Special report: Winter sport in 2016

A sport going global, and a sport going downhill fast - this report assesses the state of play in two of the biggest winter sports, ice hockey and alpine skiing, and looks at another on the up.

Special report: Winter sport in 2016

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Ice planet

 

Ice hockey has historically struggled to get its best players to major global tournaments and now the National Hockey League is striking out with its own solution, a revived World Cup of Hockey in 2016. But rather than a one-off hit, the competition is the cornerstone of the league’s new international strategy.

By Eoin Connolly

For two weeks in May 2016, the Russian cities of Moscow and St Petersburg will welcome the Ice Hockey World Championship. 16 national teams will take part, with the final played at the capital’s VTB Ice Palace on 22nd May. But while the winners will take home a clutch of gold medals, they will not necessarily be regarded as the gold standard in their sport. 

Every year, for many years, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) has been in a bind. On the one hand, it has the responsibility of organising truly global events. On the other, everyone in the ice hockey world appreciates that many or most of the leading players, whatever their country of origin, are based in North America with the National Hockey League (NHL). Finding an annual international slot that suits all parties has proved almost impossible – the tournament either clashes with the season-ending Stanley Cup or it comes just after many months of gruelling clashes on the ice.

“We’re talking about players with a very long season going to a world championship every year,” argues Sandra Monteiro, the chief of global business strategies for the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA). “It’s something that needs to be considered, considering the extra effort that that takes of their personal life, of their personal fitness level. They become exhausted doing that on an every year basis and like any other individual – especially a professional in any sort of area – at some point they want to have time to spend with their families, to recover their bodies, to make sure that they have enough time off to be able to come back to competition in the best shape possible.”

It is a problem familiar to followers of the other international major league sports in the US and Canada – baseball and basketball – and in truth, it trickles up as far as Olympic level as well: it is no coincidence that ice hockey’s most fondly remembered moment at the Games is probably the ‘Miracle on Ice’ at Lake Placid in 1980, a game involving a team of US college students and Soviet athletes tied to the state. 

NHL players are free to participate in international tournaments but aligning their scheduling to coincide with league-sanctioned breaks is a puzzle the IIHF has yet to consistently solve. In the meantime, the NHL has sensed an opportunity to create its own event for national teams and elite players. Later in 2016, after two previous attempts in 1996 and 2004, it will revive the World Cup of Hockey. 

“The World Cup concept came from the will between the NHL and the NHLPA to develop a worldwide competition that would represent the best on best on ice,” explains Monteiro. 

NHL players on stage at the World Cup of Hockey launch event in September 2015.

The third World Cup of Hockey will be played at the Air Canada Center in Toronto from 17th September to 1st October, preceding the 2016/17 NHL season. Over 150 of the league’s best players will be involved, divvied up into eight teams which reflect its current international balance. 

“We have six teams represented by countries [Team Canada, Team Czech Republic, Team Finland, Team Russia, Team Sweden and Team USA],” says Monteiro, “and then we have two extra countries – Team North America Under-24, and Team Europe – that create the opportunity to have two extraordinarily competitive teams, built with extraordinarily talented players, that will resonate either with North America or with Europe. This is an opportunity for countries that probably would not have a chance to compete at this level to still be representative and still reach out, prevail in the competition until a very late stage.”

While it is being pitched as an international tournament, the players, according to Monteiro, are very much at the core of the World Cup concept. This is not just lip service, either: the NHLPA is a full partner in the enterprise, and its members have a financial stake in its commercial success. 

“They change the whole dynamic,” Monteiro says of the players’ involvement. “We’re talking about the possibility of having all the teams with the best NHL players committed for this event to be a total success. It might be a minor factor but it changed all the dynamics. It also explains, a little bit, the initial odd format.”

Monteiro is speaking to SportsPro during the Sportel media convention in Monaco in October, where she is joined by NHL executive vice president of media distribution and strategy David Proper and by IMG Media senior vice president Hilary Mandel.  

While the World Cup of Hockey is an NHL – and NHLPA – property, it has been sold separately from the regular league competition in North America. “I don’t think we have a strategy in terms of doing one or the other,” Proper says, asked whether the tournament will be linked to existing NHL partners or whether new ones will be sought. “I think it becomes a function of who’s the right partner to be with. 

