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Philip Hersh: Can USOC avoid stain from new deal with BP?

June 4, 2010 | 11:49 am
The U.S. Olympic Committee is caught between a oil-covered rock and a dried tar hard place in its relationship with BP.

In an economic climate where sponsorships are hard to find, the Olympic committee can't afford to thumb its nose at the British company that signed on as a major USOC sponsor in February.

In an emotional climate where BP looks more and more villainous to the U.S. public, the USOC may find that its relationship with BP is toxic, a four-year deal worth an estimated $10 million to $15 million notwithstanding.

Fortunately for the USOC, the sponsorship has not been activated in any visible way, so you don't see the athletes likely to be stars of the 2012 Olympic team pitching for BP.  And it's unlikely any U.S. athlete would want to be publicly associated with the company for the foreseeable future.

I mean, can't you see the cartoons and fake videos of swimmer Michael Phelps losing a gold medal because he is trapped in an oil slick?

A month ago, USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun told the Associated Press he did not believe the deal with BP was in jeopardy.

Since then, BP's reputation has looked more and more like the tar balls hitting beaches as the oil reaches them.

The USOC clearly has chosen to await the outcome of the crisis before deciding how best to proceed in its relationship with BP.

"BP is in the middle of a crisis that everyone is interested in resolving as soon as possible,'' USOC spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in an e-mail Thursday.

"Based on our discussions with them, it appears that they are doing everything they can to stop the spill and to mitigate its effects. They have agreed to take full responsibility for all of the cleanup costs.

"This is a terrible accident that has affected an untold number of people as well as our environment, and we trust that BP will continue to act aggressively to stop the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, to address the damage that has been done and to ensure that this tragedy is not repeated.''

Should BP do what the USOC -- not to mention the U.S. government and public -- expects of it by making good on all promises and properly compensating victims, there may be a way for both parties to benefit.

Many U.S. Olympic athletes and Olympic hopefuls need part-time jobs.  BP undoubtedly will have to hire hundreds (thousands?) of people to clean up the mess its mishandling of the drilling platform disaster is leaving.  While priority for such jobs should go to anyone whose livelihood has been and will be affected by the oil pollution, maybe BP could also hire some athletes who are training for the 2012 and 2014 Games.

In the meantime, as Sports Business Journal first reported this week, the USOC has landed another foreign sponsor, BMW, to replace General Motors, which did not renew its USOC deal when it expired in 2007.

While the USOC will not confirm the deal, sources have indicated the particulars of the SBJ report ($24 million, six years) are accurate.   It's all cash, so don't expect Blackmun to be tooling around Colorado Springs in a new Z4.

Of course, the way things are going for the USOC, he would be getting a BMW recall notice any day.

-- Philip Hersh

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