Mutual of Omaha has ended its 15-year sponsorship of USA Swimming, a decision that raises questions about the possible impact on Omaha’s chances to host the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in 2020.
So far it seems that Mutual’s decision will not have an immediate impact, although USA Swimming is trying to cope with the loss of a top-tier sponsor from the city where it held its premier event in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
“USA Swimming’s reaction is somewhere between disappointment and disbelief,” said Matt Farrell, chief marketing officer at USA Swimming in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
“We had an incredible run together,” Farrell said, “and quite frankly we were well on our way to discussing the future in terms of a renewal, and then things took a very surprising turn ...
“Their decision to end it came out of the blue.” He said Mutual learned of the decision in late September.
Mutual’s pullout also could sink this year’s U.S.-versus-Europe Duel in the Pool, an every-other-year event loosely modeled on professional golf’s Ryder Cup tournament.
The Omaha insurance company also ended its four-year sponsorship of Marco Andretti Indycar auto racing, but continues to sponsor professional golfers. Mutual spokesman Jim Nolan said Friday that the swimming and auto racing contracts expired at the end of 2016.
He declined to say how much money the sponsorship contracts involved.
“The contracts ended, and that gave us an opportunity to step back and revisit our sponsorship strategy and make sure the sponsorships were meeting our business needs,” Nolan said.
“Both were excellent relationships and did a lot to promote our brand,” he said. “But it’s not unusual for companies to change sponsorships and seek new opportunities to connect with customers.”
There was no incident or problem that triggered the change, Nolan said, nor was it related to the promotion of James Blackledge to chief executive of Mutual in April 2015 or the retirement of John Hildenbiddle, senior vice president for brand management, later that year.
Nolan said Mutual is evaluating its sponsorship and advertising strategy.
“We’re kind of in a reset mode to make sure that our sponsorship investments and our advertising investments resonate with customers,” he said. “Who knows what lies ahead?”
Nolan said the sponsorship change should have no bearing on Omaha’s chances to host the Swim Trials again.
Would Mutual become involved if the Trials returned to Omaha?
“Let’s get them here first and then we’ll look at that,” Nolan said. “That’s speculative at this point.”
Mutual brought officials from USA Swimming to Omaha before the 2008 Trials and made some introductions, Nolan said, “and then the community took over. It was the community that brought the first Trials here and sustained it. We simply made an introduction ... but a lot of players made it all happen.”
Mutual’s sponsorship of USA Swimming is separate from the U.S. Olympics Swim Trials and predates Omaha hosting the Trials. But USA Swimming runs the Trials and the pre-Trials qualifying events, and the athletes who compete in the Olympics typically grow up in clubs belonging to USA Swimming.
Separately from the USA Swimming sponsorship, Mutual supported the Trials in Omaha with Fan Zone activities, banners and sculptures outside its headquarters, and pre-event suppers and shuttle buses to the Trials, held at the CenturyLink Center.
Mutual also is a member of the Omaha Sports Commission, which works to bring the Trials and other events to the city and serves as a local sponsor.
Wesley Hall, president and executive director of the commission, said Friday that the process of attracting the Trials to the city in 2020 is in its early stages.
USA Swimming has an important role in the Trials, Hall said, but “there’s no conversation regarding their corporate sponsors as it relates to the commission and the Olympic Trials. Those remain separate.”
As for support by Mutual or other potential sponsors for the 2020 Trials in Omaha, Hall said, “Let’s get a contract signed and then we can start the process of getting people involved as needed.”
Farrell, the USA Swimming marketing chief, said most of the group’s revenue is from its members, meaning Mutual’s money was “a relatively low percentage in the overall organization.”
“Fortunately we always kept a firewall between the Olympic Trials’ decision to be in Omaha and the Mutual of Omaha relationship,” Farrell said. “Because the Olympic Trials is an Olympics-owned event, Mutual of Omaha was not a direct sponsor of that event.”
The televised Mutual of Omaha Duel in the Pool has been held in odd-numbered years, pitting American swimmers against European swimmers and declaring a winning team according to total points. Mutual’s withdrawal, Farrell said, means “we’re still trying to find a partner to help us bring it alive. It’s an incredibly dramatic event.”
It’s patterned loosely after professional golf’s U.S.-versus-Europe Ryder Cup tournament, which also is held every other year and in the United States or Europe.
Farrell said the schedule for this year’s Duel in the Pool hadn’t been finalized, although it was due to be held in Europe. In the United States, the meet has been held in Indianapolis and Atlanta.
The meet aims at a television audience that usually watches competitive swimming only once every four years. There’s a touch of national pride in the competition between the teams, alongside the competition among individual swimmers. The meet also gives the public an early look at many Olympic hopefuls.
Mutual will continue supporting the more than 100 Mutual of Omaha Breakout Swim Clinics for young swimmers around the country, Mutual spokesman Nolan said.
Though most of USA Swimming’s finances come from its members, sponsorships are important, he said. “Replacing partners and looking at other options is a pretty long-term process. At its best it’s months and sometimes years to replace a new partner in any category.”
USA Swimming is organized as a nonprofit. Its 2014 tax return, the latest available, says it had more than $32 million in revenue that year; of that, $9.9 million came in the form of “contributions and grants.”
It’s not clear how much of that came from Mutual; contributions from individual companies and people aren’t detailed on the form. USA Swimming declined to provide a specific figure.
Farrell said Mutual wasn’t the largest corporate sponsor of USA Swimming but was in the top one-third, especially with its support of the Duel in the Pool.
Mutual continues to sponsor professional golfers, currently Russell Knox, Ryan Moore, Ian Poulter and Henrik Stenson on the men’s tour and Jessica Korda on the women’s tour. Mutual has sponsored pro golfers since 2003.
The Indycar sponsorship placed Mutual’s logo on cars and drivers’ clothing, and the company hosted guests at auto races, among other activities.