“So, for example, we’ve had situations where we’ve been with current partners that have continued on – like Rogers, who’s our partner in Canada and is also going to be our partner for the World Cup – and in the US, our partner for regular season is NBC but because of their scheduling, the World Cup didn’t work very well but it worked for ESPN. So it’s really about who’s the right partner, what’s the right way to position the property, as opposed to just creating another property to give to another partner.”

Chicago Blackhawks' Patrick Kane, LA Kings' Anze Kopitar and Boston Bruin Patrice Bergeron at the announcement.

On the sponsorship side, the situation is complicated by the fact that World Cup partnerships are global, rather than localised to North America. Proper is not in charge of the sponsorship operation but does explain that this has led the league to ask “who’s prepared to invest in it as a worldwide sponsorship versus trying to have a sponsorship just for Canada, or just in the US”.

For global TV rights sales, there is a different strategy. At the start of October, IMG signed a long-term deal with the league to distribute media rights outside the US, Canada, and the Nordic countries. These include those to the World Cup of Hockey, and it is this partnership that will be vital to building the tournament into a truly international event.

In an era where the major US leagues are deep into strategies for generating overseas interest, the World Cup is the keystone of an alternative approach. “This is definitely one of the first mature steps, with the partnership together between the NHL and the NHLPA, to invest on growing our properties worldwide, to position the NHL and NHL players on a worldwide picture and with a worldwide presence,” says Monteiro. 

"The phrase that we consistently use is 'drinking from a fire hose', in that we've got so much going on."

“This is the first of the events that the NHL and the NHLPA are negotiating to approach in an international market. It’s a serious consideration. The reason, for example, for the relationship with IMG is that we want to try and partner with people that are on the ground, with the expertise in the territories where we want to expand, that can help us to reach out to those markets.”

With that in mind, it is vital that the tournament can establish a meaningful international presence. After all, as Monteiro says, “This is supposed to be the World Cup.” 

Of course, there is only so much that a quadrennial event can do to keep the league’s profile growing and Proper points out that it is only one element in a much wider initiative. 

“There’s a lot of unique things that are going to happen as part of this tournament, a lot of technological things that we’re going to do in terms of production,” he says. “This is all intended to build; it’s building to other projects. This is not the end: there’s the Ryder Cup idea [a proposed mid-season contest between the league’s North American and European players], then there’s increased qualifications that allows more countries to get involved in the 2020 World Cup and all that stuff. And I think that it’s all going to get figured out over time. Some things are going to work in the first one and we’ll stick with them, and some things aren’t. But that’s like anything else.” 

With the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Global Games concept now well rooted, the National Football League (NFL) pushing its International Series to the point where a London franchise is a distinct possibility, and Major League Baseball (MLB) reported to be exploring its options in Europe, it seems natural to ask what plans might arise for the NHL in its regular season. For Monteiro, the World Cup has the potential to be more valuable, as one-off games in foreign lands “don’t leave a legacy, they don’t pull generations, they don’t entice thousands of fans that might or might not be hockey fans but they will still cheer for a national team and they will resonate with that message much more easily”.

The NHL has played regular season games overseas before. From 2007 to 2011, its Premiere Series opened the season with multiple fixtures in European cities including London, Salzburg, Bern, Berlin, Stockholm and St Petersburg. There were reports that the concept would return for the start of the 2015/16 season but that did not ultimately transpire. Nonetheless, Proper (left) still sees a future for such games alongside the national team events the league is putting together. 

“I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive,” he says. “In fact, I’m sure they’re not because we are absolutely thinking of the best way to do games here. Up to now, it’s really been ‘play a game, go away, play a game, go away’. I think we felt like with a World Cup tied with playing games, and big events at grassroots, we can build a real presence here. And I think games is absolutely part of that – regular-season NHL games – but we started with the World Cup. That’s the first thing, and then it’s all going to come after that.”

The NHL’s intention is to incorporate all of those pieces into a coherent international project – one that is further strengthened by a recent tie-up with the pioneering Major League Baseball Advanced Media, which signed a landmark six-year deal in 2015 to market its digital rights internationally and revamp its digital offering. 

“I think it all fits together,” says Proper. “It’s very tricky to keep it all in a constant strategy, to have a view and message coming across it, which is really a core part of our job, but we’re starting to get if we don’t already have all the right partners in place to make that all work.” 

