Planning for gold: Five minutes with US Ski & Snowboard’s Dan Barnett

US Ski & Snowboard boasts among its ranks some of the best-known and most marketable winter Olympians in the United States, if not the entire planet. After American skiers and snowboarders claimed an impressive medal haul in PyeongChang, Dan Barnett, the national governing body’s chief commercial officer, outlines his plan to turn that success into commercial gains.

Planning for gold: Five minutes with US Ski & Snowboard’s Dan Barnett

Breakout performances from the likes of Chloe Kim, 17, signalled a generational shift among the US wintersport ranks

For those in the business of Olympic marketing, the immediate aftermath of any Games offers a chance to look ahead, an always busy period in which the overriding objective is to strike while the winter sports iron is still hot.

For the commercial team at US Ski & Snowboard, the Park City, Utah-based national governing body for Olympic skiing and snowboarding in the United States, the coming weeks after PyeongChang 2018 will be a time of extensive evaluation and continuing discussions with existing and potential new corporate partners. Thankfully for them, as results in South Korea showed, the popularity and profile of snow sports in the US remains as strong as ever.

While many in the US media have noted their country’s disappointing performance in PyeongChang - Team USA finished fourth behind Norway, Germany and Canada in the overall medals table, having been in the top two nations at every Winter Games since Salt Lake City 2002 - the same cannot be said of the country’s snow sports athletes.

Of the more than 240 athletes that represented the USA in PyeongChang, 109 competed in skiing or snowboarding disciplines, and of the 23 medals won by the US athletes, 11 - including five golds - came in snowboarding and freestyle skiing. Shaun White and Lindsey Vonn both claimed medals in what is likely to be their final Olympics, while breakout performances from the likes of Chloe Kim and Red Gerard - both 17 - helped to signal something of a generational shift among the US ranks. And there was even the added bonus of unexpected success in cross-country skiing, where Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall picked up an historic gold.

Now, the job for Dan Barnett (pictured right), US Ski & Snowboard’s chief commercial officer, and his team is to cash in on that success. Since arriving at the body from the America’s Cup Event Authority in the spring of last year, the Englishman has overseen a commercial programme that includes big-name sponsors such as Visa, P&G, Toyota, Comcast and FedEx, and which generates around 40 per cent of US Ski & Snowboard’s total income.

With his first Games under his belt, Barnett spoke to SportsPro about his plans for the next Olympic quadrennial leading up to Beijing 2022 and outlined his athlete-focused, content-led commercial model - a model that, he says, was created in the knowledge that US Ski & Snowboard boasts among its ranks some of the best-known and most marketable winter Olympians in the country, if not the entire planet.

The idea, he says, is that those names can help drive international awareness and exposure and open up new commercial opportunities for the entire organisation - money that can then be re-invested back into athlete development and, in turn, contribute to producing more medals for the USA at the major international occasions.

How was the PyeongChang 2018 experience for you?

It was my first Olympics and it was a fantastic experience. The Koreans put on quite the show! We went over with a number of athletes representing Team USA, but from a commercial and marketing point of view, it was an incredibly successful Games for us.

Our organisation won a number of gold medals in highly marketable disciplines. We had our household names who had high hopes of winning gold and did - the likes of Mikaela Shiffrin in alpine and Jamie Anderson in slopestyle - and then we had some breakthrough stars like Red Gerard, the 17-year-old who is now, alongside Chloe Kim, the new face of snowboarding. Shaun White’s run was incredible, and then you had Jessie Diggins and Kikkan Randall winning the first-ever female cross-country gold for us. So there’s lots to look forward to over the next quad and beyond.

The general mood within the US media has been one of disappointmen that Team USA, on the whole, failed to live up to pre-Games expectations. Yet, as you say, US skiers and snowboarders did very well. Does that set US Ski & Snowboard apart, to some extent?

I think that’s right. We are an Olympic NGB and, looking forward to the next quad, we now turn to our yearly domestic international circuit where we host world-class World Cup and national events. In terms of what we’re providing to long-term partners and future potential partners, with the success across various disciplines, we provide access for brands to consumers across all major demographics.

