Once a Niche Sport, Dream Duo Attracts the Attention of Marketers in Sochi
Ice dancing isn't normally at the top of the list of sports that attracts big U.S. corporate sponsors. But this year is different.
Ice dancers Meryl Davis and Charlie White are the U.S.'s only serious shot at a gold medal in figure skating at the Sochi Olympics. They are six-time U.S. champions and the first U.S. ice dance team to win a World championship— twice. The duo is favored to win in Sochi over their longtime rivals and training partners, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir. They will make their first appearance in Sochi Saturday, hoping to help the U.S. bring home a medal in a new figure skating team competition.
They also appear to be an Olympic sponsor's dream: a polished, wholesome pair who grew up 10 minutes from one another in suburban Detroit and have been skating together since elementary school—factors marketers are hoping will bring attention to their little-known sport.
Ice dancing more closely mimics ballroom dancing than pairs skating, its more well-known cousin, which incorporates more acrobatic moves and jumps.
Backing Ms. Davis and Mr. White "will help people discover a sport they were less familiar with," says Kevin Burke, chief marketing officer for Visa Inc., V +1.26% which is sponsoring the duo.
Others seem to share that opinion: Ms. Davis, 27, and Mr. White, 26, have the longest list of sponsors ever for a U.S. ice dance team, according to their agent, Hailey Ohnuki of IMG Worldwide Inc. In addition to Visa, sponsors include Procter & Gamble Co. PG +0.53% ,Kellogg Co. K +1.07% , Ralph Lauren Corp. RL +2.40% , AT&T Inc. T +0.94% and Airweave, a Japanese mattress firm.
Companies contacted declined to disclose terms and how much they were spending on their sponsorships.
In the weeks before the Games, Ms. Davis and Mr. White tweeted about Puffs tissues, signed autographs at Kellogg cereal plants, and skated with cameras on their heads for a Visa-sponsored video. They claim that the products they are pitching are ones they use anyway: Skaters' noses are always running at the cold rink, Ralph Lauren clothes are their style, and "I grew up on Pop-Tarts," says Mr. White of Kellogg's.
Kellogg also put the pair on its Crispix cereal box and is promoting them as members of its Olympic "Team Kellogg's" in a "great starts" campaign that ties athletes' beginnings in their sports to "the power of a great start" with breakfast, says Noel Geoffroy, senior vice president of morning foods marketing and innovation for Kellogg.
Still, ice dancing has a long way to go before it can match the marketing might of men's or women's singles figure skating. Ms. Davis's and Mr. White's list of sponsors is only about as long as those of Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner —two U.S. women singles' skaters who are a long shot for the podium in Sochi.
But ice dancing's popularity has been growing since an American team, Tanith Belbin andBen Agosto, won a silver medal at the Torino Olympics in 2006. "Dancing with the Stars" and other dance shows have also helped raise interest in the sport.
"In the past few years viewers have been paying more and more attention," says Ms. Geoffroy. "It's a sport that has a lot of appeal to moms and families."
A new scoring system for figure skating has also made ice dancing more appealing, says Stephen Disson, president of Disson Sports & Entertainment LLC, which produces televised figure skating shows. "In men's and ladies' [skating] there is so much on the jumps and points that it has taken away from the artistic side," he says. "In dance it's all about the artistry."
TV ratings for the long programs for ice dancing and pairs skating were slightly higher at the U.S. national championships in January than for men's singles, he notes.
Ms. Davis and Mr. White, who have been skating together since they were 9 and 8 years old, respectively, were once both singles skaters as well as ice dancers; Mr. White says he also dreamt of an Olympic career in hockey. But they eventually decided ice dancing was their forte—a decision perhaps helped by the fact that the Detroit area is an ice dancing powerhouse.
"I think we recognized that if we wanted to make the most out of this potential career, we really had to devote ourselves to ice dancing," Mr. White says.
After winning a silver medal in Vancouver in 2010, they made a pitch of their own—winning over judges for a gold in Sochi. Known for their athleticism, speed and lifts, they hunkered down to hone their artistic performance, or as both call it, "the storytelling part." They tapped Dancing with the Stars choreographer Derek Hough for help with this season's short program and a belly dancer to put the sizzle in their free dance to "Scheherazade," the story of a bride who keeps her Sultan from executing her by enchanting him with her stories.
"We've become a very different team than we were in 2010," says Ms. Davis.
In their free dance at the national championships in Boston, the couple brought the stadium crowd to its feet with their interpretation of Scheherazade. They earned essentially a perfect score, but their coach, Marina Zoueva, wasn't entirely satisfied. "The last part could be a little more passionate," she said afterward. She wants the two to look more at one another as they skate.
"We agree," Mr. White replied— and said the two would perfect it for Sochi.