The 2008 Summer Olympic Games ended Aug. 24 with a rousing closing ceremony in Beijing, but as the fanfare subsides, one Atlanta company’s Olympic aspirations are on the rise.
While avid television viewers catch up on sleep and corporate sponsors tally the impact of their investments, sports marketing firm Helios Partners Inc. is working to translate the Games’ momentum into increased business in China and beyond.
By its broadest definition, Helios pairs “sports properties”—associations and events like the Olympic Games, the FIFA Women’s World Cup and others—with companies that might benefit from the exposure they provide.
As if following the Olympic torch, Helios currently has offices in Atlanta, Beijing and London, the host city for the 2012 summer games.
But Helios is not solely a matchmaking service for companies looking to expose their products to sport-savvy audiences.
Nearly half the company’s business comes from helping cities form their pitches to the entities that decide where massive sporting events will be held.
Helios founder and President Terrence Burns helped Beijing bid for the 2008 Summer Olympics after it lost to Sydney, Australia, by the slimmest of margins for the 2000 Games.
At that point, Mr. Burns worked with Helikon Media, a company he founded in 2000 with George Hirthler, another Atlanta-based Olympic branding guru who is still working to help cities coordinate their bids.
For 2008, China had a great story. It had been isolated from the Olympics for much of the time since the People’s Republic was founded in 1949. The world’s most populous country had never hosted the Games. Mr. Burns believed it was more about keeping China from losing the bid than helping it win.
“You have to be compelling, you have to be convincing and you have to inspire, because this is a game about inspiration. It’s not about communication, it’s about inspiring people,” Mr. Burns told GlobalAtlanta in an interview in Helios’ Buckhead office.
China got that part, spending more than $40 billion on dazzling venues and infrastructure improvements in the Olympic run-up. The spectacle surrounding the scintillating performances and simmering political undercurrents made this year’s Games one of the most talked-about ever.
Mr. Burns, who traveled to Beijing for the Olympics, said that spectacle notwithstanding, the overprotective atmosphere quashed much of the Olympic spirit in the Chinese capital.
“It’s a totalitarian state. You really can’t put lipstick on that,” he said.
Still, Helios sees promise in the Chinese market beyond the Olympics.
Earlier this year, the firm developed the marketing strategy for the first Major League Baseball exhibition series in the Communist country. It drew about 7,000 spectators for two games.
“Major League Baseball wanted to do two things: They wanted to get some high-profile brands involved and put some people in the seats to introduce the game to them,” said Chris Sanders, Helios’ chief operating officer.
With Snickers candy bars and some other sponsors, those missions were accomplished, Mr. Sanders said. Mars Inc., the maker of Snickers, later became a sponsor of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Last month, Helios announced that it had formed an exclusive partnership in China with Swiss firm Infront Sports & Media. The two companies have strong ties in China that they feel will complement each other.
A major focus of the collaboration is the Chinese Basketball Association, a fledgling professional league that pales in comparison to the U.S.’s National Basketball Association but is growing in popularity.
With 16 teams in 14 cities, it drew more than a million spectators during the 2007-2008 season. Helios’ work with Infront is one way it is building on the momentum of the Olympics.
“Our business in China for the last four-plus years has been focused obviously on the Olympic Games, and that marketplace has changed fairly dramatically since at least we started going over there regularly,” Mr. Burns said. “Our perspective is it still has a long way to go.”
As does the region. The company’s goals for Asia go far beyond Beijing. In southern China, Helios is helping create the city of Guangzhou’s commercial programs for the 2010 Asian Games.
India, with a largely English-speaking populace and legal framework based on the British system, represents another promising market that Helios plans to explore further.
Mr. Burns founded Helios in December 2003. From 1981-96 he worked in international sales and marketing at Delta Air Lines Inc. and was tapped to direct the airline’s sponsorship of the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
During the Olympics, he was recruited by Chris Welton to join Meridian Management S.A., the IOC’s newly formed marketing arm.
Mr. Welton, a former attorney at Atlanta-based international law firm King & Spalding LLP, had served as vice president of market development for the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, where the two men first met.
Working with Meridian brought them together, and they stayed in touch even after they parted ways. Their paths crossed again when Mr. Burns invited Mr. Welton to accompany him on trip to Seoul, South Korea, to get Samsung to renew its sponsorship of the IOC.
Mr. Welton is now chief executive for Helios Partners.
Global activity is ingrained in Helios’ business model because of current conditions in the sports marketing field and the skill sets of company leaders, Mr. Welton told GlobalAtlanta.
“The reason we’ve got such an international bent is because our background in the Olympics gave us contacts literally all over the world,” he said.
Mr. Welton and Mr. Burns have instant access in many places because they know most of the IOC’s 115 members, typically influential players in the business and political landscapes in the countries they hail from.
But Helios’ international focus is also a matter of business sense. While Atlanta alone has some 100 companies that call themselves sports marketing firms, overseas markets are less developed, Mr. Welton said.
“When you go outside the United States, properties and companies typically don’t have that expertise in-house, so they need to outsource it, and that’s where we come in,” he said.
As its clientele has grown, Helios has had to learn to deal with all the cultural adaptations that global business entails.
The company led a successful campaign to land the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The seeds for Sochi were sown as Helios consulted Moscow on its bid for the 2012 games, which Mr. Burns said was “stillborn” before it began.
When the Helios team arrived in Sochi, the mayor had no idea they were coming and showed little desire to welcome the world to his town’s doorstep.
Over two years of work, though, the Helios team bonded with their bid city.
“When I get to work on a bid it’s pretty special, because you’re kind of adopted as part of that community for a couple of years and you really become emotionally involved in it,” Mr. Burns said. “When Sochi won in Guatemala last summer, you really felt Russian. That was my bid. I was part of those guys.”
Mr. Welton and Mr. Burns feel that Atlanta is the prime spot for them to conduct business kick-started by the city’s Olympic legacy.
While the 1996 Games were heavily criticized for a variety of reasons, Atlanta laid the groundwork for private funding and domestic marketing framework that is still used today.
“Atlanta set the stage in so many ways and still has tremendous influence in terms of the structure,” Mr. Welton said.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is an indispensable asset to Helios’ extensive travel, although both Mr. Burns and Mr. Welton joked that they could deal with a few less security hassles at the international arrivals terminal.
Mr. Burns said the Olympics thrust Atlanta onto the global stage, and the city has become a magnet for international companies looking to reach the Southeast.
He rarely meets someone abroad who doesn’t have a basic idea about the city’s location.
“The vast majority will say, ‘Yeah they had an Olympic games there, right?’”