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Associated Press photos
Brittany Bowe of the United States, left, trails behind silver medalist Ireen Wust of the Netherlands in the 1,000-meter speedskating race Thursday.

Sponsor’s suits take a PR tumble

Speedskater Heather Richardson of the United States warms up before the race.

– The 2014 Sochi Olympics were expected to be a triumphant moment for the U.S. speedskating team – and the squad’s sponsor, Under Armour.

It’s been anything but that.

After a strong showing on the World Cup circuit, the team headed to the Games in skin suits that Under Armour developed and called the fastest speedskating suits in the world.

Not only has no U.S. skater won any medals yet with seven speedskating events to go, but the sportswear company that made their high-tech Mach 39 suits is being blamed in part for the downfall.

While no one is saying the suits are definitely the cause for the disappointing performance, the team ditched them midway through the Olympics and went back to an older Under Armour one.

The debacle has put Under Armour in a position no advertiser wants to be in: on the defense.

The Baltimore-based company, which also is sponsoring the U.S. bobsled and skeleton teams as well as the Canadian snowboard team, said in a statement that it is dedicated to providing “state-of-the art technology.”

The issue underscores the risks advertisers take when sponsoring huge events. Olympic sponsors spend millions of dollars to have their logos plastered everywhere, including on some of the most athletic bodies in the world, for the huge audience exposure. About 20 million to 25 million viewers tune in nightly to NBC’s U.S. broadcasts.

Because of the growth of social media and other technology, sometimes the publicity can pay off: Even though Nike was not an official sponsor, for instance, the company’s neon-yellow Volt shoes became the talk of the 2012 Olympics after about 400 Nike athletes sported the brightly colored footwear.

But bad publicity can spread quickly, too.

Under Armour, which worked with Lockheed Martin to develop the speedskating suits to have less resistance than other suits, already is becoming the center of a lot of debate over the disappointing speedskating team’s performance.

The brand was the most buzzed-about Olympic sponsor online Tuesday, according to Kontera, which monitors brand mentions in online conversations.

Social chatter about the brand increased 300 percent from Feb. 9 through Feb. 12, before the news broke, compared with after the speedskating problems Thursday through Sunday.

Many of the conversations on social media revolve around whether Under Armour’s suits are to blame for the speedskating team’s woes.

Paul Swangard, managing director at Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, said Under Armour could have long-lasting headaches if the debacle puts questions of product quality into consumers’ minds.

But some experts say Under Armour might be boosted by the added public relations.

Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys Inc., a New York customer research company, said Under Armour’s brand awareness, which hovered around 81 percent, could have gone up a point or so.

But awareness that the company supplied suits for a U.S. Olympic team probably “leapt enormously,” he said.

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