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Business

Mass. firms sponsor Olympians for chance at global exposure

The Saucony marketing team prepared to ship running shoes to London for athletes competing in the Olympics.

Bill Greene/Globe Staff

The Saucony marketing team prepared to ship running shoes to London for athletes competing in the Olympics.

Richie Woodworth has been to the Olympics before as a spectator, but this year he will be there in an official capacity as the president of athletic wear company Saucony.

Molly Huddle said smaller brands like Saucony develop relationships with their sponsored athletes.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Molly Huddle said smaller brands like Saucony develop relationships with their sponsored athletes.

Saucony, known for its running shoes, has expanded its Olympic presence for next week’s London Games, sponsoring more than 20 athletes from 13 countries. At the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Lexington company sponsored just one athlete and did not send any company officials to the Olympics. This time Woodworth will bring 15 other Saucony employees to provide support to their athletes.

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“There are not a lot of better ways to gain credibility, authenticity, and relevance around running than having the most elite athletes in the world wearing your stuff,” Woodworth said.

Companies across the region are gearing up for the Olympics, a quadrennial event that brings together the world’s greatest athletes for about two weeks of competition. The global nature of the Olympics — an estimated 4 billion people watch the Games — provides extraordinary exposure for brands.

To create more buzz about its Olympic role, Boston-based running wear company New Balance launched a marketing campaign in January called “The British Miler,” a 12-part documentary of the same name that ran on British network Sky TV.

The series, coupled with advertising and a social media plan, highlighted the Olympic journey of seven British 1,500-meter runners who are sponsored by New Balance. (In total, the company is sponsoring 22 athletes from 11 countries.)

“We want to tell these athletes’ stories. Athletes do a lot for us in authenticating our brand,” said Josh Rowe , New Balance’s running-market manager. “We’re building a brand image, and athletes are part of that brand image, brand persona. There becomes an association with the athlete and the brand.”

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Such exposure is especially important for companies like Saucony and New Balance, which focus on running, said Matt Powell, an analyst at sports industry research firm SportsOneSource.Running shoes posted $6.5 billion in sales last year, the biggest category of the $20.5 billion athletic shoe industry, Powell noted. If a sponsored athlete does well at the Olympics, the endorsement can be priceless. “You see a lot of runners take their shoes off and run around with them after they win so they can be seen,” Powell said.

Gillette, the Boston shaving giant, is entering the Olympic arena for the first time because its parent company, Procter & Gamble Co., is an official sponsor of the London 2012 Olympics. That gives Gillette an opportunity to advertise and market in any of the countries participating in the Olympics.

Gillette is sponsoring athletes such as American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who holds six Olympic medals; track and field runner Tyson Gay; and Swiss tennis star Roger Federer. To get its customers excited about the Games, Gillette launched in April a line of razors, blades, body wash, and deodorants in Olympic gold colors.

There are different levels of Olympic sponsorships. Official sponsors are known as Worldwide Olympic Partners, which are the 11 companies that have paid between $100 million and $125 million to gain the rights to advertise globally over the past four years, according to Rob Prazmark, founder and chief executive of 21 Sports & Entertainment Marketing in Greenwich, Conn.

Each partner gains the right to sponsor a specific aspect of the Olympics; for example, McDonalds Corp. is the Games’ official restaurant, meaning it is the only brand that can sell its products to athletes, spectators, and staff there.

Smaller companies like Saucony and New Balance sponsor athletes on an individual basis. How much money they spend on a sponsorship depends on the athlete and the brand, said Prazmark, who helped the International Olympic Committee develop an official sponsorship program in 1985.

“You’ve got Michael Phelps on one side of the spectrum, but a lot of these athletes are virtual unknowns,” he said. “A lot of times, these athletes are happy to have somebody sponsor them, it’s not so much about the money, it’s about the exposure.”

Not all companies are getting Olympic fever. Canton-based Reebok said it is reducing its Olympic presence this year to focus instead on fitness and training through its annual CrossFit games, a series of fitness challenges.

“Our presence at the Games is not at the level it was in the past. Going back to Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, and Athens, we sponsored federations, athletes, and teams and had significant marketing initiatives around the Games,” Reebok said in a statement.

For Saucony, the Olympics remains a marquee event. Once he gets to London, Woodworth, Saucony’s president, will meet with sportswear industry giants, including the International Association of Athletics Federations. He will help plan a Team Saucony dinner and help out with athlete hospitality.

Most of Saucony’s sponsored athletes are competing in track and field. Among them is Molly Huddle, who will participate in the 5,000-meter run. She said she likes to work with smaller brands because they tend to emphasize relationships with their athletes.

“Some of the larger shoe companies, they’re a little bit more of a machine,” she said. Saucony “really invested in the people who are representing them on the track. There aren’t a lot of companies that are so closely associated with the people on the track like that.”

Laura Finaldi can be reached at laura.finaldi@globe.com.

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