Lord Of The Rings

Lisa Baird has had her share of memorable moments: carrying the Olympic torch twice, first in Bible Hill, Nova Scotia, and then in Kursk, Russia; careening down a skeleton run at the Olympic training center in Lake Placid; introducing her hockey-playing son and husband to Jim Craig, the goalie for the 1980 USA gold-medal winning hockey team; visiting the White House with the U.S. Olympic athletes in 2010, 2012 and 2014. But among those she cherishes most is meeting Muhammad Ali. The boxer was the surprise guest at a U.S. Olympic Committee-sponsored private gala for 700 the night before the opening ceremonies in London. That was the year women’s boxing debuted on the Olympic stage. “We had Mitt Romney come by and wish our athletes well, which was exciting enough,” she says. “But when Ali came out, the place went wild! We introduced him to a couple of the women boxers. We put him in a private room and he got up and shadowboxed with them. Can you imagine?” she says, making two fists and jabbing the air in front of her face. “There is no more-beloved U.S. athlete in the world.”

For Lisa, that moment exemplified the reason she became chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) in the first place. “You get a chance to be part of something bigger than yourself,” she says. “For me, it’s about what I can help make happen for athletes and Americans.”

Tall and slender with a confident and friendly demeanor, Lisa was enjoying a rare moment at home last fall. “I travel so much, whenever I can, I try to be here,” she says. A pair of stone pillars marks the entrance to the Baird’s shingled waterfront home in Old Greenwich. Beach roses, native grasses and hydrangea frame the gravel drive; a stone Buddha sits in the perennial border to the left of the front steps, where a welcome mat says “Baird Island.”

A graceful front entry opens into a bright living room and kitchen; glass doors lead to a spacious deck. Outside, seagulls skim above the water, sailboats tug at their moorings and flags snap in the breeze. “We moved here just before Hurricane Sandy,” she says, rolling her eyes. “The water was up to there.” She points to a spot about two feet up the foundation wall and shrugs. “I grew up in the islands [Aruba]. I have an obsession with the water. It’s not enough to be able to see it. I want to live on it, even with all the drama that involves.”

Back inside, Lisa disappears into the pantry, where the hiss of a cappuccino machine breaks the silence. She returns a few seconds later carrying two oversize coffee cups hooded with perfect peaks of foam, and takes a seat on a stool at the kitchen island, which is topped with a white slab of Calcutta marble. “It’s very calm here because my whole life is chaos,” she says, with a broad smile.


The Competitive Edge

The mother of three—son Bobby is at St. Lawrence and daughters Alison and Caroline at Greenwich Academy—had just returned from a week at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where she was helping out with the Warrior Games, a program the USOC created in 2010. The Games are designed to introduce injured service members and veterans to Paralympic sport competition and encourage them to stay physically active when they return to their local communities. It’s also part of a five-year program to build Paralympic medal opportunities. “It’s one of my favorite programs,” she says. “It really is an elite athlete competition. And there’s a natural rivalry between the services that makes it fun.” But most important for Lisa: “These are our soldiers who have done a wonderful service for our country, and this helps them realize a new future.”

In a few days she would be heading down to Rio—the host city for the 2016 Games—to scout locations for the USA House. November and December were already booked with sponsor meetings, a visit to the training center in Colorado Springs, a PASO (Pan American Sports) Best Practices Symposium in Miami, a USOC board meeting and bid-cities presentation in San Francisco, and a year-end awards luncheon in New York City. “Sports is twenty-four-seven,” she says. “Particularly when we’re dealing with so many different time zones. The Olympic movement happens every day in every city of the world.”

Before joining the USOC in 2009, Lisa was the senior vice president of marketing and consumer products for the NFL. She worked closely with the folks from Electronic Arts, the world’s largest video gaming business, and met the company’s founder and CEO Larry Probst. In 2008, Probst became the chairman of the USOC board of directors. A year later, he asked Lisa to join the executive leadership team.

“I came into it like anyone might,” she says. “I had watched the Olympics on TV, so I kind of knew something. Or so I thought.” She imagined she would stay long enough to do sales and marketing for two Olympic Games—summer and winter. The next thing she knew, five years had gone by. “Anybody who is privileged to go to an Olympics, to see athletes do something amazing, especially in sports you have an affinity toward—it’s life-changing.”

As the chief marketing officer, Lisa’s main focus is building and maintaining the Olympic brand, a task that is clearly outlined in the USOC’s mission statement, which says: “To support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes in achieving sustained competitive excellence while demonstrating the values of the Olympic Movement, thereby inspiring all Americans.”

She takes a sip of her cappuccino and looks toward the water. “I get to work with that,” she says referring to the mission. “Which is pretty amazing.”

And challenging. Among its many directives, the USOC’s job is to train and fund U.S. teams for the Olympic, Paralympic, Youth Olympic, Pan American and Parapan American Games. In addition, the USOC provides financial support for athletes (from swimmers and wrestlers to cyclists and curlers), offers tuition grants and helps promote their careers through media and marketing opportunities. On average, the USOC spends $42,000 a year on each Olympian. This encompasses all types of support—direct stipends, funding paid to each sport’s National Governing Body (NGB), access to Olympic training centers, services such as sports medicine and sports psychology, health insurance, travel and performance bonuses, to name several. (This number does not include the dollar amount supplemented by the athlete’s NGB, a personal sponsor or an individual.)