Proper believes the NHL is “really comfortable” in Scandinavia but in other traditional ice hockey strongholds, like the Czech Republic and Russia, there is work to be done “to get better relationships with the fanbase”. Beyond that, Proper sees potential in “tricky markets” like Germany, Austria, Switzerland and even Italy: “ones that we think have a real interest in hockey or could have a real interest”.

“These are all places that we have to mine differently,” he adds, “but at the end of the day, if we can build hockey and the NHL in these countries, then it’s a success. How we measure that is a great question. We’ll see.”

The NHL is about to enter a period of significant change. A few weeks after Sportel, the league’s long-serving and successful chief operating officer John Collins departed for the Bruin Sports Capital-backed NFL hospitality service On Location Experiences. Even before that announcement, it had been a busy time.  

“I think that right now, the phrase that we consistently use is ‘drinking from a fire hose’, in that we’ve got so much going on in terms of trying to get everything going,” Proper says. “We’re less than a year out from the World Cup happening and we’ve got so much to get done. I think that the measurements of what would be a success are hard to say. For some people, a success would be that we actually get it done and it goes off well. But I think that what we really want to do is have a better presence internationally.”

At this stage, while there is another tournament scheduled for 2020, Proper admits that it is unclear which parts of the World Cup model will make it into future editions. “It’s a fair question because we all have a view – everybody has a view about what it should look like – but until we’ve gone through at least one iteration of the tournament it’s going to be hard to know exactly what works,” he says. 

It also remains to be seen what the NHL’s new status as an organiser of international tournaments will have on its relationship with those bodies that have traditionally fulfilled that role: the IIHF and even the IOC. But both Monteiro and Proper believe that its efforts can only be good for the game around the world. 

“An important point to put into there is that this isn’t just about building the NHL and the NHL players, it’s about building hockey as a sport,” says Proper. “And I think that if it’s done the right way, with the right involvement, it’s going to be good for federations in Europe – it’s going to be good for everybody, hopefully. It’s going to just raise the interest in hockey as well. There’s no reason to say it needs to all be NHL. It’s all about building the game and hopefully the rest takes care of itself.”

The New York Rangers take on the LA Kings in Stockholm, Sweden in 2011 as part of the NHL's Premiere Series.

 

The NHL and IMG

At the start of October 2015, the NHL signed a long-term partnership with IMG that will see the agency giant distribute elite ice hockey from North America to territories around the world from the start of the 2016/17 season. 

“Obviously they have great expertise in the media world,” says NHL executive vice president of media distribution and strategy David Proper of the league’s new partner. “We all know that.”

For Proper, it is the breadth of IMG’s offering, as much as its profile, that will be most significant in the pursuit of the NHL’s next strategic phase.

“We were looking for a full-service entity that we could do business with,” he explains. “Obviously we had a relationship with IMG from the awards shows that they do, and some of the other things that they do for us, but this was a really good chance for us to get in on the media side, do what we needed to do, but also start talking to them about production of ancillary programmes, event support, a lot of other things that they have unique capabilities in. That’s really the main differentiator for us.”

Proper explains that the NHL and IMG have been working on various projects “off and on” for several years and that he and IMG senior vice president and head of media for North America Hilary Mandel (right) have “been friends for quite a while”. 

“I’d say it took a while – more us than them, but it took a while for us to get our heads around everything we wanted to do, and when we put that all together, they said all the right things,” he reveals.

Much of IMG’s recent large-scale event experience, particularly in the years building up to its merger with WME, has been in developing sports markets. It was a partner in the creation and operation of cricket’s Indian Premier League (IPL), for example, and played a similar role in the launch of the Indian Super League soccer competition through its local joint venture with Reliance. Working alongside an organisation with the NHL’s reach and background in major events is a different experience.  

“It’s fantastic – any time!” Mandel laughs. “No, I mean, it’s tremendous because there’s no learning curve here. These guys – we say this a lot – they’re no strangers to the international marketplace and have been there.”

With that strong level of expertise already established, IMG’s partnership with the NHL will be a matter of “drilling down a little bit more deeply” to see what else can be achieved. Mandel believes there are “no better ambassadors for their brand and to tell their story” than those working at the league. 

“Any time that we can work collaboratively with a client that wants to work with us in that same manner,” she adds, “we’re going to have a fantastic result.”

The task that lies ahead of IMG is to convince broadcasters that the World Cup of Hockey, an event with little existing reputation despite the profile of its participants, is a global occasion worthy of suitably significant coverage. Mandel is relishing the task. 

