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Springs adopts Olympic City USA, but can it weather sexual assault controversy? 

Branded

click to enlarge GRIFFIN SWARTZELL
  • Griffin Swartzell

In case you haven't noticed, "Olympic City USA" is gradually becoming the marketing tag for Colorado Springs.

You can see it on a Colorado Springs Airport mural, and on light pole banners at First & Main, in downtown and at University Village. It's on an array of memorabilia, such as T-shirts, keychains and ball caps, for sale at the Olympic Training Center, the airport, Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs bookstore. It's emblazoned on the city's business cards, stationery and website.

Olympic City USA also is part of the city's Facebook and Twitter identities, and it appeared in countless public service announcements on television during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

The Garden of the Gods Club even offers an "Olympic City" convention package.

The label is something of a no-brainer, some say, considering the U.S. Olympic Committee has been based here since 1978 and likely will stay under an agreement finalized with the city in 2009. The deal required the city to invest $53 million in taxpayer money to build a new headquarters downtown, upgrade the training center and overhaul a building at 30 Cimino Drive that houses several sports' national governing bodies. In exchange, the USOC agreed to stay here for at least 25 years.

Olympic City USA is part of the city's ploy to brand itself with one of the most recognizable and respected labels in the world — a coup in the marketing arena. What city wouldn't envy the chance to capitalize on the Olympic name? It's unique, memorable and authentic, the trifecta of a marketing brand.

But what happens when that coveted brand becomes tarnished? What happens when the agency that gave birth to the brand finds itself in the crosshairs of a negative media blitz fueled by mounting allegations that show no signs of fading any time soon?

That's the situation surrounding the USOC and several national governing bodies regarding allegations of abuse from Olympic athletes, who say coaches, trainers and even a team doctor sexually assaulted them for years while the Olympic organizations did nothing. (See "Tarnished image?")

Besides defending itself against lawsuits, the USOC might be subject to congressional hearings, guaranteeing more media coverage of the controversy. In the midst of the scandal, on Feb. 28, the USOC announced its CEO, Scott Blackmun, had resigned. While some abuse victims had been calling for his resignation, a release stated Blackmun was leaving due to medical issues, undergoing treatment for prostate cancer.

In light of all the allegations, and the fact that we are living through the #MeToo reckoning that has toppled CEOs and celebrities, how durable is the city's Olympic City USA image, and what impact will the turmoil have on that marketing persona?

"None," Mayor John Suthers says flatly. "The Olympic brand is much stronger than any internal issues in the Olympic movement."

Other local officials, for the most part, agree, saying the brand is tied more to the athletes and Olympic ideals than the USOC governing body and its subgroups.

But one former city official, Council President Pro-tem Jan Martin, a strong Olympics advocate who favored the city's 2009 deal, says it's simply too early to say for sure whether the taint will rub off on the city. But, she adds, "It's enough to raise a red flag about the future of Olympic City USA."

Current Council President Pro-tem Jill Gaebler is more blunt about the drawbacks, and particularly concerned that the brand strategy was chosen by city leaders without public input. "When the mayor started talking about this, I asked him for a public process. I said at the time it was concerning to me that we would attach ourselves to a brand we couldn't control," she says. "So here we are. Attached to a brand that has hundreds of allegations of sexual assault. I just think, at the end of the day, we should have had a public process and it would have made the brand stronger."

Branding has taken center stage as a key to economic development and tourism for cities worldwide. Branding consultants abound, and entire careers have been built around such expertise. Cities spend generously to find just the right moniker and tag line. Regina, Saskatchewan, for example, spent nearly two years and $320,000 to develop a stylized R and the phrase "Infinite Horizons," Regina's Leader-Post reported in 2010, quoting then-Mayor Pat Fiacco as saying, "It's the cost of doing business. Cities who do nothing, get nothing."

The chief idea is to distinguish a city from all others to attract new businesses and visitors, thereby pumping up the local economy, which adds to tax coffers.

But while the branding exercise normally includes studies of how to articulate core identities and values in order to compete, for Colorado Springs the choice, apparently, seemed obvious.

"There's two cities in the world very much alike and very unique, and we happen to be one of them," Bernard Sandoval, owner of Sandia Advertising, told City Council two years ago when the logo for which he was paid a mere $3,700 was unveiled. The other city is Lausanne, Switzerland, he said, home of the International Olympic Committee.

click to enlarge This mural greets airline passengers after they arrive at the Colorado Springs Airport. - PAM ZUBECK
  • Pam Zubeck
  • This mural greets airline passengers after they arrive at the Colorado Springs Airport.

Despite hosting 23 of the 48 Olympic sport governing bodies — including hockey, archery, figure skating, volleyball, boxing, cycling and swimming — as well as training facilities and the headquarters itself, Colorado Springs didn't aggressively launch its Olympic identity campaign until early 2016.