The results of the efforts can be life-changing.  Just ask Amy Purdy, the Paralympic snowboarder who lost both her legs below the knee when she was nineteen. Amy won a bronze medal in Sochi (her first time in an international Olympic Games), was immediately invited to compete on Dancing With the Stars, and has since embarked on a career as a book author and motivational speaker. She said she didn’t intentionally set out to be a role model; it’s a byproduct of pursing her dreams. “My intention in life has always been to figure out a way to accomplish the things I’m passionate about,” she says. “I wanted to snowboard again after losing my legs, so I went on a mission to figure out how to do that. I wished that snowboarding was in the Paralympics, so I created Adaptive Action Sports with my boyfriend to help give resources and training to others so they could progress at the sport, and by doing so we helped to create a movement that helped get the sport into the Games.”

Amy was invited by the USOC to attend its Sponsor Workshop in Chicago in the fall of 2012. These gatherings provide opportunities for sponsors to learn more about the USOC marketing plans as well as individual athletes who might be featured in the upcoming Games marketing plans. “She just caught our eye,” says Lisa. “We put her in front of the room and you could see them all on their phones wanting to sign her. It all kind of snowballed from there.”

Similarly, another media darling—Noelle Pikus-Pace, the 2014 silver medalist in skeleton—credits Lisa with opening doors and creating sponsorship opportunities that enabled her to keep training without the added stress of financial constraints. “As an Olympian and a mom it can be extremely difficult financially. The only way I could have competed was through donations and sponsors. Lisa is a key figure in promoting athletes and organizing events. Her ability to connect with others, organize and get things done is absolutely incredible.”

 

Show Her the Money

“I think it’s important to know that we are the only developed country in the world whose Olympic program isn’t funded by the government,” Lisa explains. “Eighty-two percent of everything we raise goes to the sports. We have a very small operating budget and we have to spend those dollars and resources wisely.” The bulk of her time is spent raising money. A difficult task made even more so by the nature of the Games. “They pop up on NBC every two years,” she says. “My job is to keep that fire lit during the off years.”

When she joined the USOC, the economy was in a tailspin; the automotive and banking industries were on life support, and fourteen domestic sponsors had not renewed their sponsorships. “It left a big hole,” she says. Lisa and her team scrambled to fill the gap. They convinced ten sponsors to renew, including AT&T, Anheuser-Busch, Nike, Ralph Lauren and United Airlines. And then added some new faces to the mix. Among them: BMW, Chobani, Citi, Deloitte, DeVry University and Oakley. Of the twenty-five domestic sponsors that currently support the USOC, thirteen are new since she took over. In the past five years, Lisa has signed more than $500 million in corporate sponsorships.

“Lisa has had great success in growing our family of sponsors,” says her boss Scott Blackmun, CEO of the USOC. “She’s effective because she’s incredibly intelligent and doesn’t take any shortcuts. She works hard to make sure that our programs line up with the needs of our partners.”

One of the ways she’s done that is by increasing Team USA’s social media presence (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and YouTube). Five years ago, it had 80,000 social fans; today that number is six million plus. “Branding is a priority,” says Blackmun. “Lisa has made a priority of working to connect Team USA with America’s youth. And if you look at our digital media numbers she is succeeding.”

Early on she led a redesign of the USOC brand and built a licensing business that achieved $100 million in retail sales in 2012. She oversaw the launch of a new Team USA website, which is both engaging and user-friendly. She pulls out a Samsung Galaxy with a pink cover, taps on the screen and the home page appears. “We get over eighteen million visitors a year,” she says. “The challenge is keeping up.” Calling it “the watercooler of Olympic sports,” Lisa says this is where fans go to find breaking news, opinion pieces, athlete updates, and training and appearance schedules.


Confronting Controversy

For all of its pomp and circumstance the Olympics have a dark side. From rumors of bid bribery and vote trading to cheating, doping and anti-gay propaganda, one would be hard-pressed to name an Olympics in recent memory that hasn’t been tainted by some kind of scandal. “It’s a global movement,” Lisa says tactfully of the various cultural influences. “There are a lot of controversies and challenges.”

The USOC has committed to proactively address one of the biggest controversies making headlines in the sports world—abuse. SafeSport, a program implemented two years ago, provides education, resources and training for parents, athletes, clubs and coaches to help them recognize and respond to the threat of physical, sexual or emotional abuse. It came out of a recommendation made by a USOC Working Group for Safe Training Environments, which was convened in 2010, in the aftermath of sex abuse cases involving USA Swimming.

