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Volume 20 No. 42
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Marketers seek momentum in Olympic buildup

The Olympic marketing machine faces an uphill battle to draw the world’s attention to Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February as it revs up this fall.

Despite evidence that ticket sales and corporate interest are depressed compared with prior Winter Games, Korean organizers, the U.S. Olympic Committee and NBC Sports believe the Olympics ultimately will live up to their track record as the overwhelming focus of global attention.

“Yes, it has been slow to date, but I think you’re going to see momentum build starting now,” said USOC Chief Marketing Officer Lisa Baird, speaking during the pre-Olympics media summit Sept. 25 in Park City, Utah, an event meant to facilitate nationwide advance news coverage by giving reporters extensive access to scores of athletes and officials at one time. Earlier, she said, “That’s why we’re here.”

The Winter Olympics are always a smaller show than its older summer sibling, and its spot on the calendar immediately following the Super Bowl is never easy. But this year, there’s reason for extra concern: a comparatively little-known host city in a small country, the NHL’s decision to not halt its season for the Games, and competition for headlines from unrelated political and world news.

Biathlete Susan Dunklee poses for a photo during the Team USA media summit.
Stateside, NBC Sports CMO Jennifer Storms says the process of building an audience for the Games is ahead of schedule, thanks in part to the July launch of the linear Olympic Channel — a joint venture with the USOC and International Olympic Committee — and an aggressive social-digital campaign introducing the probable American star athletes to the market earlier than usual.

Also, she notes, the most serious concerns revolve around the in-person side of the Games, a secondary concern to sponsors, advertisers and athletes hoping to become marketing stars.

“I’ve never received any feedback where I thought people weren’t excited about the Games in Korea,” Storms said. “What I’m hearing is given the location, there might be some logistical challenges with people getting places and being able to attend. But from our perspective, all of the data we’ve been getting, on awareness and intention [to view], it’s all pointing in the right direction.”

Sponsors may not be so certain. Athlete agents last week widely agreed that brand activations — in terms of signing athlete endorsers and developing campaigns — are, at a minimum, late-developing.

In Korea, ticket sales are sluggish, with about 315,000 of 1.18 million tickets sold so far. Plane tickets into Seoul during the Olympics period remain plentiful. Also, USOC Chief Executive Officer Scott Blackmun has acknowledged that in-country sponsorship activity will probably fall short of prior Games, and NBC will be running its VIP hospitality program in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in light of the limited elite hotel inventory.

Korean organizers have not abandoned their stated goal of selling 90 percent, or 1.07 million, of the total inventory. Last week, Pyeongchang 2018 Executive Vice President Jaeyoul Kim said they expect international travel interest to grow once athletes start officially qualifying, and spokeswoman Nancy Park said the torch relay and associated cultural events that start later this month will generate domestic buzz. But Park acknowledged the committee has been in contact with the IOC about possibly relaxing the usual ticketing protocol that draws a bright line between international and domestic Korean ticket availability. On Sept. 28, the Korea Federation of Banks took the extraordinary step of buying $874,000 worth of tickets.

Baird said the USOC has been working with authorized U.S. ticket seller CoSport to create new ticket packages to lure late American buyers. Blackmun said the USOC’s philanthropic donors have been very interested in attending, though he agreed that appropriate accommodations are in short supply.

During an appearance at the USOC’s media summit, Pyeongchang representatives addressed the ongoing nuclear tensions with North Korea head-on, promising the Games would be safe. Other parts of the Olympic movement have also tried to tamp down security concerns — after the French Olympic Committee suggested it might not attend if security could not be guaranteed, the U.S. and Japanese Olympic teams quickly issued statements promising they’d be there.

On the television front, Storms said NBC has turned to social media to begin creating stars out of the relatively anonymous Olympians earlier than in the past. Then, when the serious push to promote the Games begins on the “Today” show at the 100-day-out milestone on Nov. 1, the Team USA personalities will already be familiar. This could be even more important without already-familiar NHL stars to work with.

“What we recognized coming out of Rio is that showing the journey the athletes take from the ordinary life to the extraordinary life, and back again, was something we had to seed very early,” Storms said.