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We’ll know for certain in the next fortnight, but the guy we bet can hold his breath longest is new International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. These are his inaugural Games, so it’s the first time he has stood in front of billions to open an Olympiad. He’s a global visionary, but we’re guessing you still don’t know much about this lawyer, businessman, politician and competitor.
In a word, he is fiercely competitive. We know this because he won gold at the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games for West Germany in the team foil competition. He’s also a two-time world champion, which means he likes a good individual duel. Just ask the U.S. Olympic Committee. It learned the hard way in its negotiations over broadcast revenue as it related to U.S. bids to host the Summer Games. The USOC sent New York (2005) and Chicago (2009) out to fight, and both were sent home quickly.
So have no doubt Bach came to Sochi ready for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ring of Steel (as it relates to terrorism) just as much as he arrived ready to deal with any slight associated with gay rights.
“Fear is a very bad adviser,” Bach told the media recently. “It is not a category in which I think.”
What does Bach’s presidency mean for sports in North America? Will the results mirror those of former Olympic sailor Jacques Rogge, whose 12-year IOC term was characterized by organizational stability, increased revenue, heightened focus on anti-doping and the launch of the Youth Olympic Games, but also a pronounced fatigue at the end of his presidency?
Our guess is no.
“Fear is a very bad adviser. It is not a category in which I think,” Bach said in the run-up to Sochi.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
Bach knows the IOC’s quirks and politics having served as a board member since 1996, earning roles as vice president from 2000-04 and 2006-13. Before 1996, he served as a member of multiple IOC commissions. He also was a supervisory board member for Germany’s FIFA World Cup in 2006.
According to the IOC’s Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency and longtime vice president of the IOC’s marketing efforts, “Bach will bring a whole new level of energy to the IOC and Olympic movement and ultimately try to energize the IOC into something more than a rubber-stamp process for approval of executive board decisions. There are many new issues and challenges he will face, and I expect until Sochi is behind him, he’ll spend his time assessing the nature of the team he wants to put together.”
Here’s where we think Bach’s foil is pointed:
■ The Soviet gay propaganda law appropriately received major attention in North America, where gay rights are important and influential. And while IOC monitoring of Russia’s human rights initiatives was expected, Bach placed some very public pressure on Russia’s Putin at the end of January, when he made clear Olympians could champion equality and inclusion in press conferences, but the Olympic charter ban on making political statements during competition or medal ceremonies would stand. Given Germany’s open culture toward homosexuality, we expect Bach will privately support athlete anger associated with this issue. For Bach, inclusion will not be a cliché.
■ More efficient bidding. Bach led the second-place Munich 2018 bid and was quoted as saying he wants to reduce process costs and time. Given the two recent failed U.S. bids and the significant costs incurred, this may help more U.S. cities to consider hosting future Games … but only if the USOC and IOC have truly patched up their differences over broadcast revenue sharing.
■ Bach just finished presiding over his first initial bid process — for the 2022 Winter Olympics — and knows Oslo, Norway; Beijing/Zhangjiakou, China; Almaty, Kazakhstan; Krakow, Poland/Jasna, Slovakia; and Lviv, Ukraine, want to host the world. Interestingly, voters in Stockholm (January 2014) and Munich (November 2013) rejected bidding, citing projected costs. This must have stung Bach, since he is from Würzburg, north of Munich, and knew Stockholm, which hosted the 1912 Summer Games, would have become the first city to ever host both the Summer and Winter Games. How Sochi unfolds will influence Bach’s management of 2022’s winner.
■ Bach’s engagement of the USOC should matter to league commissioners Adam Silver (NBA), Gary Bettman (NHL), Don Garber (MLS), Laurel Richie (WNBA) and Bud Selig’s MLB replacement (projected for early 2015) because the U.S. has not hosted the Olympics since 2002 and won’t before 2024 at the earliest. Stated simply, basketball, hockey, soccer and baseball are part of the international sports landscape and influenced by their respective international federations relative to competition, drug testing and seasonality. If North American leagues wish to expand overseas or showcase their athletes in global competition on U.S. soil in 2024 or 2026, they will have to play ball with Bach and the international federations.
American sports practitioners may not yet care about the new IOC president, but we think they soon will. Bach’s coronation and ascendency continues a trend of growing European clout when it comes to charting the growth and global visibility of America’s domestic sports leagues.
And Bach will not fear the USOC or its big leagues. He’ll come right at them.
Rick Burton (email@example.com) is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former CMO of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Norm O’Reilly (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor and chair of the Department of Sports Administration at Ohio University.
IT’S YOUR TURN TO SPEAK OUT
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Let’s start with the positives. New York City was engaged in the areas it had to be: Times Square and the Super Bowl Boulevard. I couldn’t get through the Boulevard from Friday through Saturday — it was that jammed with visitors. If the goal was to amplify the event and take over one of the most popular strips in the world, the league was successful. Debate all you want about the set-up or actual activations, but the overall tenor was positive. I saw massive lines of people waiting to get into sponsor pavilions and didn’t see widespread ambush marketing along the Boulevard, which was a concern of official sponsors last year.