Authority for the city's use of Olympic symbols and words is stated in a one-page "Affiliation and Marketing Relationship" agreement made part of the 2009 economic development agreement to build Olympic facilities and retain the USOC. That agreement is no small miracle considering the USOC obsessively protects its brand against infringement or manipulation. As Bloomberg BNA reported in 2016, the USOC's trademark enforcement policies went so far as to warn people against using "Road to Rio" and other similar phrases for the Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. In fact, the USOC keeps tabs on more than 200 trademarks registered or pending in the United States, and has sued over trademark infringement dozens of times. Media who want to take photos of Olympic facilities must apply for permission and state reasons why they want photos and what subjects they want to take photos of. That's not surprising, considering 38 percent of the USOC's revenue comes from deals that allow sponsors to use its trademarks in their own advertising, and another 4 percent comes from licensing royalties, Bloomberg reported.

All those measures are designed to protect a brand that continues to enjoy broad support, demonstrated by record-breaking viewership of the most recent Winter Olympics. The USOC wouldn't discuss whether it's conducting brand testing and analysis in light of the sexual assault scandal, and referred the Indy to the International Olympic Committee.

The IOC says via email, "The IOC tracks brand perception on [a] regular basis, but does not have any updated findings at the moment."

In Colorado Springs' case, it can use the label, "Official Hometown of the USOC," or other comparable language, reproduce the USA 5-ring logo, and enlist Olympic athletes for appearances at city events, the agreement says. But all those uses require USOC approval.

After the 2009 deal was struck, the city didn't use its privilege until May 2014 when then-Mayor Steve Bach sought and obtained permission to use the phrase "America's Olympic City" to indicate the city hosts the USOC headquarters. Even then, the affiliation was low-key. But after Suthers became mayor in June 2015, the city sought permission to use Olympic City USA and won approval in November that year.

By the following February, an Olympic City USA Task Force had formed with 16 members representing various sectors, co-chaired by Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Doug Price and Suthers' wife, Janet.

Shortly after the committee formed, Suthers' communications director Jamie Fabos, herself a former publicist for USA Swimming, rolled out a marketing plan.

During an hour-long presentation to City Council on Feb. 22, 2016, Fabos noted the Olympic movement brings in $215 million a year and sustains thousands of jobs. If the "halo effect" of other sports groups located here just to be near the treasured Olympic brand is considered, economic activity spikes to $420 million annually. Among those halo players she mentioned: the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, Colorado Springs Sports Corp., Colorado Springs Switchbacks pro soccer team, Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association, Mountain West Conference, National Collegiate Hockey Conference, U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, U.S. Association of Blind Athletes, National Strength and Conditioning Association, as well as various college athletic programs, such as at the Air Force Academy.

"We have 59 national sports organizations," Sandoval told Council. "So we quietly have built this group of organizations and people." He also noted the Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame, under construction at Vermijo Avenue and Sierra Madre Street, is due to open in late 2019.

All of which speaks to his point that "branding has to be true" as well as sustainable, have a competitive advantage and evoke a sense of place. "Olympic City USA will become a priceless national identity," he said. "We've only scratched the surface with this brand and this movement. Imagine the possibilities of this exciting brand as we move forward. The idea here is to put a spotlight on it, and really take advantage of it."

The spotlight certainly was trained on the task force in mid-December 2017 when the group arranged to bolt a 12-foot-tall metal blue frame bearing "Olympic City USA" into the ancient rock at High Point in Garden of the Gods park. The installation, done without permission of any formal city committee or City Council, immediately drew criticism from hundreds of residents and was removed after only three days. It's now in storage. Asked about that, Price sidesteps the issue, saying, "I don't see any reason to go down that path. We've gotten some good suggestions of where they think the frame would be better suited."

Branding expert Bill Baker, chief strategist with Total Destination Marketing, which has offices in five states, says it's rare for a city to adopt the brand of a specific entity. The only other one that's done that, he says, is Hershey, Pennsylvania ("The Sweetest Place on Earth"), linked with Hershey's chocolate.

Baker praised Colorado Springs for initiating a brand, rather than leaving it up to external forces. "If you don't define your identity," he says, "it's going to be defined for you — by competitors, customers and the media — and it may not be the one you want." (See "What's in a name?")

But locking a city onto one specific entity could prove limiting, Baker says, or come with the risk of getting sucked into controversy associated with that entity.

Baker, who produced tourism strategies for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, suggests the city's way forward in this case is to thrust the Olympic athletes and sports to center stage, not the corporate entity. "I don't think anybody is traveling to Colorado Springs because of the USOC," he says. "I'm not exactly going to pack my bags to go there. But if there's a swimming competition there and the athletes are going to be there, yes, I'm going there."

Several former and current city officials agree.

"Calling it Olympic City USA reflects on the training facilities we have here, the athletes we have here, and not necessarily anything else," says Larry Small, former councilor and vice mayor who supported the USOC deal in 2009. "I think our citizens really understand we support the athletes. I think that's reflected in the turnout for the events that honor and support the athletes." For example, up to 30,000 people have streamed into downtown for Olympic-related celebrations, though the crowd was thinner for the chilly gathering to mark the February opening of the Winter Games in South Korea.

While Small speculates that some people might hesitate to visit here due to the controversy, he believes the number will be inconsequential. "Will people still want to visit [the Olympic Museum]? I think they will," he says. "As long as we keep focus on the athletes, it's OK, but I think we should consider that behavior [abuse] outrageous. Putting a light on this thing is important, and whoever was involved should pay a price for it. I don't know how it could go on for so many years with so many people involved and not be discovered."

