Thursday, January 08, 2009

Home Depot Drops Olympic Athletes

Home Depot Inc., citing the tough economic climate, has ended its much-ballyhooed program that gave Olympic athletes part-time jobs, flexible hours and full-time pay and benefits to help support their training.

In the 16 years that Home Depot has sponsored the U.S. and Puerto Rico Olympic and Paralympic teams, it has employed 600 athletes who have won 145 medals. Home Depot's sponsorship amounted to a $15 million to $20 million commitment over four years, said one person familiar with the matter.

"At this economic time, we are looking more closely at all our programs and marketing sponsorships," said Jean Niemi, spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based home-improvement chain, whose sales and earnings have been hammered in the housing downturn.

Home Depot informed the U.S. Olympic Committee yesterday that it was ending its sponsorship effective immediately. It also held a conference call with the 98 athletes currently enrolled in the Olympic Jobs Opportunities Program.

Darryl Seibel, chief spokesman for the USOC, said the committee is sorry to lose Home Depot as a sponsor. "They have been a fantastic partner and have done a great deal for America's athletes," he said.

Home Depot is the first top-level sponsor to leave the USOC since General Motors Corp. dropped out in 2007. Mr. Seibel said 16 other major sponsors have renewed for the 2009-2012 cycle.

The athletes now employed by Home Depot can continue working flexible hours on a part-time basis and retain health benefits, but their salaries will be halved. The athletes can apply for full-time jobs at stores with available openings. No new athletes will be accepted into the program.

"This is being done with some sadness," Home Depot's Ms. Niemi added.

Athletes were required to work about 1,000 hours a year to maintain a salary of about $25,000, said Brock Kreitzburg, a member of the 2006 U.S. bobsled team. Mr. Kreitzburg has had two hip surgeries in recent months after winning the 2007 world cup title as part of the four-man team. He is taking this season off in hopes of returning for the 2010 Olympics but might not be able to get there without the Home Depot sponsorship. Other potential sponsors are notoriously hard to find for his sport.

"With the economy, everyone is going through a tough time," said Mr. Kreitzburg, 32 years old, who lives in Calgary during the off-season. "It's hard for me to ask someone who is struggling themselves to help me."

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