“If you start to look into the plans of what Toronto is going to look like, I think you’re going to capture something that is really what a championship and a world stage can bring,” she says. “It’s that interest that goes beyond the sport and lets people pull the curtain back and lets the fan – or potential fan – find the sport. And I think that that’s an exciting opportunity for a broadcaster as a trail to lead to a bigger audience.”

 

High rollers

 

Since gaining inclusion on the Winter Olympics sports programme for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, ski cross has met with a surge in popularity and increased professionalisation. For the coordinators of the Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup, achieving widespread live broadcast coverage is now the primary focus.

By Mike Kennedy

Competitive ski cross has come a long way in its short history. Having emerged as a breakaway, rule-light alternative to downhill ski racing, it is now a welcome discipline on the mainstream winter sports calendar. Ski cross races are quick, highly charged affairs and, unlike in the more traditional alpine racing disciplines, four competitors contest each race at once.

“It’s not just a fight against the clock, it’s a fight man against man or woman against woman which is very attractive for spectators,” says Andi Marugg, the International Ski Federation (FIS) project manager for alpine and freestyle skiing. Jumps, rollers and sharp banking turns are littered throughout a ski cross course and the slightest mistake will rarely go unpunished. Falls, often spectacular ones, are a common sight, and with up to 80 racers in the start field for a given event on the Ski Cross World Cup circuit, the winning skier will have had to come through as many as five races during an event.

“The ski cross racers, they are really crazy guys,” continues Marugg, speaking to SportsPro a couple of weeks out from the start of the 2015/16 Audi FIS Ski Cross World Cup season. “They are a little bit more freestyle regarding their mindset than an alpine racer, for example. So if you ask me, they are a little bit more freaky than the alpine guys.” 

With its roots at competition level at the X Games – the original extreme sports spectacle controlled and arranged by US sports broadcaster ESPN – where it made its debut as ‘Skier X’ in 1998, it comes as little surprise that ski cross exponents are considered to be a little ‘out there’. The competitors, in their baggy suits, look a far cry from their skin-tight lycra-clad alpine counterparts.

In 2004 ski cross was accepted into the mainstream fold when it was added to the FIS Freestyle Skiing World Cup calendar, alongside the moguls and aerials disciplines. Ski cross then saw its stock rise to new heights in 2010, when it made its Olympic debut at the Vancouver Winter Games.

At first the majority of competitors were crossover ‘alpiners’ who were looking for a less-demanding event at the twilight of their careers, including the likes of decorated US alpine ski racer Daron Rahlves, who switched to freestyle in 2006 and went on to represent the US in ski cross at Vancouver 2010. But Marugg is keen to point out this is swiftly becoming a thing of the past, and that the exposure given to the discipline by the 2010 Olympics means ski cross is now attracting young racers looking to carve out a professional career. “It’s getting more professional every year,” Marugg suggests. “If you look at the preparation that they do during the summer, the training, etc, it’s getting more and more important.” 

“A few years ago,” he argues, “a retired alpine ski racer might decide that he or she still wanted to have fun and so would switch over to ski cross and he or she could be successful there. But this is not the case anymore.

“The young racers, they have to decide at an early stage whether they want to compete in the alpine or freestyle ski cross. It’s not the same education anymore and so it’s not the case that a former racer switches to ski cross. It was a few years ago but now they are ski cross specialists.” 

Competition prize money is provided by the national ski association (NSA) organising each event and is set by the FIS at a minimum of CHF25,000 (US$24,000) per competition, per gender – meaning a competition winner will take home CHF11,250. The tenth-placed skier will get a paltry CHF350.

Ski cross has grown rapidly since its competition debut at the X Games in 1998, and is now capable of attracting big-name sponsors such as Audi.

FIS World Cup events are currently staged across four continents and international sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media owns the media rights to the bulk of these. A recently renewed deal with the NSAs in Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Norway, Russia and Spain for the media rights across the alpine skiing, cross-country, ski jumping, Nordic combined, snowboard and freestyle skiing events takes Infront’s total number of partnerships to 21 and Infront markets these rights on a collective basis.. Since alpine skiing is the most popular of these, Infront “more or less negotiates the price for the alpine rights and then the deal is done with the freestyle rights on top of that,” Marugg says.

German automobile manufacturer Audi signed on as the title sponsor of the Ski Cross World Cup in 2011, adding to a portfolio which includes the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup and the Nordic disciplines: cross-country, ski jumping and Nordic combined. The current deal, which Marugg reveals is worth around €1 million to the FIS, runs until 2016 and a new deal to extend the sponsorship until 2018 is currently being negotiated. Audi’s sponsorship of the Ski Cross World Cup gives it prominence at the race start and finish areas, while the NSA for host countries can sell sponsorship space on the racer’s bibs, and at gates and banners throughout the course.

In 2015/2016 the Ski Cross World Cup will take in races in five new resorts. Montafon, in Austria, has earned its place for the first time on the circuit after hosting several FIS Snowboard Cross World Cup races in the past. The resort is the first stop on the 2015/16 circuit, with men’s and women’s races held there on 4th and 5th December.

Audi's sponsorship of the FIS Ski Cross World Cup is worth around €1 million.

“I think Montafon is going to be a really big thing,” says Marugg. “They have proven by organising several snowboard cross events that they have the knowhow and they bring a lot of spectators. When they have had snowboard cross events they have around 8,000 spectators, which is high for the sport and we think that we can also achieve that for ski cross. And they also have a good night programme; they bring famous bands and DJs. So we think this could be the highlight. 

“But Val Thorens is the classic race and also the German race in Tegernsee; they also do a really great job,” Marugg continues. “There are a lot of established organisers and it’s getting bigger and better every year so there is really a lot of potential.”

Idre, in Sweden, has been switched in by the Swedish Ski Association, the Svenska Skidförbundet, for Åre, which is already a recognised alpine skiing venue, in order to build up a new freestyle skiing destination. Watles in Italy is new, as is Squaw Valley in the US. And in 2016 competition will also head to South Korea for test events ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Games. The ski cross racing will take place at Bokwang Phoenix Park Resort, a purpose-built venue for the freestyle events. As a relative newcomer to skiing, South Korea has no great history as a winter sports destination and the resorts largely rely on artificial snow-making. But ahead of the FIS’s first visit for the Ski Cross World Cup event between 26th and 28th February 2016, Marugg says there are no great concerns about its readiness.

“I think the Koreans have done a great job,” he says. “I can only rely on what our race directors tell us and they say that come February, when the races will take place, the Koreans are ready and the slopes are ready and all the lifts are built and everything is fine.

“Having a new location is interesting, especially when it’s that far away and it’s a different culture and so it’s kind of an adventure. In Europe you can do location checks quite easy and you have experienced NSAs and resorts and organisers, but Korea is something completely new. We are excited about it.”

Slovenian Filip Flisar (fourth from right), sponsored by Red Bull, is one of the sport's most recognisable and marketable stars.

Having attained greater exposure thanks to ski cross’ Olympic  inclusion since Vancouver in 2010, a number of enigmatic figures who have emerged on the circuit are starting to be celebrated more broadly in the winter sports field. Sweden’s Anna Holmlund and Switzerland’s Fanny Smith are among the leading lights in the women’s competition, and Slovenian Filip Flisar is one of the stars on the men’s circuit.

The Red Bull-sponsored athlete is one of a dying breed of competitors who cut his teeth in alpine skiing. The 28-year-old won ski cross gold at the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships 2015, the season-ending event in Kreischberg, Austria, and is at the forefront of a host of personalities who give ski cross an appeal factor which Marugg believes makes it ripe for broadcasters. “He’s a very outgoing guy, with his moustache,” Marugg says. “He’s the kind of guy that you have to have in the sport. He is a real personality and you can build stories around him. And this is something not just for the FIS to push but for the NSAs to push and promote their own athletes.”

In the men’s ski cross final at the Sochi 2014 Olympics, France secured a podium clean sweep as Jean Frédéric Chapuis took gold ahead of national team mates Arnaud Bovolenta and Jonathan Midol. Chapuis, in particular, has had a vintage couple of years: the 26-year-old also won gold at the FIS Freestyle World Ski Championships 2013, claimed the 2014/15 FIS Ski Cross World Cup crystal globe after finishing with the most points at the end of the season, and finished behind Flisar to take silver in Kreischberg. In the women’s competition, Frenchwoman Alizee Baron finished second in the overall Ski Cross World Cup standings and she helped the team to win the 2014/15 Audi ski cross Nations Cup.