The day before the game, I walked miles around the city, and NFL fans filled the streets. To me, the event wasn’t an afterthought or swallowed up by New York City — and, frankly, I never understood this argument. The party scene was vibrant and ticket demand for events was as high as I can remember. Getting around the city was easy enough. A nitpick was that some of the event spaces were not as big as in other cities. But that’s New York, and it all worked out.
The common refrain from local sports executives was that it didn’t feel like a Super Bowl week. Where traditionally many would be at meeting after event after party, many told me they felt stuck in the office like any other normal work week and expressed frustration over their schedule.
But the biggest, and most unexpected, mistake was in the transportation plan. For a year, officials stressed this would be the first “mass transit” Super Bowl, and they made it their top focus and priority, consistently communicating to consumers the proper transportation channels. But after the terrible delays on game day, officials admitted they miscalculated the number of travelers who would end up taking the train over bus and automobile. I had concerns about 10 days out, when I checked bus availability, and most were already sold out. I figured game day was going to be a challenge. Officials estimated roughly 40 percent of fans took the train, and they didn’t anticipate the extra 20,000 fans taking it on game day. But why not? They sorted through every possible scenario over 12 months, and considering all the planning, public notice and information flow about how to get to and from the game, this miscalculation surprised me, to say the very least. Giants co-owner John Mara was on point, as usual, earlier in the week when he said the fan experience at the game would be the key indicator of success, and through that lens, too many fans had an utterly miserable experience coming and going. That’s a shame, they deserve better, and along with the winter blast that hit on Monday morning, it ended the week on a negative downer on what was otherwise a successful foray.
The Super Bowl rotation is set for the next three years. After that, it’s a jump ball. Talking with executives, common themes emerged: They really miss Miami and San Diego; love New Orleans; expect Minnesota to get an opportunity with a new venue; probably Indianapolis again; and most would love to see the game get to Los Angeles. All Super Bowl cities have one issue or another; the tempered success of NY/NJ likely made owners more amenable to new sites. To me, NY/NJ looked really good early on for a quick return visit; they rode lady luck all week until a failure to execute on Sunday.
> STATE OF THE NFL: At a group dinner during Super Bowl week, a number of us went around the table predicting what type of questions Roger Goodell would face during his annual state of the league address. There were the obvious — future Super Bowl rotation, the open Los Angeles market, concussion lawsuit, player safety and challenging playoff ticket sales. It went according to script, there weren’t any surprises and that reflects the state of the league right now. With labor peace locked in, media deals mostly done and the concussion issue nudged to the back burner for now, the league’s in a safe place. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting left when the commissioner’s major questions are on playoff expansion, a code of conduct, on-field replay, a team’s nickname and assorted other manageable issues.
The in-venue experience needs innovation, and when it comes to growth, I was interested in the number of questions, as many as four, about NFL expansion globally. That’s an issue I’ll continue to play close attention to. I do think the London games will get a jolt this year when Fox televises its Lions-Falcons game Oct. 26, with the major difference being it will be in its own 9:30 a.m. ET window in the U.S. — live at 1:30 p.m. in the U.K. That Sunday will start with a rare, early morning NFL time slot in the U.S. and will elevate attention around the game.
Jets House was home base for fans, partners in NYC.
Photo by:JOSE REY / NEW YORK JETS
> FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This feeds into another space I’m watching: the continued nexus between sports and food. I’m seeing more sophistication with event marketing outside the traditional food companies. It’s been done successfully for years at the excellent Taste of the NFL event, and I see a trend of building on some of the popular food and wine festivals all over the country. Consumers know and understand food concepts better than ever — thanks, Food Network. People’s food experiences and expectations have changed, and they want higher-quality, more diverse food offerings in unique settings.
I met up with Sweet, who is out front on some new concepts with The Connect Group. He put on the 50 Yard Lounge, which was adjacent to Jets House. Sweet brought in 83 New York City chefs and restaurants and created different environments all week across genres and cuisines. “I wanted to do something different,” he said. “Tied around better food, with a comfortable feel connected to sports and music.” The key is the food experience. “Not everyone’s a die-hard sports fan, but everyone loves food,” he said. “There is a passion to both food and sports, and this emotional tie to food is now a big selling point.”
The concept is still a work in progress, but the ability to bring in celebrity and local chefs and farm-to-table concepts, and tie them into sports events and properties, is a valuable sales proposition appealing to a more diverse base, including women and families.
Sweet acknowledged this is a gradual process. “It’s not easy,” he conceded. “These were long days. We opened at 10 a.m. and went to 2 a.m., so maybe we were open a bit too long. It’s hard work. You also really need the marketing message to be strategic and correct — a quality event around flawless food and sports. But it can really be special.”
Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.