By Keith Weir and Philip O'Connor
LONDON/STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - The focus of the world's gaze during the 2012 Olympics, athletics is now searching for a new title sponsor for its elite series of meetings just two weeks before the season opens.
Electronics giant Samsung pulled the plug on its Diamond League sponsorship last month, dealing a blow to the 14-meeting series and raising questions about the marketability of the sport outside of Olympic years.
Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt and British heptathlete Jessica Ennis are enjoying the rewards and profile brought by Olympic success, finding themselves in constant demand for endorsements but many of their rivals toil in relative obscurity.
The IAAF, the sport's governing body, strikes an upbeat note, saying it has a strong group of international commercial partners, pointing out that it signed up Japanese camera maker Canon Inc as recently as last November.
On the Diamond League specifically, it believes that a new backer will be found to replace South Korea's Samsung which was believed to be paying around 3 million euros ($3.9 million) per season.
"The 14 meetings which make up the IAAF Diamond League all have their own commercial partners and that does limit the commercial sectors from which the IAAF can seek a series sponsor and the package of rights it can offer a potential partner," the IAAF told Reuters in a statement.
"Nevertheless we remain fully confident that a new title sponsor will be attracted," it added. The series begins in the Qatari capital Doha on May 10.
The pulling power of Bolt, Ennis and British double gold medalist Mo Farah was shown last week when tens of thousands of tickets for London's Diamond League "Anniversary Games" in the Olympic stadium in July sold out in just over an hour.
The excitement generated among British sports fans was also a swift vindication of supermarket group Sainsbury's decision to sponsor the meeting. British athletics is looking for a series of partners after insurer Aviva pulled out last season.
A tax exemption helped to bring Bolt back to London and the meeting also fits neatly into his program, coming just before the world championships when he will seek to take back the 100 meters crown from compatriot Yohan Blake.
Bolt's agent, Ricky Simms, said he too expected the IAAF to recruit a new Diamond League sponsor soon. The series was of great value despite the need for top athletes to tailor their schedules to ensure they were in peak condition for the major one-off events, he said.
"They will select their competitions to prepare for the Olympic games or the world championships, which in athletics are the main focus," he told Reuters.
"You have to remember that there are some events that are much tougher in the Diamond League. In the Olympics, say in the long-distance races, you have only three athletes from Kenya or from Ethiopia, whereas in the Diamond League it could be six or seven," added Simms of PACE Sports Management.
Athletics will have another showcase when Moscow hosts the world championships from August 10-18 at the Luzhniki Stadium.
The IAAF says the championships, held every other year, are the largest sporting event after the Olympics and soccer World Cup. It played down talk of slow ticket sales.
"The IAAF is fully confident that the 2013 IAAF world championships will play out to good stadium audiences," it said.
"The level of sales at this time reflects the normal Russian-Moscow ticket buying mentality which is to purchase closer in time to the event."
The United States, the world's biggest economy, can expect to top the medals table at the world championships but the sport must fight hard for attention at home in a sporting landscape dominated by basketball, baseball and American football.
"Road running is very popular (there) and marathons have a large number of participants," said Simms.
"But compared to the athletes in the UK, where the phone is ringing every day looking for them to do interviews and possibly endorsements for things, in the U.S. it's definitely much quieter," he added.
The IAAF said it would like the Americans to host a world championships to boost exposure for the sport in the way that soccer did when it took the 1994 World Cup across the Atlantic.
Athletics authorities in the United States share that long-term ambition. The main stumbling block is a lack of a track stadium large enough to put on the championships.
"The key opportunity would be on the back of a successful future USA bid for the Olympics which would provide such a venue, and the goal of the sport is that the track would be retained after the Games," the IAAF said.
($1 = 0.7689 euros)
(Editing by Alison Wildey)