Yet despite the country’s strength, no French broadcaster currently airs events from the Ski Cross World Cup live, with races instead relayed as short-form highlights. “This is not good, this is a problem for us,” says Marugg. “They show it delayed but this coverage tends to be very poor. So while you might think that in France ski cross should be very popular and shown on TV, in fact the opposite is true. It was a surprise for me when I got the report!”

Indeed, ski cross finds itself locked in competition for air time with the more established skiing disciplines. Packed TV schedules in the world’s most developed winter sports markets – France, the US, the Nordic regions, Switzerland and Austria among them – are proving tough to crack. “Our biggest goal is to raise the TV coverage, declares Marugg. “This is very important for us and for our sponsors.”

“There are so many disciplines and so it’s hard to get space in the TV schedules,” he says. “All those disciplines are old and established and traditional disciplines and now we have with ski cross, quite a young discipline which isn’t established yet and so this takes some time. I think TV stations realise that the fan community for ski cross is growing and growing and more and more people are interested in it and so this is our hope and our chance to increase the air time. But it’s a long and hard way to be honest.”

Attendances will vary from around 2,000 to 10,000 and attracting more spectators to ski cross events is another area of focus for Marugg and his team. “Often it’s the case that the race track is built beside a public slope and so you have the normal skiers who buy a day pass and every now and then they pass by and watch a heat and then they move on,” he says. “And the finish area is not that crowded. It’s OK, it’s fine, but there is still space to grow. Let’s put it that way. The development is positive, it’s growing. But there is room for improvement.”

 

Speed merchants

 

Traditionally championed above all other winter sports disciplines, downhill ski racing is big business for sponsors and broadcasters.

By Mike Kennedy

Since it was first held in 1967, the International Ski Federation (FIS) Alpine Ski World Cup has brought together the world’s elite skiers in a series of races across a host of world-famous resorts. Between October and March each year the circuit takes in stops in North America, France, Italy, Germany, Austria and Switzerland, together with visits to lesser-known ski sanctuaries in the likes of Sweden and Slovakia. 

From the early Alpine Ski World Cup trailblazers, such as Jean-Claude Killy and Annemarie Moser-Pröll, to the modern exponents like Marcel Hirscher and Lindsey Vonn, downhill ski racers are among the most recognisable names in the winter sports fold and often lauded above all others.

The Alpine Ski World Cup is split into five disciplines: downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and combined – which employs both downhill and slalom racing. As with Formula One in the motorsports industry, and flat racing in horse racing, raw speed is an inherent component that gives alpine ski racing its standout appeal. Competitors must tackle sheer faces, drops and undulations in downhill events, while executing each turn with precision and efficiency in the slalom events. Every race is against the clock and throughout the season the top 30 finishers in each will score points, with the crystal globe awarded to the racer who has scored the most cumulative points come the season’s close in mid-March.

The 2016 Alpine Ski World Cup got underway in Soelden, Austria with a giant slalom event in late October 2015, and will carry through to a week-long season finale in the Swiss resort of St Moritz between 14th and 20th March. South Korea has been added to schedule for the first time, with the men’s downhill and super-G events in Jeongseon in February 2016 being used as test events for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

Through a deal with the FIS, sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media currently holds the marketing rights to around 75 per cent of the Alpine Ski World Cup races, totalling 52 across nine of the countries to feature on the 2015/16 calendar. “We established a collective marketing programme around six years ago, so all the races within the countries that we represent are offered out of one hand and can be booked as a package,” says Michael Witta, the managing director of Infront Austria, the company’s subsidiary which controls its marketing rights to FIS Alpine Ski World Cup events. 

“However, the allocation of the brands differs at each location,” he continues. “For example, we don’t assign all the bibs or all finish area packages across the season to one partner.” Thus, at the ladies Alpine Ski World Cup event in Lake Louise, Canada, in early December 2015, insurance company Generali took the bib sponsorship for the downhill race, while fruit juice company Rauch, filled this category for the super-G.

This approach, Witta says, allows sponsors to go direct to Infront to purchase a package of rights, whether for a single race or across all 52. “In our races we have seven different brands involved as sponsors,” he explains. “In most races five brands are international partners, so they book all or almost every race. The other packages are often booked by national partners or brands that target the respective market in particular.” 

The Alpine Ski World Cup is split into five disciplines: downhill, slalom, giant slalom, super-G, and combined.

