Unless you have been watching the opening stages of the Tour de France on the Outdoor Life Network this week—and the Nielsen ratings say it's 1,000 to 1 that you haven't—you may not know that this is a big month for the U.S. Postal Service—in Paris. USPS is sponsoring the cycling team led by Lance Armstrong, who is favored to win his fourth consecutive Tour title when the race finishes July 28.
Now, cycling is not quite as dreary as it seems, and anyone who saw Breaking Away will concede that it warms the heart to see an American—a brash, red-white-and-blue-clad Texan, no less—trounce a gaggle of squawking, height-deficient, whiny Europeans at their own sport. But this doesn't explain why the post office—which lost $281 million last quarter and just raised stamp rates again—is paying millions of dollars every year to support a bunch of athletes Americans don't care about. The USPS team does participate in the few, feeble races held in the United States, but its real business is in France, Italy, and Spain, where people actually line up by the millions to watch the peloton scoot past.
USPS won't say how much it spends on its cycling team—that's "proprietary information," according to USPS spokeswoman Monica Hand—but the Dallas Morning News reported in 2001 that USPS committed $25 million for a three-year contract that expires in 2004. For $8 million-plus a year, USPS gets a Lance Armstrong TV commercial, lots of super coverage in Le Monde, and 100,000 American households tuning in on Outdoor Life.
(USPS has a tradition of sports sponsorship excess: It forked over more than $100 million for the 1992 Olympic Games. To be fair, its rivals UPS and FedEx sponsor events, too.)
USPS's Hand says the bike deal benefits the post office because it "associates us with a winning team," raises employee morale, and helps promote USPS's international delivery services. "Multinationals in Europe do a lot of mailing, and we are interested in them using our products and services." The European promotion also advertises to "students, relatives, and other people living overseas." USPS's total international business is only $1.7 billion annually, less than 3 percent of its revenues. Yet it's spending more than 6 percent of its entire ad budget on this indirect European product placement.
It's worth noting that the millions of Europeans who root for Armstrong and his team can't even use USPS. The post office ships mail from the United States to Europe, but—unlike FedEx—not from Europe to the United States.