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Volume 21 No. 1
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Beyond London: Building on Olympic fan, sponsor interest

As the London 2012 Games get under way, the thoughts of most fans are likely on the athletes and the competition. However, many working in sports were already thinking beyond London.

We know staffs at Olympic committees around the world are revising their plans for Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016 for both existing elite athletes and for the development of new Olympians.

In Canada, Christopher Overholt, CEO and secretary general of the Canadian Olympic Committee, has a number of things on his plate. First, he is dealing with the post-Olympic reality that accompanied Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Winter Games. Second, he has to ensure Canada continues to perform in the medal count like it did in British Columbia. And finally, but not solely, Overholt must play a role in determining whether Canada should bid again to host the Olympics either in Toronto (summer) or Quebec City (winter).

Overholt, whose career in professional sports has included senior positions with the Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and Toronto Raptors, began his work with the COC about a year ago. We asked him about the challenge of leading a national organization at such a crossroads.

“When we all arrived here together, I saw it as a very unique opportunity, where Vancouver was the platform from which we could build a new and different architecture for Canada’s Olympic future that perhaps didn’t exist before,” Overholt said. “We could focus our attention on our athletes and their stories due to the heightened profile they’d built in Vancouver. Most importantly, though, we wanted to construct a platform that brought attention to our Olympic athletes 365 days a year, not just in the immediate vicinity of the Games.”

Among the COC’s first moves was to adopt a professional sports view of the world. Although some in the Canadian press believed this was too slick for

Olympic sports, Overholt’s core executive team did not.

“Our focus needed to be different,” he said. “We immediately began to focus on how we are known to Canadians, the emotional connection they have with the COC. We did research and observed, learning that this emotional connection was through the athletes. Our brand is the Canadian Olympic team, and the heart of our brand is the athletes. But following the Vancouver Games, we started to look at this new brand, and we moved to a Canadian team [trade] mark that was a mosaic of our athletes. This was a tactical decision to change how we portrayed ourselves to Canadians, to consumers and to our partners.”

We asked what specific tactics were undertaken to implement this shift.

“We looked at the connection points to people through the Games and looked for ways to remove the times between Games where we have little or no impact,” he said. “We do this in two ways. First, with help from partners, you have to identify platforms that your partners can attach to. Based on our research, we started to focus on things like innovation and the
‘higher, stronger, faster’ motto. We also started to talk about health and wellness and how sport and Olympics can aid that. We also focused on aspects of sustainability. Vancouver set the standard for a carbon-neutral Games, which we knew was important to consumers and, more importantly, to our athletes.”

The COCs recently launched “Give Your Everything” campaign focuses specifically on athletes.

“Second,” Overholt said, “we looked at our event schedule. I drew on my experience with the NFL, which used to be about just the schedule and the Super Bowl, but now they’ve built it

out to include ongoing interest and properties like the spring combine and the draft. We followed this model and are seeking to build our own platforms outside of the Games. ”

The key, as Overholt’s previous experiences have shown, is to fill the calendar and make the COC a platform that holds

constant interest.

The current marketing and branding efforts are built around the athletes and provide knowledge about them by telling their stories. Overholt describes the effort as “showing Canadians what it means to be an Olympian” by communicating the time,

Overholt says the COC’s campaign tells athlete stories by “showing Canadians what it means to be an Olympian.”
effort and support needed be athlete. He also described the implementation strategy, which includes a filmmaker, video and social media experts, a vastly enhanced interactive website, and direct athlete involvement. He spoke of the COC’s desire to maintain a professional sport acumen and build strength and relevance.

Is it working?

Overholt pointed to an aggressive promotion at a subway station in Toronto that recently generated 8 million impressions, at a rate of 1 million per week. The COC’s Hall of Fame Gala in 2011 raised $2.1 million and, in the past year, its YouTube viewership has gone from less than 2,000 to more than 130,000. The current athlete-based marketing campaign has generated a 96 percent increase in Web traffic, nearly 300 million impressions, a Twitter reach of more than 11 million, and nearly 200,000 Facebook likes.

Overholt was quiet on the COC’s future plans on Olympic bids but he did note Canada’s solid reputation in the Olympic movement to deliver great Games. Our view is that the COC would be mistaken to not bid aggressively on future Summer and Winter Games given this reputation, his strategy, and the obvious benefits that have resulted.

Overholt would say his work is far from finished. Regardless of Canada’s performance in London and the outcome of Olympic host bidding, his squad is determined to change the dynamic of the “every four years” mentality.

Rick Burton ( is the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and was chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee. Norm O’Reilly ( is an associate professor of sport business at the University of Ottawa and was a volunteer board member of the Canadian Olympic Committee from 1998-2004.