Infront sells the packages that include TV-relevant rights to the international partners, while the local organisers, appointed by the national ski association (NSA) for the country a race is taking place in, is responsible for selling non-TV relevant rights packages. These non-TV relevant packages are targeted at the local sponsors, whose interests will be in their domestic market.

Witta says that values of “several million” come out of the market research conducted by Infront on its international sponsorship packages, though the actual value is pretty difficult to determine as “every sponsor has other targets and sees the value in them being achieved”.

For some sponsors the value is to be present in “one of the most prestigious winter sports events in the world, like for the Wengen and Adelboden races,” Witta says, while “others are really only looking into media figures”. 

“But in the end,” he adds, “these brands are all looking at whether they sell more products or not at the end of the season."

The rights sales process is “a pretty transparent thing and that’s what we want,” says Witta.  “We want the companies to know what the others have and how they use the platform so that they don’t envy each other,” he says. “That happens pretty often in sponsoring, but we have such a clear structure and transparent model here that everybody knows exactly what the others are doing and what prices they are paying. We went into the market a couple of years ago with a clear concept and a clear pricing structure.”

Infront also currently has an extensive portfolio of media rights for FIS World Cup events. The agency recently renewed its deals with the national ski associations (NSA) in Canada, China, Japan, Korea, Norway, Russia and Spain for the media rights to the FIS World Cup events across alpine skiing, cross-country, ski jumping, Nordic combined, snowboard and freestyle until 2021. For the 2015/16 season, Infront is handling the media rights to a total of 74 races and, as with the marketing rights, these are bundled together and sold to broadcasters as one product. Witta says that when the figures for all live transmissions, delayed coverage, news, and content being broadcast by third parties is taken into account, “the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup itself had a cumulative reach of almost three billion viewers in 2014/15”.

German car manufacturer Audi is the title sponsor of the Alpine Ski World Cup and Swiss luxury watch company Longines is the official timekeeper, giving both brands a presence across every race on the Alpine Ski World Cup circuit. Both of these sponsorships were sold centrally by the FIS through its subsidiary FIS Marketing, which was established in 2009. “Infront owns 24.5 per cent of FIS Marketing, so indirectly we are taking part in that [centralised rights sale], but we are not in the lead,” Witta explains.

Audi's title sponsorship of the Alpine Ski World Cup runs until at least 2018.

The 2015/16 season marks Audi’s 14th as the title sponsor of the Alpine Ski World Cup and it has a contract until 2018. Audi has also been the title sponsor of the FIS Ski Cross World Cup since 2011 and became the principal sponsor of the FIS Nordic Combination World Cup in 2013, while the manufacturer also partnered with the FIS Cross Country World Cup and Ski Jumping World Cup at the start of the 2014/2015 season.

And as well as its sponsorship of a number of FIS events, Audi has been the principal sponsor of the German Ski Federation (DSV) for more than 30 years and is also a sponsor and vehicle partner of 15 other national ski associations (NSA), among them Austria, Norway and Switzerland. “There has been a long tradition of partnerships between Audi and winter sport,” says Thomas Glas, the head of sports marketing at Audi AG. “The base for those commitments is the various characteristics Audi shares with this sport. Just like skiing, the Audi products symbolise attributes like precision, technical perfection, strength and sporting competition. 

“Skiing also offers an exciting platform of spectacular high performance sport for both fans and participants,” he suggests. “The result is an emotional environment which is ideal to present the Audi brand and to get in touch with customers and potential customers.”

Every racecourse on the Alpine Ski World Cup will have an Audi-branded start house, finish banner, exit gate, leader board and podium. “The activation on site is realised in close collaboration with the national Audi dealers,” says Glas. “The World Cup events offer a perfect opportunity to organise extraordinary customer or B2B events. The detailed activation can differ and is depending on the respective needs and demands of the specific Audi dealership.”

Glas identifies the Alpine Ski World Cup as a “useful platform to present the latest Audi products”, and the manufacturer offers driving experiences at stops on the circuit. The media coverage for every FIS World Cup event from a branding perspective on the race course, such as its branding presence at the start and finish gates, is then assessed by Audi, together with the coverage of social media content surrounding each race, to measure the success of its sponsorship.

 

Hahnenkamm fever

 

The Hahnenkamm-Rennen in Kitzbühel is an annual event on the Audi FIS Alpine Ski World Cup and provides one of the most prominent platforms to showcase downhill skiing.

