After supplying U.S. Ski Team (USST) A-Team athletes with free cell phone service for the past few years, Sprint will not provide the service in the coming season. According to U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association (USSA) Chief Marketing Officer Michael Jaquet, the termination of the athlete phone program does not affect the rest of Sprint’s current sponsorship agreement with USSA, which extends through the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018.
“[Sprint] has been a great partner over the years and are one of our top sponsors all the way through PyeongChang,” Jaquet said. “The duration of their deal is the longest one that’s in place right now.”
Jaquet declined to disclose the exact value of the contract, but said it was in the seven figure per year range.
The athlete phone program was not part of Sprint’s contract but was an additional benefit to USSA’s partnership with Sprint. The phone company provides a similar program to athletes from other sports under its sponsorship umbrella, including NASCAR and several NBA teams.
Jaquet said Sprint decided to end the free service to the A-Team for the time being because the cost of providing around 100 athletes with international roaming data for most of the year had become unsustainable.
“What’s specific to our program, unfortunately, is that our athletes spend a bulk of their year in Europe. Sprint is a strong U.S. company but their coverage in Europe is not as strong. We ran up huge data roaming bills, well into the six figures,” Jaquet said. “That’s obviously not sustainable, spending 40% of the overall sponsorship on roaming charges.”
According to Jaquet, USSA and Sprint tried to find an alternate way to continue providing phone service to A-Team athletes, but was unable to do so in time for the start of the 2012-2013 season.
“Because the bills go back to Sprint, we can’t control an athlete from just turning on their roaming. Ironically, if we’d had some better communication about using WiFi and putting some rules in place, basically none of this would have happened,” Jaquet said.
For the 2012-2013 season, USST athletes were given the option to accept a discounted program with Sprint or find another provider. As of Monday, Jaquet said that some athletes’ phones had stopped working while others still had service.
“Sprint is working on a way to figure it out. They’ve been great,” Jaquet said. “They’re trying to extend things as long as possible and figure out solutions.”
In general, athletes have a new travel expense this year. Two A-Team skiers so far have said they bought an international calling plan but will be paying for it by the minute and attempting to keep conversations short. As a side effect, this will affect FasterSkier’s World Cup reporting, which is usually done by phone or email after each race.
Jaquet emphasized that Sprint’s commitment to support the USST through the PyeongChang Olympics was the most important thing, as its sponsorship would continue to help pay for the cost of competing.
“Particularly in the cross-country sports where we don’t produce revenue-generating events, it’s the team sponsorships and uniform sponsorships — like what Sprint has with the cross-country sports — that are vital to our ability to fund those teams’ travel and have coaches,” Jaquet said.
“While having a free phone is a great benefit, we certainly feel that traveling on the World Cup with coaches and techs and the facilities at the Center of Excellence are much more important in the grand scheme of things than free roaming. It’s a bummer… but I’ll take seven figures over six years before I worry about free roaming.”
Since becoming USSA’s CMO this spring, Jaquet says the governing body’s sales have reached levels not seen since the Salt Lake City Olympics in 2002. The National Guard and Tire Rack were signed on as new sponsors this year, and Audi recently renewed its seven-figure contract for the next five years.
“Sponsors are starting to think about Sochi,” Jaquet said. “That’s why activity’s hot, but I also think the marketplace is pretty good. We’re starting to see some sponsorship money come back from the recession.”
Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.