Beyond Delays, a New Sport Model: Why A Return to Games May Take a Bit Longer
Updated: Apr 29
A Delayed Olympics: The Irony of Tokyo as a Host City
Tokyo was supposed to host this year’s Olympic Games in July, but for the second time in a century, Olympic games originally awarded to Tokyo, will not hold as scheduled. The City was awarded the 1940 Olympics but was forced to relinquish them back to the International Olympic Committee in 1938 after they refused IOC demands to withdraw Japanese troops from Manchuria (China). Those 1940 (and 1944) Olympics were subsequently canceled due to World War II, but the original decision to cede the 1940 games was purely in the hands of Japanese officials. In 2020, it is not; Which is why there is such a cruel irony in the novel Coronavirus, COVID-19, forcing Olympic organizers to reschedule the Tokyo 2020 games to “no later than the Summer of 2021,” in the words of IOC President Thomas Bach. However, recent remarks by the head of the Japanese Medical Association, Yoshitake Yokokura, that “it would be difficult to hold the Olympics unless effective vaccines are developed,” suggests an Olympic Games next year is far from certain.
To be clear, there are far more pressing concerns in the world at the moment than athletic competition, but the Sports industry has been decimated by the unforgiving nature of community spread. Familiar sports metaphors like “reaction times”, and “in-game adjustments,” have given way to organizers “waiting on the sidelines” while “running out the clock,” in search of palliative measures.
Unlike many businesses where a Google Hangout can close a deal, sport requires physical goals, hoops, tries and touchdowns, to seal the deal. The idea of social distancing is incongruent to a sports industry designed to bring people together while unifying communities.
It still does, but key questions remain about when and how major sports will return. Here are four (4) key areas to consider.
1. The Sports Delivery Model Has Changed from Performance to Prevention (at least in the near term)
First, the Olympics, an event so large it takes an entire nation to host it. While it’s difficult to predict the trajectory of CV-19, there are already concerns about having the Games next year amidst a climate of fear and uncertainty. Even if the COVID problem was resolved today, the model for delivering major sporting events has completely shifted from performance to prevention. In the absence of a proven vaccine, or at best, a strong antiviral remedy, it’s hard to imagine how a global event gets safely delivered during a worldwide pandemic. Organizers of events such as the Euro 2020 soccer championships, scheduled to be held across 13 different countries for the first time, may have to rethink its tournament model as well as the 2021 delivery timeline. Going further, we do not yet know what the post Covid protocols will look like for attending sports events. Will fans be required to show proof of testing, or perhaps a vaccination card (when available), to access the sport venue? What about stadium concessions — food preparation, transportation, and safety — how will this be handled? Player and fan safety will continue to be of utmost priority for event organizers, and rightly so, however, policy revisions required for a return to games will revise budgets upwards. In essence, there are likely many more changes in the event delivery model beyond a shift on the sports calendar.
2. Sports May Have Initially Underestimated the Severity of the Pandemic
Initially, sports properties may have underestimated the severity of COVID 19, and certainly its brutality of scale. They appeared to simply move event dates forward, in some cases, by just months not years. There is a belief in some quarters, this approach may be completely insufficient without knowing where the bottom is, without a known solution. Event organizers may have believed a slight in date as a reasonably prudent at the time, but it remains to be seen if these dates will hold. This equally applies to major football (soccer) leagues around the world. Suggestions have been (and continue to be) made that games can safely be played and seasons completed, without fans in the stadiums. This too, became a nonstarter when players and coaches, regrettably, also started testing positive for the bug. Here again, assuming this even moves forward, what is the protocol if a player tests positive? Would the player be isolated while the rest of the team soldiers on without a full deck? Would players even want to play under these conditions? It’s been said that understanding the rules of engagement is the core tenant of war. It’s not clear we’ve developed tactics to contain a foe we barely know, let alone well enough to stage events around it.
3. General Impact on Sports Marketing
Amid global uncertainty, brands are dancing delicately with decisions and destiny. For one thing, the marketing budget for many companies has likely shifted to address more pressing needs more relevant to organizational survival. When coupled with a pending recession likely accompany the post COVID recovery, discretionary spending on sports partnerships slips lower in priority.
For brands with existing partnerships, however, sport offers a visible platform for delivering powerful messages of hope and perseverance. It allows the brand to boost its corporate social responsibility (CSR) bona fides in service to humanity during an unparalleled global crisis. Striking the right tone reflective of the public mood could resonate with a public in search of positive messaging.
4. Specific Impact on Olympic Marketing
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics generated a record $3 B in revenue from domestic sponsorships, three times as much as any previous Summer Olympics games. When added to the $1 B the IOC generated in sponsorship revenue for the quadrennial 2013–2016 from its TOP program, it’s safe to say the marketing team did its job. How you activate the partnership, is a different question. Creating the right marketing strategy around a premium brand like the Olympic Games is challenging enough in normal times. It’s much more so now. Take Samsung for instance, which is the official mobile phone provider in the IOC’s premier TOP marketing program. The company invested heavily in using the Tokyo Games for a variety of activations, including its vertical penetration of the Japanese smartphone market. It remains to be seen how brands adjust as necessary, Olympic sponsorship campaigns given an information flow that is at best, fluid, and dynamic, yet at times, uneven.
Another area of which cannot be ignored is Olympic hospitality. This a significant part of why brands pay hundreds of millions for rights to the Olympic rings despite not being able to advertise at Olympic venues. The optics of the CEO or corporate executive enjoying the trappings of hospitality on the road, amidst furloughs and layoffs at home, warrants an easy pass. I do, however, believe creativity will prevail. It is entirely possible event hospitality can be reimagined to provide a much more impactful experience than it otherwise would in a pre Covid setting.
There are few silver linings in any of this, but a small measure of solace is that “the world,” regrettably, has the same understanding of the difficulties of the COVID-19 problem. The unfortunate imagery associated with this virus, sadly, requires no interpretation. The global nature of the plague unites us through a common pain, permeating activities we knew, and how we experienced them. The return of sport will offer normalcy, but it must be right. The inconvenience of extra screening and sanitation will be welcomed as a service, a sacrifice for safety most all too willing to make. The Olympics will adjust and likely to continue to thrive. The Games have survived three world wars, a Cold War, and two terrorist attacks, and will get thru this as well. As a symbol of collective unity, few events rival the power of the Olympic platform. The Games will certainly go on, even if we do not yet know, exactly when.
Written By Idy Uyoe