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Volume 21 No. 6


International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach believes the Olympics’ struggle to attract host cities is the result of populist revolt against major social institutions — namely, governments, business groups and political parties — that typically drive bids.

New IOC executive Rebecca Lowell Edwards.
But few entities on earth are more “institutional” than the IOC itself. It’s a Swiss bureaucracy comprising global business elites, career administrators and, in some cases, actual royalty. It’s seen as aloof and slow to react to a changing world, and in a commissioned review in July, the International Institute for Management Development cited “improved communication and transparency” as a key suggestion for how the IOC can better lead global sports.
Enter Rebecca Lowell Edwards, an American who joined the IOC this summer as its first strategic communications director.

She’s the only American at that level or above at the organization — and possibly the first ever, or at least the first anyone can remember. A former Wall Street Journal reporter who most recently was chief communications officer at GE Oil & Gas, Edwards started June 1 as the top protector of the IOC and the Olympics’ worldwide brand.

Edwards knows the IOC must make itself seem more human and less of an institution, even if it can’t do much about the broader populist forces Bach talks about.

“I think there’s a realization now that it’s actually more powerful if you can help people understand that your organization is composed of other people — other humans who live next door to you, who may go to your church, who may have kids in the same school as yours,” said Edwards, who was found in 2016 by search firm Egon Zehnder after the position had been posted for more than a year. “If we can help people see the individuals and humans behind the movement, there’s great potential there.”

That happens naturally during the Games, when Olympians themselves take center stage rather than the business types and politicians behind them. That’s led to the dichotomy of the Olympic brand, one that evokes the highest ideals of humanity while at the same time standing for all that’s wrong with global politics and international sport.
“You already see it with athletes, and that’s probably why there’s this overwhelming positive feeling when the Games are on, and all these other topics fall to the background,” Edwards said. “Because you see the people, and the emotion and the values right in front of you, and that’s a really powerful thing.”

But how to accomplish this with the Swiss nonprofit that owns the Games? It’s not just image. The IOC is what it is. Bach really does live in a five-star hotel overlooking Lake Geneva. Executive board members, nominally volunteers, really do receive $900 in per diems while on official business, with the rank-and-file getting $450. On Aug. 11, the city of Los Angeles agreed to guarantee a $5.3 billion budget for the IOC’s largest event, the 2028 Summer Games, for which the IOC will have limited direct liability.

Edwards says it’s about breaking down the big body into its core components. Institutions are opaque and hard to understand, but people have stories.

She started to point to the White House as an example and then backed off that as she considered President Donald Trump’s tumultuous administration. But it’s not totally off base — rarely has there been a president more plainly human than Trump, and his connection with his voters is very personal. Barack Obama’s staff cultivated that notion, too, by having him discuss his March Madness picks on ESPN and regularly distributing slice-of-life photos around the White House.

But is the IOC ready to become humanized? It may be hard to imagine, given how IOC media relations goes to great lengths to shield its members from reporter access and deals in language more appropriate to international diplomacy than direct consumer messaging.

Edwards thinks it is.

“I haven’t met all of [the members], but the ones I’ve met are natural storytellers,” she said, citing as an example New Zealand member Barry Maister, an educator and 1976 gold-medal field hockey player. “He’s a natural storyteller. He already does it, but he is ready to do it more in harmony with other members on other sides of the world. At least the members I’ve met so far are not shy and they all have great individual stories to tell.”

Edwards, 44, will also oversee media relations, though veteran IOC spokesman Mark Adams continues on in an independent “president’s spokesman” role that makes him akin to the White House press secretary.

Media relations is an area with room for improvement. In May, InsidetheGames reporter Nick Butler wrote a column building a case that much of the IOC’s image problems are self-inflicted. The IOC has a habit, he wrote, of not defending itself, allowing other groups to define it in the public eye, and when it does speak, to speak so vaguely and bureaucratically that it means nothing. “It can certainly be argued that the biggest problem for the IOC during the Bach era has not necessarily been the basic decisions themselves, but the way in which they were presented,” Butler wrote.

As a former journalist, Edwards said, her instincts are to comment rather than not comment. But she cautions that sometimes silence is the right call. “There are places where it’s not our role to drive conversation,” she said. Due to the Olympic movement’s decentralized nature, much of what looks like IOC matters are actually the purview of international sport federations, anti-doping agencies or local organizing committees.

But, she notes, the IOC is a leader and funder of sports worldwide, which imposes obligations even if the scandals and other problems aren’t directly an IOC matter.

“I don’t know if I’d say we have to develop thick skin, but you can’t be afraid to get into the conversations,” she said. “It’s only natural for a leader like the IOC to be brought into the conversation where leadership is needed.”

The Olympic Channel turns one year old today, and like a human of the same age, it’s accomplished much but still must look to the future for the real payoff. In the meantime, it’s costing its parents a lot of money.

Launched as a website and app at the end of the Rio Games, the Olympic Channel has spent the last 12 months aggressively developing content, obtaining rights to dozens of sports and laying the groundwork for linear programming in key markets. On July 15, it took a major step by launching the U.S. cable version, then added linear programming on Eurosport stations on Aug. 2, and is planning a Chinese channel launch at some point in 2018.

“For us it’s a sprint over a marathon right now, and we’ve been running as fast as we can,” said General Manager Mark Parkman. “I think what we’ve done in the first year is establish the Olympic Channel as a place that people can find very interesting, thought-provoking and useful content.”

He boasts the channel has created 6,000 pieces of original content, aired more than 500 live events, expanded to 11 languages and has developed series in 22 different countries. It has 6 million followers on social media, more than 76 percent of them under 35.

While the input has been strong, the output — in terms of deliverable audience and revenue — has been slower to develop. So far, the IOC has sold three “founding partner” sponsorships to Bridgestone, Alibaba and Toyota, just half of the original target of six.