Small says if the scandal heats up, Olympic sponsors might jump ship, though that hasn't happened so far, according to those familiar with Olympic sponsorships.

Former Council President Scott Hente, who also supported the USOC agreement, says rough waters should bring branding partners together, not tear them apart. "When you affiliate yourself with an organization, I don't think the first time something goes bad, you run from it," Hente says. "You say, 'How can we work with you to make this better?' I think the city needs to stand with them as a partner."

The scandal, while despicable, doesn't shake his confidence in the USOC, Hente says. "I still think the Olympics are a phenomenal organization. They will get to the heart of this matter, figure this out and in the long term our association with the Olympic movement will prove worthwhile," he says.

Regardless of any bad publicity, the CVB's Price reports interest in visiting Colorado Springs is strong. He says results of a digital campaign keying on Olympic City USA from November 2017 to March 2018 drew more than 114,000 views of a video and over 31,000 clicks on an online ad. But when asked for tourism numbers over the past couple of years stemming from the Olympic presence, Price says, "We don't do that kind of research."

Price also says results of the Olympic City USA Task Force's goals, such as building brand awareness or instilling civic pride, are "hard for any community to measure." But Price emphasizes that the CVB hasn't received any messages, phone calls or website comments regarding the USOC scandal.

click to enlarge As the world watches the start of each Olympics, thousands flock to the Springs' own downtown party. - DOD VIA WIKIMEDIA [PUBLICDOMAIN]
  • DOD via Wikimedia [PublicDomain]
  • As the world watches the start of each Olympics, thousands flock to the Springs' own downtown party.

"There is no other city who can claim or has permission to use the brand we've been given by the U.S. Olympic Committee," he notes. "This brand is our opportunity to brand ourselves the way we want to be branded to the outside world and local community."

It's working, according to Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC chief Dirk Draper. Noting the Chamber's economic development strategy focuses, in part, on sports medicine and related health services, Draper says in an emailed statement to the Indy the tag line Olympic City USA "helps raise our city's profile and can assist in opening conversations with sports-related companies."

Though the city hasn't landed a significant employer due to the Olympic brand, Draper reports that two companies "recently pointed to our local sports industry as a factor in their decisions to establish and keep their operations in Colorado Springs." One is Haute Route, an international sports event marketing company, and the other is USA Basketball, which is preparing to move into a new headquarters downtown.

"Additionally," he says, "Panasonic has aligned itself with Colorado Springs as the lead strategic technology partner for the U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame and Smart City initiative because of the Olympic City USA image."

Martin, the former City Council member, quotes a friend who works at the airport as saying the Olympics is by far the most frequently asked-about activity and attraction by visitors arriving here. But Martin says it's too early to tell whether that adoration will sour as the sexual assault scandal unfolds.

"There's some real concern of the whole governance of the Olympic bodies," she says. "I'm not sure I agree it [the Olympic brand] is that durable. Time will tell."

Such skepticism is shared by Council President Richard Skorman, who, nevertheless, is optimistic the brand will survive and maybe even gain steam.

"I think everybody's reeling in Colorado Springs," he says. "Certainly it's going to have unintended consequences, because the USOC is so tarnished right now. At this point, we have the Olympics brand, the Olympic Museum and the Olympic Training Center. We are in it for the long haul. Any organization goes through troubled times and some come out even better, and that's what I would hope. We support the athletes and celebrate what they have done. That's the important part of it. We are the Olympic City because of who comes here."

Fabos and Sandoval say the city's brand reflects Olympic values and athletes' accomplishments, sparking enthusiasm on a personal level. That's the basis of the city's vision statement: "Olympic City USA – where U.S. Olympic ideals inspire our way of life."

Those words have special meaning for Councilor Merv Bennett, who's witnessed the impact Olympians can have on succeeding generations. Bennett recounted one experience during the February 2016 Council meeting. He said he watched the USA women's volleyball team walk through the halls of the downtown YMCA in the late '70s before the Olympic Training Center's gym was built.

The team was led by star Flo Hyman, who stood an imposing 6 feet 5 inches and led the 1980 and 1984 Olympic teams. The team didn't compete in the 1980 Moscow games due to a boycott, but it won the silver medal in 1984 in Los Angeles. Hyman died at the age of 31 in 1986 from a rare genetic disorder.

But during those early days, kids joyfully crowded the hallways just to watch Hyman and her teammates walk to and from practice, Bennett said. At the time, he had no idea those moments burrowed into the hearts of those children. Thirty-five years later, he noticed a young child at the Y with her mother, who he later learned was an all-American volleyball player at Penn State.

"She said she wanted her daughter to see where she was first interested in volleyball," Bennett recalled. "I asked her, 'What got you involved in volleyball?' She said, 'One thing: Flo Hyman stopped and talked to me.'"

That story and others like it, Bennett said, form the fabric of Colorado Springs' ties with the Olympics.

"That's happened across our community," he said. "That's what makes us [the] Olympic City that nobody else can match."


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