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Volume 20 No. 46
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Non-sponsors’ interest in using Pyeongchang athletes seen as a positive sign by USOC

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.