You’ve got snowboarding and its lifestyle play, which works well with 17-year-old females, and then you’ve got alpine, which is a more aspirational, older and affluent demographic. Cross-country is now effectively a sleeping giant in the US that we’re trying to awaken. So there’s lots to look to forward and I think it will be quite a buoyant market for us.

essie Diggins (pictured) and Kikkan Randall won a dramatic women's team sprint at PyeongChang

Barnett says that cross-country skiing is a 'sleeping giant' in the US, Jessie Diggins (pictured) and Kikkan Randall won a dramatic women's team sprint at PyeongChang

A couple of other things that worked really well was, despite the global broadcast viewership trend, we’ve had very strong domestic viewership with our partners at NBC all season long, going way beyond what we had done in the past, including during the domestic season prior to Sochi. And we’ve also repositioned ourselves as more of a content company so we can promote our athletes.

During the Games itself, our Facebook fan page, just as an example, rose from 200,000 fans to 635,000 fans, which, I worked out this morning, is a new fan every three seconds. Other NGBs are, to my knowledge, trying to be ambitious and focusing on that area - we actually don’t function as an NGB in that sense. We have to be more like the NBA, who are putting their stars and their athletes out in front. That’s the story we’re trying to tell and it seems to be resonating pretty well.

How will you go about ensuring there’s no major drop-off in interest, both commercially and among fans, following the Games?

For one thing, I think the quad into Beijing 2022 will be exciting for a number of brands but, in my mind, the profile and the stature of any given sport or discipline is directly related to profile of their biggest stars. In order to maintain the halo effect from the Olympics, we need to create household names out of our athletes. That is our number one focus; we’re trying to create a platform to tell their stories.

There are fascinating stories and they are larger-than-life characters, so what we’re effectively trying to do is transcend the Olympic period and the Olympic movement so that the Red Gerards, the Chloe Kims, the Mikaela Shiffrins of this world are recognised here all the time, not just for a couple of weeks every four years.

What stage are you at in your key commercial partnerships? Are you currently in discussion over deals that are up for renewal?

Yeah, we’ve got a lot of major deals up for renewal this season. But we’ve been staying very closely in touch with them in discussions and I think everybody is excited and delighted about the vision for the future.

We all share a common goal in what we want to achieve and we believe that there are a lot of things that the organisation has been doing right in the past, and we also see a number of areas in which we’re a sleeping giant. The renewals will be very welcome from all sides.

US Ski & Snowboard’s funding model is divided between its commercial programme and fundraising and private donations through its foundation. That model is different to publicly-funded NGBs in other countries. Does that make your role even more important to the future success of Team USA and its athletes?

Absolutely. From our side, to know that our success directly impacts the athletes is what gets us out of bed in the morning and push forward. We know that we can directly see the fruits of our labour going back into an athletic pot to fund the future athletic success of our stars.

We do have a large portion of our funding come through the foundation - really that is just an incredible asset for our marketing and commercial team. They’re a corporate who’s who of America. In the past few months there has been a number of instances where they’ve been ready and willing to open doors to conversations with brands that I simply wouldn't otherwise get access to. Moving forward that’s going to be a huge focus and a huge asset for us.

 

What specific events and promotional initiatives do you have planned for the next few months to capitalise on the success you’re athletes had in PyeongChang?

There will be some welcome back tours, but we do have some major events still. We have the National Alpine Championships in Sun Valley; there’s also the NASTAR National Championships in Squaw Valley, which is a series where recreational skiers, which is always pretty fun.

For the marketing and commercial team, this is definitely our busiest period since I joined. We’ll be stomping the pavements in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, etc, telling the story of our athletes and trying to secure funding going into future seasons. That’s going pretty well; as you can imagine we’re top-of-mind right now so when we knock on doors people tend to be pretty open to entering discussions with us. We just want to make the most of it while we can.

Many of the top American skiers and snowboarders have sizeable followings outside the US. Are you also looking to approach international companies and brands, or are you somewhat restricted as an American Olympic body?

100 per cent: we are a global property and we have global superstars. In fact, I think there is a uniqueness about the US ski and snowboard teams, where in many instances they’re everyone’s second-favourite team. We look internationally just as much as we look domestically, with a particular focus on Europe as well as Japan and China.

We are having discussions with major global companies that want to not only benefit from the mass exposure and global television, but also want to align themselves with the goodwill that comes with an association with our athletes.

One of the interesting points I mentioned when I arrived here was that we actually didn’t have any partners other than domestic partners. When you compare that to the commercial programme that I ran with the America’s Cup and Oracle Team USA - Oracle Team USA was the US team and yet the majority of the team’s sponsorships were with brands based out of Europe. I think we can benefit from replicating that opportunity here as well.