, said Gart, of Specialty Sport Ventures. “It’s not a fat-margin business in a good economy. Across the board, few companies are profitable right now.”