Are the Olympics Too Ambitious? – by John A. Davis

Mountain in Sochi

photo credit: Atos via Flickr cc

If I were to suggest to you that the best way to raise your visibility and improve your brand image would be to simply attract and then coordinate the activities of 30,000+ volunteers you have never met before, persuade dozens of government agencies and global companies you have never dealt with before, plan for how to avoid political corruption and protests on a global scale, invest a trifle $50 billion in new facilities and infrastructure, and (by the way) do this in front of a global audience of 3 billion, you might think I was crazy. Yet these are part of what Russia (and the non-winter city of Sochi) undertook when it won the right to host the 2014 Games. Add to this the threats of terrorism, the culling of wild dog populations, incomplete hotel facilities and, cruelly, a lack of snow and you have the makings of a global media event designed to enhance brand value. Or erode it. Or both.

So a reasonable person might ask, have the modern Olympics become too ambitious? After all, think about the many different audiences today’s Olympic Host Cities must appeal to: TV viewers around the world (or, at least, in those parts of the world where people are familiar with snow); companies seeking broad exposure; their own citizens; and, of course, the athletes themselves.

At their core, the Olympics are for and about the athletes. Or, at least they should be. A brief review of history will show that the Ancient Greeks revered the Olympics and victorious Olympians. Their success conferred an exalted status on them, transforming them into proper icons and role models. Today, the athletes are still the primary focal point of the Olympics. The advent of modern communications, from television a few decades ago to digital media today, has enabled the Olympics to reach a global audience of billions. Athletes are popular not just because fans in their country of origin love them, but because their level of excellence in their chosen sport has attracted fans from around the world. This has attracted companies that want to sponsor the Olympics, and the athletes, in the belief that such support will give sponsors positive association benefits. In effect, the intent of sponsorship is to transfer the goodwill from the Olympic athletes, and the Games themselves, to the company so that you and I perceive these companies more favorably. For those companies that are long-term sponsors, such as several of the TOP (The Olympic Partners) program companies, this has worked well. At the same time, the expansion of global communications means that host cities also want to leverage their Olympic investments to elevate their reputation on the world stage. In Russia’s case, this investment is over $50 billion, although it appears that not all of that money went into infrastructure investments.

Given the growth of the Olympics as a global phenomenon, and the concurrent increase in investment, one can reasonably question whether the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ought to consider revamping their model to reduce complexity and costs while still ensuring the Olympics maintain their status as the world’s premier sports event. For example, should the IOC select two permanent sites, one for the Summer Olympics and the other for the Winter Olympics? This would alleviate the burden on future host cities and reduce the frenzy associated with candidate host city bids. It would compel the IOC to consider the environmental impact of the permanent homes, the political implications (and how to more effectively prepare for the inevitable protests that will still occur), as well as the long-term economic model implied by having two permanent Olympic sites, which are three critical areas that confront Olympic organisers every four years currently. However, it would create a different set of organizational challenges linked to funding and the administration of the Games (tasks currently handled by each host city’s OCOG, or Organising Committee for the Olympic Games); it would also diminish the variety and sense of newness that comes with a different host city for each Games; it would perhaps significantly impact sponsor revenues; and it might also reduce fan interest. If sponsors’ interest diminishes, then that would affect the participation of the majority of countries that currently send athletes to the Olympics since much of their funding support comes directly from sponsorship revenues.

What is ahead for the modern Olympics? I wish I had the answer. As a true fan of the Olympics, I want them to succeed not just for my own enjoyment, but for future generations, forever. I marvel at the commitment and dedication of the athletes that are fortunate enough to qualify, let alone medal, in the Olympics. I love the emotion of the athletes’ stories, and the sense of discovery that comes from learning about each new host city. I thrive on the energy and sense of renewal that each Olympics brings. And I deeply admire the Olympic Values, including the striving for honest excellence and the sense of international friendship and cooperation that the Olympic Games inspires.  The Olympics are indeed a force for good, even despite the sniping and criticisms that surface every four years. It’s easy to criticize, and much harder to offer solutions for improvement. But I do think it is time for the IOC to plan for how to improve the Olympics for next 100 years, to make them even better.

John A. Davis, Dean-Global MBA and Master of Global Business, Professor of Marketing SP Jain School of Global Management, Dubai-Singapore-Sydney

John Davis photoCurrently, John is Dean-Global MBA & Master of Global Business and Professor of Marketing at SP Jain, which was ranked #19 International MBA program in the world by Forbes Magazine. His career spans the academic and business worlds. He has spoken around the world at top conferences, including TEDx, GlobalBrandForum, and the World Knowledge Forum. He is the best-selling author of eight business and marketing books, translated into multiple languages, including: Sports Marketing: Creating Long Term Value.

Prior to SP Jain, John was a member of the faculty and served as Interim Department Chair at the Lundquist College of Business at the University of Oregon, where he received the BAC Teaching Award. He was honored as the ‘Best Professor of Marketing’ by Asia’s Best B-School Awards and ‘The Most Inspiring Teacher’ as a Professor at Singapore Management University. He also teaches at the International Olympic Academy in Greece and in executive education programs with faculty from University of Chicago, INSEAD, Emory, Wharton, Munich Business School, and the European Business School for many of the world’s most respected companies.

Before academia John led national and global marketing organizations within Fortune 1000 companies including: Nike, Informix, and Transamerica, and was an award-winning entrepreneur. He is regularly interviewed by global media including: CNBC, BBC, MSNBC, ChannelNews Asia, Bloomberg, New York Times, and more. John is Chairman of Brand New View, a firm that provides strategic advice to senior executives, and he is a member of the board of several ventures.

Sports Marketing textbook cover


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