A Partnership Legacy Nearly a Century in the Making

February 14, 2024 A Partnership Legacy Nearly a Century in the Making

Fair warning that today’s post contains no insights into how to wring additional value out of sports partnerships. Nor does it uncover any interesting trends or share much in the way of practical takeaways for sports marketing practitioners.

Instead, it shines a light on a sponsorship story that began more than 90 years ago, one that I was not aware of until hearing an off-hand remark about it a couple of nights ago.

Perhaps I’m drawn to discussing something from a simpler time because my mind is awash with information on mixed reality platforms and data clean rooms, having just recorded back-to-back podcast interviews with two executives deeply immersed in the latest developments in emerging fan engagement technology and data analytics.

While I look forward to sharing their intriguing perspectives in episodes of the TicketManager All Access Interview Series over the next few weeks, for now it’s all about the tale of Helms Bakery, the Olympic Games and the Helms Athletic Foundation.

Those of you who have passed the half-century mark, are from Southern California or are college sports fanatics may be familiar with some elements of the story, but for the rest, it begins with Paul Helms and the direct-to-home, daily-delivery bread bakery he established in Culver City in 1931. With the 1932 Olympics set to come to Los Angeles, Helms entered into a contract with the International Olympic Committee to supply bread to the athletes competing in the Games.

Although Helms later stated he lost money on the deal, he seized on the marketing opportunity by rebranding his flagship product as Helms Olympic Bread. In a sign of how much things have changed since, the IOC did not raise any objection.

Helms Bakery continued its involvement with the Games after the L.A. edition. It struck another supplier deal with the IOC for the 1936 games in Berlin, licensing a German bakery to use Helms’ recipe for bread delivered to the Olympic Village. Following the resumption of Olympic competition after World War II, Helms became a supplier to the U.S. Olympic Team, shipping bread to athletes competing in the 1948 Games in London.

But the company’s legacy in sports is tied more closely to the establishment of the Helms Athletic Foundation than it is to the early recognition of the power of Olympic marketing.

The foundation was the brainchild of a young banker and sports fanatic named Bill Schroeder, who in 1936 wanted to establish an organization that would house memorabilia and bestow awards across a wide variety of amateur sports. He presented his idea to Paul Helms as a way to keep the Helms brand connected to sports year-round and the foundation was quickly born with Schroeder as its sole employee.

Prior to the rise of the NCAA, the AP Poll and other collegiate sports bodies, there was no universally agreed upon system for naming national champions and All Americans in college athletics. The Helms Athletic Foundation took advantage of that void to establish itself as the arbiter of who was the best in college sports, starting with the retroactive naming of collegiate football and basketball champions dating back to 1883 (football) and 1900 (basketball).

The foundation established short-lived halls of fame for pro football and a number of other sports and operated the Helms Hall sports museum in Culver City from 1948 until 1970.

The foundation held onto its unique role in amateur sports for decades, although its prominence greatly diminished following the death of Paul Helms in 1957. For a while, Schroeder was able to obtain new sponsorship for the organization, resulting in name changes to the United Savings–Helms Athletic Foundation, Citizens Savings Athletic Foundation and First Interstate Bank Athletic Foundation.Ultimately, it ceased operation and in a somewhat full-circle moment, its collection and archives were absorbed into the LA84 Foundation, the legacy organization of the 1984 L.A. Olympic Games.

The Helms Athletic Foundation still maintains relevance today, as some college programs hang banners to acknowledge their selection as a Helms national champion. That is how I came across the story, as my alma mater Northwestern University was named by the foundation as collegiate basketball champions for 1931 and there is a nascent movement by some alumni to urge the school to officially recognize that achievement.

I’m sure Schroeder and Helms would have been thrilled that their efforts were being discussed in a campus meeting in 2024. Quite the long-term impact, even if the company the partnership was meant to promote ceased operations in 1969.