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(Reuters) - Citigroup Inc will go to the Rio Games this year with a sponsorship roster deep in household names like gymnast Gabby Douglas and beach volleyball's Kerri Walsh Jennings, but the U.S. bank is also betting on rugby, a new Olympic sport unfamiliar to many Americans.
Citi, which announced its Olympic lineup on Monday, believes its sponsorship of Carlin Isles, an Olympic hopeful little known outside rugby, could bring attention to "rugby sevens," a TV-friendly format of rugby that sponsors said could catch on with American audiences, much like soccer has in recent years.
Isles, 26, is also a sprinter trying out for the U.S. track team. If Isles makes the cut, Citi could get a two-sport athlete for the price of one, said Tina Davis, managing director of marketing and corporate sponsorships at the bank.
Early on, Citi had an interest in sponsoring rugby or golf, both medal sports in the Olympics for the first time in about a century. It settled on rugby partly because it already had a golf sponsorship with the Presidents Cup, a tournament that pits U.S. golfers against international players, Davis said.
Citi is not the only official sponsor to unveil its rosters of athletes well ahead of the 100-day countdown to Rio that begins in April. Visa Inc, a global Olympics sponsor, said earlier this month it was backing swimmer Missy Franklin and fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim-American to complete in a hijab, at the Olympics in August.
Dick's Sporting Goods Inc, another U.S. sponsor, has also unveiled its lineup, which features beach volleyball's Jennings.
Citi's Team USA contract expires after this year's Paralympic Games, and it will have to decide by the end of the year if it wants to return as a sponsor.
Davis said backing the Olympics could boost the profile of the bank's different lines of business, from retail branches to private banking and that there were also benefits to hosting hospitality events with clients.
But it is always studying whether the partnership makes financial sense to the bank, especially with the next three Olympic Summer and Winter Games being held in South Korea, Japan and China, Davis said. The big time difference makes it hard for U.S. audiences to watch the Games live and can decrease the amount of viewers who watch ads.
Four-year sponsorships of the U.S. Olympic team that span two Olympics can cost a sponsor about $40 million per games, with a significant portion of that spent on buying ad time from U.S. Olympic broadcaster NBC, a unit of Comcast, said industry sources who did not want to be named because the terms of sponsorship deals were not made public.
Citi struck the original deal for the 2012 Games in London when Bank of America bowed out as a sponsor after 16 years.
Douglas will try defend her title as all-around champion in gymnastics, a feat not done since the 1960s.
Although Douglas took nine months off after the 2012 London Games and will face a tough rival in younger teammate Simone Biles, Davis said Douglas should not be considered a comeback story, citing her recent wins at events such as the American Cup in March.
"A comeback means someone who left. Gabby never left. She is just going to try to best what she did," Davis said.
Other U.S. athletes Citi will sponsor are track and field's Allyson Felix, swimmer Nathan Adrian and paralympians Brad Snyder, Rudy Garcia-Tolson and Scout Bassett.
Reporting by Liana B. Baker in New York; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney