Author: Chris Starrs

Published

Welton was a real estate attorney at King & Spalding in Atlanta when Billy Payne asked him to shoulder market development and sponsorship duties for the 1996 Olympic Games.

Chris Welton worked a steady stream of 18-hour days at his company's Beijing office this summer, and part of his focus was the 2008 Olympic Games. But Welton, whose name rings a bell because he was a star player on Georgia's 1980 National Championship football team, was also embroiled in negotiations regarding a host of future international competitions.

Welton (BBA '81, JD '85) cut his teeth in international sports marketing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and the former academic All-American is now CEO of Atlanta-based Helios Partners Inc., an international Olympics branding and sports marketing company that also has an office in London, site of the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Among its many specialties, Helios Partners works to secure sponsors for the Olympics and other global sporting events. The company also advises corporate giants like Coca-Cola, Visa, Delta, General Mills, and Federal Express on how best to benefit from their association with worldwide athletics.

"We had six clients that were domestic sponsors of the Beijing Games, and we represent two clients that are global sponsors," says Welton, whose staff in Beijing numbered 31. "We also represent two sponsors of the London Games — Lloyd's TSB and Deloitte UK."

Helios Partners is already well into its planning for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, the 2012 Summer Games in London, and the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia; the latter hired Welton's firm to help the city formulate its winning bid.

With the Beijing Games now in his rearview mirror, Welton says Helios Partners is focusing on new visions — one of which would be a radical shake-up in the broadcast area. Helios Partners also represents ESPN, which expects to make a major push to snag the domestic broadcast rights for the 2014 and 2016 Games from NBC, which has aired the Olympics in the U.S. since 1988.

Welton says there's "a fundamental difference of opinion" between NBC and ESPN on how the Games should be presented — particularly when they're held in distant time zones. He contends that NBC's decision to delay the airing of some major Beijing events until prime time cost the network ratings points. ESPN, which already owns Olympic rights in several South American and Asian countries, is prepared to broadcast events in real time, which Welton says will actually boost viewership.

"NBC is trying to force Americans to watch the Olympics in prime time," says Welton, who points out that broadcasts from Beijing were watched heavily by the 50-and-over set but much less so by the 34-and-under demographic. "So, for example, you never got to see live telecasts of Jamaica's triple gold medalist Usain Bolt setting any of his world records in track. You had to be told by NBC when you'd be able to watch it. Consumers are not going to respond favorably to that in the future."

"ESPN happens to think — and we believe this as well — that you actually get greater viewership if you allow people to watch events when they occur. Word of mouth is powerful, particularly these days when word of mouth is an electronic phenomenon because of websites, blogs, and downloads to Blackberries. If you run a live telecast of Bolt shattering the world record in the 100-meter dash, you'll get a lot of those same viewers back if you re-run it in prime time."

With the company's Olympic business booming, Welton is interested in diversifying into other athletic markets.

"We're about 65-70 percent Olympics in terms of revenue, and we'd like to get that down to about 50 percent," says Welton. "We want to expand our relationship with ESPN. They already own World Cup rights in 2010 in the U.S. and they want our help in creating sponsorship packages around television rights, so we're working with them on the Olympics and the World Cup. We also work with them on college football."

After getting his law degree from UGA, Welton spent six years with King & Spalding in Atlanta. In 1991, at Billy Payne's invitation, he joined the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games as vice president of market development. In 1996, he established Meridian Management, which was responsible for the IOC's sponsorship program. He joined Helios Partners in 2005.

"I didn't know what Chris would do, but I did feel when he was playing here that he'd have a chance to do something really exceptional," says his former coach, Vince Dooley. "He's got a great knack for business, and he is a good people person."

But he's not a planner.

"I literally have not planned one aspect of my business career," says Welton. "I know that's not what professors and counselors want to hear, but my theory has always been to be well-rounded and well-prepared for whatever circumstances may present themselves."

"There are a lot of things I took away from my Terry College experience that helped me get into and be successful in the business world, but I can honestly say there's no way I could have foreseen what I'm doing right now. I didn't even know this business existed."

Welton's advice to current Terry students?

"Do the best you can so you can make your own choices...not somebody else's."