Saturday, 14 February 2015 00:00
Faster, higher, stronger: progress is hard-wired in to the Olympic ideal. So it follows that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has unanimously agreed a new "'strategic roadmap" to carry the Olympic Games forward through the 21st century.
The Agenda 2020 initiative put forward by IOC President Thomas Bach in December 2014 included forty (20+20) "recommendations". Their aim being better promoting the Games and Olympism, particularly to youth, strengthening the role of athletes, good governance, ethics, and reform of the IOC.
These recommendations have garnered considerable column inches. The media had generally focused on a handful of the recommendations including: the addition of protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation to the Olympic Charter (Recommendation 14); the potential for multi-city or even multi-country bids to host the Games (Recommendation 1); and a change in emphasis in the sports programme with the removal of the 28 sport cap for the Summer Games but instead limiting the number of events and participants (Recommendations 9 and 10).
However, very little has been written about the impact that implementation of some of the recommendations will have on commercial rights and use of the Olympic brand. Some of these recommendations are relatively subtle and simply follow what Organising Committees of the Olympic Games (OCOGs) have already been doing.
Others, like the proposal for an "Olympic Channel" could, however, have as profound an impact as the introduction of the IOC "TOP" global sponsorship programme did in 1985. The latter is now a $1billion per quadrennial programme which supports the Olympic Movement and provides a worldwide marketing platform for the 10 TOP sponsors.
An observation before looking more closely at these commercially-focused recommendations: while the focus of the media reports may be elsewhere, the identity of the individuals chosen to lead the relevant IOC Working Groups suggests that these issues were far from peripheral in the eyes of the IOC. The Working Group dedicated to the Olympic Channel was chaired by President Bach himself.
President Bach's recommendation to launch an Olympic Channel is ambitious, but frankly obvious, and probably essential if the IOC is to achieve its aim of better engaging with youth and securing the future of the movement. The Channel will not be alone in this space, with others already ahead of the game. The International World Games Association launched a YouTube channel last year and SportAccord aired its "Sports United" joint venture with Euronews in January. However, compared with the Olympic Channel's aspirations, these are relatively small fry. The proposals suggest the Olympic Channel will be far more commercial, with a budget of over half a million dollars for its first seven years. So what will this investment produce?
It is not proposed that the Olympic Channel will carry live coverage of the Games - the rights holding broadcasters (RHBs) have invested very considerable sums for the exclusive broadcast rights and would have something to say about that. Instead the content will be historic, including previous Games footage, educational, and promotional, highlighting "Olympism in Action", for example. It is also proposed that coverage of Olympic Sports which don't otherwise have a broadcast platform could be featured, making the channel the "home of Olympic Sport". The intention is to give Olympic fans the opportunity to engage with Olympic Sport 365 days a year, rather than 16 days once each quadrennial.
While this sounds great, there will be significant challenges. Lawyers will have to carefully examine the extent of the exclusivity already granted to RHBs and, if not managed carefully, RHB's may feel their investment is threatened by the Channel. The IOC's sponsorship model will also have to be considered in a new light: the Olympic Games famously provide "clean" venues, free of advertising. Even the IOC website remains advert-free for now.
But it appears that this approach will not be taken with the Olympic Channel. There are indications that the Channel could be a platform for TOP sponsors to air branded content about their activations, as well as being offered regular commercial slots. But will the IOC accept advertising from outside the TOP family?
At the moment it appears the Olympic Channel will be a single global platform. Will OCOG or National Olympic Committee (NOC) sponsors, who are normally restricted to domestic visibility in the host/home country, be given any opportunities to advertise on the channel? And if carrying coverage of other events to promote Olympic Sports outside the Games, how will the IOC deal with the sponsors of such events?
Will TOP sponsors accept that their competitors, perhaps paying relatively small fees to become title sponsors of a minority sport event, could gain global profile on the "Olympic Channel"?
Recommendation 34 states that the IOC will develop a global licensing programme. This will cover an "Olympic Collection (five-rings plus vision value message), Olympic Heritage Collection (previous Games editions), and Olympic Games Programmes (future Games editions)". This sounds uncontroversial and the purists will be pleased with the emphasis "on promotion rather than on revenue generation".
