The goodwill games have always been an oddity on the international sports calendar. The brainchild of media billionaire Ted Turner, who founded them in 1986 to foster better U.S.-Soviet relations, the games have become increasingly irrelevant in the post-cold war era. What's more, although hefty appearance fees have helped attract elite athletes such as Michael Johnson and Marion Jones, the event has never caught on with the public. Television ratings have been paltry for the four summer games and one winter games, which combined have lost $100 million.
So it wasn't a complete shock when speculation arose last week that AOL Time Warner, parent company of Turner Sports (and SI), may be balking at picking up its $30 million share for this year's Goodwill Games, scheduled for Aug. 29 to Sept. 6 in Brisbane, Australia. Given the well-publicized cost-cutting at the company and Ted Turner's decreased influence in the newly combined AOL Time Warner, the games look to be an easy target. "Anything this company can do to save money it will do," says Andrea Rice, media analyst for Deutsche Banc Alex. Brown. "If AOL can't turn around the Goodwill Games financially, it may decide to divest from its investment."
Advocates of the games may be encouraged that Turner prot�g� Terry McGuirk has been recently installed as the CEO of Turner Sports Teams, which oversees such AOL Time Warner properties as the Braves, the Hawks and the Thrashers. McGuirk says the company's pro teams won't be subject to the same tight budget restrictions as other divisions. Whether that protection extends to the Goodwill Games remains to be seen, but Mark Lazarus, president of Turner Sports, says, "We believe the Goodwill Games are an important piece of our company's portfolio."
Organizers hope to show this year that the games can make money. Brisbane organizing committee chairman Wayne Goss says his event has secured 19 corporate sponsors, who'll provide a total of $18 million. That, plus AOL Time Warner's share, would assure that the games at least break even for the first time. Says Mike Sculley, executive director of the organization bidding to bring the 2005 games to Phoenix: "Obviously the games have to start turning a profit or I wouldn't blame AOL Time Warner for pulling the plug."