BRUSSELS – Two major Olympic sports — track and field and figure skating — have lost key sponsors in the midst of a global economic slump.
The South Korean electronics giant Samsung has been sponsoring track and field's Diamond League series of top meets. The company's decision comes on short notice following last summer's London Olympics.
The International Skating Union also must begin looking for a major sponsor. The Dutch energy supplier Essent said it will end its longstanding backing of speedskating after the 2014 Sochi Winter Games.
"To be honest, it is not easy," ISU President Ottavio Cinquanta told The Associated Press. "The international market is not in the very best condition. One has to admit, there is some problem. We will have to pay attention to what to do."
Soccer still has money-making capability in hard times. Manchester United proved that over the weekend when it clinched a major eight-year sponsorship deal with the insurance firm Aon estimated at $230 million. But annual sponsorship commitments like Samsung or Essent are counted in a few million dollars annually. That, however, doesn't make the income any less essential.
The ISU was fortunate in that Essent gave it a full year's warning that it was ending a 16-year relationship.
"Of course, we were not on the market (before) looking for another sponsor," Cinquanta said.
Europe is a prime market for both track and speedskating but the continent has been hit for the past three years by a government-debt crisis that has pushed many nations into recession and high unemployment as companies struggle to make ends meet.
Often sponsorship is an obvious cost-cutting division, making the search for new sponsors in a bad economic climate even tougher. That's especially true for a niche sport like speedskating, which can count on global attention only when the Winter Olympics come around every four years.
Essent and Cinquanta refused to say how much the annual sponsorship of international competitions cost, but the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant estimated Essent's involvement in the sport at $5.2 million a year.
The timing for track and field's ruling body is difficult. The Diamond League begins in Doha, Qatar, on May 10, with more meets later that month in Shanghai, New York and Eugene, Ore.
"The Diamond League and the IAAF are confident that another title sponsor will be secured in the near future," IAAF spokesman Nick Davies said.
Almost at the same time, Samsung announced a sponsorship partnership with Usain Bolt, "who is, above all else, a symbol of the sport of athletics," Davies added.
Sponsorship experts see the Samsung deal as a business decision based on the premise that it can get greater exposure from a straight affiliation with Bolt rather than the Diamond League, where the name of the overall sponsor is sometimes trumped by an individual meet promoter.
Sports federations like the IAAF and the ISU have been advised to look further toward Asia, where the economy is still in relatively good health compared to Europe's.
"When you look at the overall sponsorship market, it is still growing by about 4 percent," said sports management professor Wim Lagae of Leuven University.
He adds that the loss of Samsung should not pose too big a problem for the IAAF.
"It is only one of several categories," he said. "And if you lose sponsorship, even if it still is an important issue, it is not the end of the world because you still have TV rights, ticketing, and other diversification income."
The IAAF has guaranteed income from TV until 2018 and from marketing until 2019, as well as increased revenue from the International Olympic Committee following the success of the London Games. Reserves for the next five years are estimated to stay above $65 million.
As for speedskating, Lagae said it was only normal for Essent to show some fatigue after 1 ½ decades of sponsorship — a notion echoed by the company itself.
"As sponsor, we reached the ceiling of our possibilities," Essent Chief Executive Erwin van Laethem said.