However, OCOGs and NOCs which currently run their own domestic licensing programmes will no doubt be wondering what impact a global programme will have on their sales. This will also be of great interest to sportswear brands, such as Adidas and Nike which sponsor NOCs, with the view not only of gaining an association with the Olympic team but also to selling Olympic-branded products to the general public.
Sponsors may also raise their eyebrows at Recommendation 36: "Extend access to the Olympic brand for non-commercial use". Listed in the Recommendations without further explanation, this appears to be a fairly cavalier approach. However the IOC's "Context and Background" document does contain caveats which may offer some comfort:
"- Prioritise non-commercial use/entities, based on contribution to the Olympic Movement/Olympic Games.
- Maintain balance between inclusiveness and integrity of the brand, to avoid fragmentation of the brand message.
- Continue to protect TOP Partners against ambush and unauthorised use of Olympic IP."
Recent OCOGs have successfully established non-commercial licensing programmes, such as the London 2012 Inspire Mark. This was a variation of the London 2012 logo, without the Olympic rings, which was granted to non-commercial entities running sport, social and cultural projects which were inspired by the Games and promoted the Olympic values. The Inspire Mark is quoted as a possible model for adoption by the IOC.
However, no mention is made of the detailed vetting, licensing and approval processes which London 2012 undertook to ensure that there were no sponsor conflicts or misuse of the brand. Current sponsors of the Olympic Movement will be keen to ensure that such rigour is maintained.
Other Recommendations emerging from the Working Group on "Strategic review of sponsorship, licensing and merchandising" seeks to help NOCs with their marketing efforts and their domestic team sponsorships. They also seek to encourage TOPs to engage with NOCs and to promote Olympism at the local level. Such recommendations emphasise that TOPs are more than simply sponsors; they are "The Olympic Partners".
Finally, it is worth returning to Recommendation 1 and considering the impact of the Games being hosted in multiple cities, or even multiple countries. The Recommendation appears to recognise that there will always be a primary "host city" but provides for the involvement of other cities or "in exceptional cases" other countries (although only for geographical or sustainability reasons).
It seems inevitable that the IOC will demand the same standards and guarantees from all Local, State and Federal Governments that are involved. One such guarantee relates to the protection of the Olympic brand and the prevention of ambush marketing. This has led to the passing of specific legislation in the host countries of past Games, such as the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 in the UK, and the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act 2007 in Canada ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games.
Passing and implementing such legislation is no simple matter. For example, the introduction of detailed legislation to protect against ambush marketing at Rio 2016 has been delayed by the political landscape of Brazil.
The idea of having to go through the same process for two countries, ensuring consistency in law and enforcement, is a challenge which will no doubt give the IOC and future OCOG lawyers a headache. Parliamentary scrutiny in democratic countries means that even if two co-operating Governments sought to ensure similar provisions were initially proposed, they are ultimately likely to end up with significant differences in law.
Sponsors may be happy to accept a degree of inconsistency, provided the same fundamental protection is in place. However, there is a concern that doubling the legislative burden could simply deter these special measures entirely.
Interestingly, despite UEFA's demands for protection to be in place for football's Euro Championships in 2020, the multi-city/country model for that event - it will be hosted in 13 cities across Europe - has perhaps led to a dilution in protection. For example, there is no promise from the UK Government to implement anti-ambush legislation when it hosts the semi-finals and finals of the competition in London. Would a dual-country Olympic Games suffer the same fate?
So, while the focus of the media reports may be elsewhere, sponsors, broadcasters and those interested in commercial rights issues should watch with keen interest how these recommendations are implemented. Like an athlete in training though, the challenges and hard work that the recommendations will necessitate will surely have positive results in the long run.
Alex Kelham is the head of Lewis Silkin's Sports Group, where she helps clients focus on managing, exploiting and protecting their commercial rights. She was previously the senior lawyer for brand protection at London 2012. A former swimmer, she won a gold medal and two silvers at the 1994 Commonwealth Games for England at Victoria 1994.