“I think the major headwind at the beginning was we were talking about something that didn’t exist,” said Timo Lumme, IOC managing director of television and marketing services, in a July interview. “Now we’re talking about a toddler that’s 10 months old. It can’t walk yet, but it’s grabbing at the chair legs and trying to hold itself up. We’re moving as fast as we can, in developing and growing up and building the model out.”

After getting IOC approval in 2014, the Olympic Channel has been staked to a $575 million startup budget, offset in part by a $100 million signing bonus agreed to by NBCUniversal in its $7.75 billion rights deal in 2014.

Yiannis Exarchos, Olympic Channel Services CEO, hosts IOC President Thomas Bach.
It’s not expected to sustain itself for another six years, said Yiannis Exarchos, Olympic Channel Services CEO. According to IOC financial reports, the body spent $75 million in 2015 and 2016 as it hired nearly 100 staffers and began developing content.

Global IOC sponsor Bridgestone bought one of the founding partnerships with the Olympic Channel, and has run ads on the site and sponsored original branded content such as the series “Against All Odds.”

Michael Fluck, Bridgestone’s senior director of digital marketing and strategy, said the channel is conceptually a major extension of Bridgestone’s Olympic rights because it truly covers the globe in ways a particular Games or national Olympic committee sponsorship does not.

But the impressions are a work in progress, he said.

“It’s growing,” Fluck said of the audience. “Frankly as a marketer, I wish it was higher. I wish there had been an opportunity to launch during Rio rather than post Rio. It’s trending in the right direction.”

The channel is at the forefront of two strategic imperatives for the IOC: reestablishing Olympic passion among youth and increasing the value of Olympic sponsorships.

NBCUniversal, the single largest source of revenue for the IOC, has rights locked up through 2032, meaning the IOC must look elsewhere for rapid revenue growth in the coming years. To pick up the slack, the IOC hopes to engineer great leaps in sponsorship revenue, and must develop more assets that fill in the long gaps between the Games to justify the price increases. After 2020, Lumme said, they expect to include the channel in all global sponsorships.
Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics and Business, expressed a similar desire while discussing ad sales for the new channel, which launched July 15 in just above 36 million U.S. homes. (It is not rated.) As the channel gets established, Zenkel hopes Olympic sponsors “will see this is in fact the opportunity they’ve been asking us for for years, which is the chance to extend their Olympic activation beyond that Olympic window.”

NBC’s Gary Zenkel, the IOC’s Mark Parkman, NBC’s Mike Tirico, the USOC’s Lisa Baird and NBC’s Jim Bell promote the launch of the U.S. linear channel in July.
NBC is in charge of selling the linear channel, which is a joint venture with equity contributions from the USOC and the IOC. The linear channels are a key part of the initiative’s overall revenue goals, and officials hope the cable station can drive viewership to the Olympic Games broadcasts starting with the Pyeongchang Winter Games in February.
But Exarchos said it’s a mistake to measure the channel only by how it augments the Games themselves — it’s meant to extend the brand 365 days a year. For instance, the Chinese version is expected to go live in 2018 but probably not in time for the Pyeongchang Games. Distribution and depth of programming are more important, he said.

In its first year, executives in the channel’s Spain headquarters discovered an opportunity they hadn’t accounted for in planning, Parkman said: back-end services for international sports federations. For instance, the Olympic Channel is providing a video streaming platform to United World Wrestling, and also is helping federations digitize their video archives. Those won’t generate revenue, but it does add more distribution by getting Olympic Channel coverage onto more platforms. It’s another example of the channel’s vast mission: to help the Olympics, dozens of sports and national Olympic teams reach consumers with endless competing options for their attention.

“It’s been an incredible adventure,” Parkman said. “Because there’s never enough time in the day, because we’re always trying to create new things, explore new ideas, find ways to get more distribution and viewership.”

Conventional wisdom holds that corporate America is lukewarm to the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, but one indicator suggests that interest hasn’t fallen off too dramatically.

According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, the number of non-sponsor brands seeking permission to use Olympians in winter campaigns declined by two-thirds from Rio 2016. The total number of campaigns submitted for approval declined by 80 percent, and the number of athletes affected is down by two-thirds.

Though large, those decreases appear less dramatic in the context of the smaller scope of the Winter Games, which will involve a U.S. contingent of about 230 athletes, roughly 60 percent smaller than the 558-person-strong Rio team.

“Remarkably, the number correlated exactly to the size of the Games and the delegation,” said USOC Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird. “Which, by the way, I wouldn’t have expected.”

For the second time, the International Olympic Committee will allow non-sponsors to use Olympians during the Games, a relaxation of hard-line prohibitions that existed prior to 2016. Companies had to seek advance approval of their campaigns from the USOC by Aug. 1, giving the body an advance look at overall market interest.

As during the Rio run-up, Baird declined to disclose the precise number of advertisers seeking waivers to the IOC Charter Rule 40, which imposes a ban on athletes in non-sponsor advertisements.

The IOC and USOC did not make any changes to the rules dictating how marketers must qualify for the waivers, which are granted on the condition that campaigns are “in market” by Oct. 1 and do not specifically reference the Olympics. Review of the applications is ongoing.

Official sponsors closely watched the trial run in 2016 for evidence that the IOC and USOC were effectively sanctioning an ambush. But while several USOC sponsors declined to renew after Rio, none cited the waivers as a primary driver of their decision. Baird said she believes the USOC was able to permit existing athlete sponsorship arrangements to continue during the Games without undermining official partners.

“We’re pretty confident what we have works,” she said.

Most industry experts say the real stress test for the waiver system will come in the Tokyo 2020 cycle, when interest will peak and brands will have had more time to study the implications of the rules.