|Monday, July 7
Updated: July 8, 6:21 PM ET
Olympics must answer to D'Alessandro
By Darren Rovell
The United States and International Olympic Committees can't get rid of David D'Alessandro.
As the chief executive officer of John Hancock, the insurance company that is paying more than $10 million per year to sponsor the organizations, D'Alessandro signs off on the payoff for the right to use the Olympic rings. But there's a catch with the cash.
In exchange for the financial support, D'Alessandro will serve as their toughest critic, watching their every move and publicly embarrassing them if he feels their officials need a loud wakeup call.
D'Alessandro is currently focusing his attention on the USOC's restructuring plans and says he's not particularly concerned about the apparent lack of progress surrounding the facility building for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
"I don't know how long it takes to build things," D'Alessandro said. "We're hearing a bunch of different reports. But a year before the Barcelona games (in 1992), no one thought that was going to be ready and they got everything together. The Greeks are well aware of the deadline."
If the Greeks can't push themselves, odds are D'Alessandro will have his say as the games approach.
In February 1999, in the wake of the IOC's initial reaction to the Salt Lake City bribery scandal, D'Alessandro pulled the Olympic rings off the annual report and most company employees handed out new business cards without the familiar logo.
Last January, in light of apparent ethical breaches and misappropriation of funds, he demanded from the USOC a full financial disclosure. After looking at the numbers, he told U.S. senators at a hearing in Washington, D.C., that the organization had "lost its way" and advocated immediate change.
"I'm just trying to represent some of the outrage our consumers have," said D'Alessandro, who owns a piece of the Boston Red Sox and sits on the commissioner's marketing task force. "I've received hundreds of letters supporting our actions, and even if other sponsors aren't speaking up, we're going to talk when hundreds of cars are being used by the USOC staff and it never trickles down to the athletes."
It's a rare partnership in the sports business world. Normally, sponsors or television partners pay millions of dollars to align themselves with an event or organization and remain silent partners. If things start turning sour, company officials hold on in silence, believing that an incident at a particular event that threatens to hurt their image will die down quicker without their voice.
"Since their revenue is dependent on his company's money, Olympic officials have to listen to David D'Alessandro," said Robert Tuchman, president and chief executive of marketing firm TSE Sports & Entertainment.
"It's remarkable that he gets as much attention as he does," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. "Although his company's level of financial commitment isn't the most out of all the companies that spend on the games, if he ever decided to walk away, the symbolic aftermath of his actions could create more damage than any other sponsor."
In three years' time, D'Alessandro has seen four USOC chief executives and three USOC presidents come and go. The recent lowlights? President Sandra Baldwin resigning for falsifying her academic credentials on her resume.
Her replacement, Marty Mankamyer, resigned after she was accused by members of the executive committee of obstructing the investigation into CEO Lloyd Ward's ethical conduct. Ward then resigned amidst allegations he tried to steer business for the Pan Am Games to his brother and spent beyond his means on personal travel.
So why is D'Alessandro's company still in the game?
"While there have been many problems, most people in this country fundamentally want to believe in the ideals of the games," D'Alessandro said. "Because of this, when people are watching the Olympics, I believe they let much of their commercial guard down. So there is more acceptance of our message and we can break through the clutter a lot better than if we advertised on regular prime-time programming."
But at least one sports marketer says the power of the rings could one day diminish.
"The rings are not Teflon," said Dean Bonham, chairman of the Bonham Group, a sports business firm. "If (IOC president) Jacques Rogge didn't act swiftly with the ice skating scandal or being on top of the doping issues, the value of the Olympics brand could be compromised. Any major scandal such as another bribery scandal or a major construction problem on the facilities in Athens could still tarnish the rings."
That's one of the reasons why D'Alessandro doesn't plan on being any more passive in the future. Before he agreed to re-up for the 2006 and 2008 games at a total cost of $42 million, he introduced the Hancock Clause into the contract. If D'Alessandro could prove that some ethical breach had damaged the John Hancock brand, the company could immediately pull out of its obligation to the USOC and IOC and make no further payments. Not surprisingly, D'Alessandro said other sponsors required the clause before re-signing.
"We're very dedicated, but we wanted an out if something goes badly," D'Alessandro said. "Doping issues could be quite scandalous because they hit at the innocence and purity of the sport. If there are more bribery scandals, that could be a problem. There's a fair amount of kindling wood there."
If Athens isn't ready and Olympic athletes have to compete in less-than-perfect venues, perhaps that might be the fire that D'Alessandro won't be willing to help put out.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.