United States wins the medal count at Vancouver Olympics with a record 37, and the impact will last into the future

By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 1, 2010

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- The U.S. men's hockey team lost to Canada in Sunday's gold medal game, but the Americans' silver medal put the finishing touch on a historic two weeks that have provided a major boost to the U.S. Olympic movement at a time it was in desperate need of revival.

The hockey team's silver was the 37th medal of the Vancouver Games for the United States, breaking the record for total medals won by one nation at a Winter Games set by Germany in 2002. This is also the first Winter Olympics in 78 years in which the United States has hauled in more medals than any other participant.

As the U.S. Olympic Committee forges into an uncertain economic future knowing it faces at least a 20-year gap between Olympics on U.S. soil, the implications of this year's surprising medal windfall are significant. The unexpected U.S. dominance in familiar pursuits such as Alpine skiing and the more obscure disciplines such as Nordic combined yielded important increases in television ratings, media coverage and sponsor involvement.

With the USOC bracing for continued fallout from the economic downturn, potentially decreasing or flat revenues from soon-to-be negotiated television and sponsor deals, and no home Olympics at least through 2020, Team USA's monumental overachievement brought a tide of fresh optimism.

"I can't imagine a better property to sell right now," said Mark Lewis, president and chief executive of the Olympic ticketing company Jet Set Sports, a U.S. Olympic team sponsor. "The internal politics of the Olympic movement don't matter to sponsors. At the end of the day, it's the performance of the athletes that matters."

The higher ratings won't offset the loss NBC took after paying a record $820 million for these Olympics before the recession hit, but they provided evidence to potential sponsors and bidders for the next U.S. broadcasting contract -- rights to the 2014 and 2016 Games are expected to be doled out by the end of the year -- that the Olympic product has not lost its luster.

"Our success helps us commercially," USOC Chief Executive Scott Blackmun said. "It helps us with broadcast partners. . . . Our sponsors get more value when there is more American success."

The USOC announced the signing of a new sponsor deal during the Games with the global energy company BP, while current sponsors launched campaigns in response to various athletes' successes. Visa released three commercials congratulating U.S. athletes -- Alpine skier Julia Mancuso, Nordic combined skier Johnny Spillane and snowboarder Seth Wescott -- for medals they won here.

Though Visa is a global Olympic sponsor, it also has separate sponsorship deals with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association and many U.S. athletes. Of the 33 Winter Olympians from around the world that Visa sponsored at these Games, 11 were from Team USA.

"At the end of the day, it's a business investment for us," said Michael Lynch, Visa's head of global sponsorship management. "We are looking for a return on our investment. . . . When our athletes perform extremely well, it affords us additional opportunities."

The U.S. broadcaster, NBC, meantime, reported a 20 percent ratings increase from the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy. And its prime-time telecast twice beat "American Idol" in viewership; the first victory -- on Feb. 17, the day U.S. stars Shaun White, Lindsey Vonn and Shani Davis each earned a gold medal -- ended a streak of 222 straight nights "American Idol" had beaten its competition.

"The performance of the U.S. team has a significant impact on viewership," said Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. "The fact is, Americans love their home team. When we're in the Olympics, Team USA is everybody's home team. The [U.S. team's] success . . . has obviously really taken a hold of the country."

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