By Mike Kennedy

One event that generates perhaps more media coverage on the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup circuit than any other is the annual race week at Kitzbühel, Austria each January. Kitzbühel, named the world’s best ski resort 2015 at the annual World Ski Awards, is a mecca for alpine ski racing and home to the renowned Hahnenkamm-Rennen. The annual week-long festival of skiing features a packed programme of Alpine Ski World Cup races in the super-G, combined slalom, downhill and slalom disciplines. 

Organised each year by the Kitzbüheler Ski Club (KSC), the Hahnenkamm-Rennen celebrates its 76th anniversary in 2016. In 1999 the race week attracted a record crowd of more than 100,000 spectators over the three main race days, with more than 45,000 alone packing the course and grandstands in the finish area for the downhill race.

Since it was included in the inaugural Alpine Ski World Cup in 1967, the festival has built up around the showpiece event:  the men’s and women’s Hahnenkamm Downhill on the Streif, regarded as one of the most demanding ski runs on the Alpine Ski World Cup circuit. The perilous top section of the course, known as the Mausefalle, registers at a gradient of 85 per cent, and racers can hit speeds of up to 140 kilometres per hour as they tackle the Zielschusskompression heading into the finish line.

Norway's Kjetil Jansrud catches air on Kitzbühel's infamous Streif.

The bubble cars on the Hahnenkamm gondola bear the names of each skier to have won the downhill on the Streif. In 2014 Red Bull Media House – the media arm of the Austrian energy drink, which is one of several main local sponsors for the Hahnenkamm-Rennen – released a feature documentary on the race, entitled Streif – One Hell of a Ride.

Work on the Streif is a year-round process, with goats left to graze in the summer months to keep the course clear of shrubs. Course construction will commence at the end of November, though the KSC has to factor the changeable mountain weather conditions into their planning.

Barbara Thaler, the KSC’s head of communications, says artificial snow-making machines will be deployed to supplement the natural snowfall when necessary and the course crew use GPS systems to measure snow levels, shifting snow to sparse areas to ensure an even pack. Injection bars are then used to inject water 50 centimetres deep into the slope to create a hard, even surface for racing. In all, more than 1,450 people are involved in staging the race week in Kitzbühel. 

The KSC estimates the turnover in Kitzbühel during race week is around €40 million each year.

The KSC’s annual race budget is around €6.5 million, close to 80 per cent of which is made up from the funds generated by the sale of TV rights and sponsorship. Austrian public service operator ORF is the host broadcast partner of the Hahnenkamm. Eurovision, which is managed by the European Broadcasting Union, is the international rights holder. 

WWP, the agency run by Austrian Harti Weirather – a former downhill racer for the Austrian national ski team – controls the marketing around the event on behalf of the KSC. Insurance firm Generali, tyre manufacturer Bridgestone, Austrian mobile network operator A1 and Austrian beer brand Gösser join Red Bull in the top category of Hahnenkamm sponsors.

Luxury Swiss watch company Longines, Leitner Ropeways and Swedish outdoor clothing brand Peak Performance are among the partners and official suppliers. The remainder of the funds are generated by ticket sales. Prices for the public areas during race week start from €25, while tickets to attend the full three days in the VIP-Grand Stand at beside the race course finish areas cost €640.

Thaler says the whole resort is fully booked as an influx of some 1,000 racers, trainers, technicians and sponsors, plus around 600 media representatives and the many thousands of spectators descend upon the Tyrolean resort. When the competition ceases for the day, the parties start and the packed Hahnenkamm-Rennen programme of evening entertainment is met with equal relish as the daytime racing. The KSC estimates the turnover in Kitzbühel during race week is around €40 million each year.

In addition to selling the local sponsorship, WPP also organises the Kitz Race Club VIP tent situated by the finish area of the Streif, and the Kitz Race Party on the Saturday evening of the race weekend, a hangout for celebrity’s such as Austrian-born Hollywood actor and former US governor of California Arnold Schwarzenegger. When the race week is over and the Alpine Ski World Cup heads to its next stop – in 2016 the ladies will depart for the Italian resort of Cortina d'Ampezzo, while the men will stay in Austria for the slalom in Schladming – the 8,000 barriers put up around the course are taken away and the Streif is opened up to the public for the remainder of the winter season.