BMW's ultimate Olympic machineMay 31, 2012: 5:00 AM ET
Any corporation can be an Olympic sponsor. It just takes money. BMW went one better and created a new way for athletes to train.
By Daniel Roberts, reporter
FORTUNE -- If you were to head down to your local BMW dealership between now and August, you'd be able to test-drive a vehicle, and if you do it on a "Drive for Team USA" day, BMW will give $10 to the U.S. Olympic Committee just for your trouble. But what you wouldn't guess is that there's a 25% chance you'll give in and buy one.
Indeed, during last year's Olympic promotion one out of every four people bought a BMW after taking it for a spin, making "Drive for Team USA" the German automaker's most successful event of this kind to date. Ludwig Willisch, President and CEO for BMW North America, says, "This has been the best test-drive we've ever done. There should be an Olympics every year."
In addition to providing transportation vehicles during the Games -- 4,000 of them -- as well as financial backing to 150 Olympians and Paralympians (11 from the U.S.; the nation most represented by BMW sponsorship is the U.K.), the company has developed new motion-tracking camera software for USA Swimming and velocity-measuring tools for USA Track & Field.
Janet Evans, an American swimmer and one of BMW's athletes, says, "This is the first corporate sponsor I've seen that really cares about what the athletes need." The German automaker, which has an R&D lab in Silicon Valley, approached athletes nearly a year ago and asked them what could make them better. "Their attitude was, 'Here's what we're good at, so tell us what you need and how we can help you,'" says Bryan Clay, American decathlete and defending Gold champion.
The technology BMW came up with allows athletes like Clay and Evans - the latter jokes that the partnership works because, "We are like fine-tuned machines; they want to go fast down the road, I want to go fast in the pool" -- get a more comprehensive look at exactly what they need to tweak for their next lap, run, or jump.
Evans recalls that in the past, to watch the replay of a lap, she'd have to sit on the side with a handheld camera and push pause at just the right moment, constantly hitting rewind and fast-forward in frustration. Clay says he would end up in a similar position after his practice runs, even as recently as the last Summer Games in Beijing. Now, Clay says, "The sky's the limit with this technology. It could change the world of sports."
If it sounds surprising that a German luxury carmaker is offering its sponsored athletes new camera technology, Willisch insists that it shouldn't be. "We're an engineering company," he says. "We're in this for the long-term; we'll be doing this until at least 2016." Indeed, BMW's biggest media buy ever in North America will air during the London Games.
Willisch says BMW is also working on more sophisticated pedestrian detection for its vehicles. And when asked about how BMW can continue to compete when there has been an increase in quality of new cars across the board, he responds, "We just have to stay authentic and always ensure that it's the ultimate driving machine." Whether pulling out all the stops for an impressive Olympic sponsorship indeed curries extra favor for the "ultimate driving machine," in the long run, remains to be seen.
For more on the London Summer Games, click on the links below
The (big) bucks behind the 2012 Olympics
Wall Street gets behind the games
Henry Kissinger: Scholar, statesman, Olympic fan
Will NBC's investment pay off?
Rich Sport: U.S. Olympic swimmers float on cash
Poor Sport: When Olympic athletes have to moonlight
London locks down for the Olympics
BMW's ultimate Olympic machine
13 steps to keeping the London Olympics safe
London's extreme Olympic makeover