Headphone Pluggers Stir Controversy at Olympics

Advertisers pay huge amounts of money to sponsor the Olympics - 11 currently are on board for about $100 million each for four years of global sponsorship of the sporting event. So you can just imagine their ire over the private deals that Olympics athletes have seemingly made to plug two brands of premium ($100+) headphones.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) eventually came down on Michael Phelps, after he kept showing up at different meets wearing Sol Republic headphones with a different colored band each time. This instant "change-up" band  feature is a major marketing  differentiator for these phones. 

United States' swimmer Michael Phelps poses with his gold medal in the men's 4 x 100-meter medley relay at the Aquatics Centre in the Olympic Park during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

But when he appeared for his final swim at the Aquatic Centre, Phelps was wearing a hoodie covering the headset and the Sol Republic logo was hidden by white tape, according to the website Home Brew Audio that's tracked Phelps' tech accessorizing.  The Olympiad had also slapped a Deadmau5 sticker on the headband - another sneaky bit of business. A visit to the DJ Deadmau5 website finds a Sol Republic ad introducing  a new orange and yellow toned model  - "the world's first headphones for cats."

 Sol Republic CEO Kevin Lee claims "total surprise" about Phelps wearing the phones during the Olympics, though the Portland Business Journal carried a story in June about Phelps wearing the branded product at Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb.

Meanwhile, rival headphone maker (and industry leader) Beats by Dr. Dre had dodged an IOC bullet. Actually kick started by Kevin Lee and his  dad Noel at Monster (Cable) but now controlled by phone maker HTC,  Beats by Dr. Dre headphones customized with  home country logos have been worn/flaunted by dozens of athletes at the Olympics. A published  report said that Union Jack headphones worn by many Brit athletes ensured "that viewers of everything from swimming to tennis to gymnastics would get long, repeated looks at them on television."   

Nontheless, says Reuters, the IOC ruled that Beats and the athletes it supplied didn't breach guidelines.  So the listening/plugging could go on.

The biggest loser here is probably Olympics sponsor Panasonic, which could have/should have had the athletes sporting their new DJ style phones. The soaring premium headphone category now accounts for more than a billion dollars of business annually. The Beats by Dr. Dre line claims roughly half of the sales, according to NPD analyst Ben Arnold.