As we move towards the London Games there will be a story every day, if not more, on the athletes whose chance to shine comes only every four years. For every Michael Phelps there will be a weightlifter from Iran, for every Carmelo Anthony we will hear about a runner from Ghana, the pieces that make up the essence of what the Olympic Games have always stood for.
Many of those stories will also come from Team USA itself, virtual unknowns, who with hard work, some business savvy and good timing not just succeed but capture a moment they can take advantage of when the games are over. One of those Americans might just be Tim Morehouse. In the coming weeks you may get to know and see more of Tim that ever before, between appearances on the Today Show and an even more revealing piece in ESPN Magazine’s “The Body” issue out this Wednesday, which features athletes large and small…well unclothed. Morehouse, a New Yorker and former school teacher, is a fencer, and one who is not happy just letting his sport lumber along in some second or third tier.
He is convinced that fencing has great value as an extreme sport, can help kids learn in programs in inner cities and can embrace technology and new media to put the sport on a new pedestal not just in the U.S. but around the world. He enters London as well with very high hopes, having grabbed a silver medal in Beijing, and is looking to exploit those opportunities, as well as an upcoming book, into lifting the profile of fencing into a property that is fun, exciting and very sellable to consumers and brands.
We caught up with Tim to talk fencing, marketing, posing nude and London 2012…
There has been a great deal of sponsor engagement going into London 2012, with athletes from crew to the Paralympics picking up endorsements and media. Why has fencing not been as involved to this point?
While fencing still has a relatively low-profile when it comes to sponsorship engagement with the Olympics we are currently engaged to a greater extent than ever before. I am working with several brands including Technogym, BistroMD (www.bistromd.com), Sabra Hummus and a tech start up called Burst. www.burst.it My teammate Mariel Zagunis is sponsored by TD Ameritrade, Deloitte amongst others. I was also in an US Olympic Committee fundraising commercial and on Tuesday on the Today Show I’ll be unveiling the Opening Ceremony outfit for Ralph Lauren brand with David Lauren. This is a higher profile than we’ve ever had before, but we still have a long way to go.
You are a big advocate of fencing as a means to work with inner-city kids. How do you see that working going forward?
I was a teacher, have a master’s in education and worked as a teacher trainer for several years via the Teach For America program. I want to get fencing to be a regular part of physical education in the USA and so my goal is to train PE teachers to teach fencing so that every child in America has the opportunity to experience the sport.
Your fundraising event at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York was a unique way to present fencing in a new light to the public. What’s the next step?
I’d like Fencing Masters (www.fencingmastersnyc.com) to become the equivalent of the X Games for my sport. I think when presented correctly with the right kind of staging and fan engagement that the sport is highly entertaining. My hope is make Fencing Masters into a series of high-profile nationally televised tournaments in big markets beyond New York. A great series would include LA, Chicago, Miami, Boston and NY and perhaps a Vegas or Texas version as well.
What was it like to pose nude for ESPN’s “The Body” Issue”
I think the ESPN Body Issue is a really prestigious way of demonstrating the athleticism of your sport. This will be the first time a fencer is included and I don’t think people realize how athletic and physical you need to be to be a great fencer. I’m hoping to represent our sport proudly. As for the being nude in front of people part, as an Olympic athlete we get drug tested all the time and need to pee in a cup while someone is watching so just being nude in front of people was not that big a deal.
Archery seems to have gotten a boost from movies like “Brave” and “The Hunger Games,” any thoughts on how fencing can grab a little of the entertainment spotlight?
There are plenty of movies with fencing in them. The biggest thing we need to do is provide the opportunities and visibility for the fencing clubs to attract new participants. Archery even before the Hunger Games movie has been charting a pretty great course and they now have a great training center and I understand that they have over a million members now so I think they are a model organizationally for what we can do.
You are also training hard for London, trying to capture a medal as you did in Beijing. What is the outlook for the American fencing team?
We go into London with one of the strongest teams we have ever had. Mariel Zagunis is the 2-time defend Olympic champion in women’s saber, we have 2 fencers in men’s epee who are world champions, my teammate James Williams and I won a silver medal in Beijing and we have a group of great young fencers in our men and women’s foil program putting up strong international results. Our women’s epee team has also been putting up the strong results so we have a lot of medal potential. 20 years ago, USA had no medal hopes really and now almost every athlete can realistically win a medal on a strong day.
Where is fencing strongest in the U.S. and why?
New York City has been a hotbed of fencing since the first of the modern Olympics. We have a history in NYC of fencing masters from Europe coming over and some of the best fencing clubs in the country here.
Have you spoken to brands about an engagement platform, not just at the Games but with your program? What kinds of brands should it appeal to that fencing doesn’t already?
I think fencing can have appeal to a lot of different brands. High end fashion brands seem to particularly like the association with our sport, but have yet to truly sponsor us although a lot of fashion has a fencing inspiration to it and I’ve worked with some pretty fantastic fashion labels on fencing/fashion photo shoots. Because of the precision and technique I think we’d be a nice fit with a high end watch or car company.
One of the criticisms of fencing over the years is it is too hard to follow, and the equipment makes it hard to identify with the athletes. how has/can technology change that?
I think the advancement of the technology will be an important step in the growth of the sport. I’ve been working with some tech companies to try to make our sabers hum with light and potentially to have the outfit glow and light up the area that is hit. I think we’re a few years away from the outfit, but look for real “light” sabers coming in the next few years especially within the Fencing Masters series. Like most sports, if you watched it once you’d have a hard time figuring out what’s going on. I think that as more people experience it and watch it on a more regular basis that people will start to understand it even more.
There are scores of TV outlets showcasing everything from Jousting to competitive eating, is there a reality show competition for fencing that can be compelling?
Absolutely. I think the sport is really great to watch when presented in the right way.
As for a reality show, I think there is something compelling about our small sport athletes and how we have to struggle to pursue our Olympic dreams while working full-time jobs. I also think some of the best stories are often missed with the smaller profile sports but that they can be just as compelling and inspiring.
What are your plans post-London, with or without a medal or medals?
To grow Fencing Masters into a TV product and tour that helps to raise the visibility, profile and platform for our sport and athletes, to start training hundreds of PE teachers to teach fencing, to a do a book tour in support of my book American Fencer: Modern Lessons from an Ancient Sport (www.americanfencer.com) and to begin writing my second book.