“It’s a tremendous issue that we have to confront,” says Lisa. “It’s a societal problem. We felt we needed to create a set of standards for our NGBs.” Although it’s impossible to come up with precise numbers, the sports world has been rife of late with stories of misconduct—from sexual assault on young club teams to domestic abuse in the professional ranks. (The recent Ray Rice case in the NFL comes immediately to mind. When asked if she had an opinion on how Commissioner Roger Goodell was handling the situation, Lisa politely declined to comment.)

In the Olympic arena, there have been cases involving speed skaters, hockey players, swimmers and gymnasts, to name just a few. “This SafeSport training is at the forefront of what we need to do,” Lisa says. “We are out there making the commitment to stop abuse, to educate people to recognize it and be responsible for taking action before there is a problem.”

 

A Test of Endurance

There is one very large fundamental issue the International Olympic Committee (IOC) must confront regarding the Olympics in the twenty-first century: No country wants to host them. The costs have skyrocketed. The Russians spent upwards of $50 billion on Sochi; China spent $40 billion on the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing; even Rio’s costs are expected to top $25 billion. Last autumn the IOC suffered a huge blow when Norway pulled out of the bidding process for the 2020 Winter Games. As of December, the only viable candidates were Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan. “Obviously the Olympics need to continue to find countries that want to host the games,” says Lisa. “Larry [chairman of the board] and some of our board members are working on the IOC’s Agenda 2020 project, which is engaged in a series of reforms that will tackle the issue of creating a more sustainable future for the Games.”

On December 8, during a session in Monaco, the IOC’s 104 members unanimously approved a sweeping reform package proposed by President Thomas Bach that covers everything from the bidding process to keeping sports clean. “I’m really proud of these reforms,” Lisa says “It’s all about transparency. They are tackling the issues head on.” One reform in particular stands out: the Principle Six clause on nondiscrimination has been reworded to include sexual orientation and identity; as revised it states the Olympics should be free of any discrimination of any kind. “It’s been called a pivotal moment for equality in sports,” says Lisa. “Yes there was controversy in Sochi, but this reform? This is the best of the Olympics.”

Speaking of Sochi, which was mired in its share of negative press, for Lisa, the Games were a prime example of how good an Olympics can be—once they actually get underway. “Sochi could not have been more welcoming,” she says. “The Olympic experience is for the athletes, and the Sochi organizing committee put on a great Games. It was a beautifully designed village, easy to get around. And we won the most medals ever in a non-North American based Games.”

Among the VIPs who visited the USA House there was President Vladimir Putin. “He was very much a presence in Sochi,” she says. “I showed him around, he sat and talked through an interpreter. He was very concerned about the athletes’ experience. Was the village okay? Things like that.” When asked what it was like to be in the presence of the tyrannical president she pauses. “I don’t want to make it more than it was. The other guests were very aware that he was there. When you have a world leader in your house, it’s very impactful.”

She recalls when Michelle Obama came to the USA House in London. “I arranged a private ceremony for Mrs. Obama and the women’s basketball team. She has two daughters and a husband who loves basketball, and she was responding to them in this warm way. It was just a wonderful moment.”

Lisa has learned to revel in those quiet moments during the jam-packed three weeks she spends at an Olympic Games. “It’s a real adrenaline rush,” she says, “Because you are there for such a long time, working around the clock.” Each day during Sochi, for instance, mornings began with a senior management meeting—giving Lisa the chance to troubleshoot potential problems before they got out of control. By 10 a.m. she was on-site at USA House, where she remained, overseeing the hundreds of visitors—VIPs, athletes, family members—who came through every day (12,000 guests in total), as well as supervising the private events for donors and sponsors. “In London we hosted 190-plus private events,” Lisa says. “In Sochi that number was slightly less.”

Though there is little downtime during any Olympic Games, occasionally Lisa and her staff get to take a breath. Like the day in Sochi the folks at neighboring Canada House challenged them to a “friendly” game of street hockey. “The CEO of the Canadian Olympic Committee is a friend of mine,” she says. “We worked at the NFL together.” The game took on epic proportions quickly: Nike donated sticks; Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the NHL, dropped the ceremonial puck; Pierre Lamoureux, the father of Team USA hockey twins Jocelyne and Monique, was in the net for the U.S.; Marcel Aubut, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee, took a turn for Canada; and an NBC sports crew shot the whole thing, which ended in a tie. “In the interest of sportsmanship,” Lisa says smiling.

Because she works with a long lead time, Lisa is already busy nailing down sponsorship packages for the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea, while simultaneously ironing out details for Rio. The action kicks off officially this summer in Washington, D.C., with the Road to Rio tour, which will celebrate Brazilian culture, and introduce America to the newest Olympic sports—golf and rugby. There will be beach volleyball demonstrations, and opportunities for the public to interact with the athletes along the tour’s nine-stop schedule. “Rio is an exciting place,” says USOC CEO Blackmun. “With the Olympic Games it’s even more so. The Road to Rio program Lisa is building will be our best one yet,” he promises.

“Rio is going to be fantastic,” Lisa says, dismissing reports of construction lapses and cost overruns. “I’ve been there four times. The golf course is coming along. The stadium is amazing. The iconic sport will be beach volleyball on Copacabana Beach. It’s going to be just spectacular.”

 

 

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