The approaching Olympics means it’s stress time for sports marketing sponsors

by | Jun 25, 2024 | Marketing, Public Relations

Many of the world’s best warm-weather athletes will soon compete for the gold in the Paris 2024 Olympics, which will begin on July 26. So will sports marketing sponsors that are spending millions of dollars to become official Olympic sponsors of “this and that” or “that and this,” hoping that their investments will result in enough sales around the world to justify their investments.

But based on the less-than-celebratory happenings at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in 2014, the ongoing doping charges against Russian athletes, the controversy of holding the Olympics in Japan during the pandemic, and the threat of boycotting this year’s Paris Summer Games by countries opposed to the International Olympic Committee’s decision to permit Russian and Belarus athletes to compete, sports marketing sponsors should be prepared for negative media regarding their bankrolling of what is arguably the sporting world’s most controversial mega-sporting event.

People who make the decisions to spend millions of dollars on sports sponsorships often refuse to accept that times have changed 

Sport departments at media outlets are no longer considered “toy departments.” The old sports writer’s credo that “if it doesn’t happen on the playing field, it’s not a sports story” no longer applies. Today the misbehavior of athletes is a story regardless of where the unsportsmanlike conduct occurs and who the athlete is. The entities that produce the events and the sports marketing sponsors that bankroll them are also targets of a media that cover the sport scene like the big business it is. And of all the mega-sporting events the Olympic Games is the clear gold medal winner in attracting negative media coverage.

Many stories associated with the Olympics are better suited for police blotter reports than for sports coverage

But that actuality is largely ignored as public relations and advertising agencies push clients to align with sporting events, despite the fact that more targeted promotions might produce better results I’ve always felt that an important reason for public relations agencies advocating for sports tie-ins is because it doesn’t take much creativity to craft a publicity-oriented program around an event that automatically will be covered by the media. 

It’s what I label “doing what’s best for the agency, not doing what’s best for the client.”

For the ad business, having a client tie-in with a mega-sporting event means a continuous stream of TV commercials revenue.

When recommending an Olympic tie-in to clients, the ethical public relations and ad agency should remind clients that the Olympic Games are a magnet for bad publicity and that protests have caused sponsors to cancel or cut short their long-planned promotions. They should remind clients that in 2014 negative stories about the Sochi Olympics were part of the news budget before, during and after the game’s conclusion and that Putin’s anti-gay laws made headlines for weeks in all media outlets, resulting in long-planned brand promotional plans to be curtailed because of the outcries against Russia’s policies. With the International Olympic Committee again ignoring the political and social situations in countries that are awarded the games, there’s always the possibility of history repeating,

Thus far, the news about the Paris games has been largely negative

The opening ceremony has been scaled back because of terrorism threats. Stories about countries threatening to boycott the games because of the IOC’s decision that Russian and Belarus athletes can compete, articles about bribery in awarding contracts and threatened labor strikes have dominated media coverage. Missing is what sponsors hope for—positive earned media stories about their participation.

Corporations that normally try to avoid being involved in controversial political and social issues have been and again can become part of the story as they did during the Sochi Olympics and the Covid-19 Olympics in Tokyo and numerous other Olympics in totalitarian countries before those.

Because controversy is now a frequent element of the sports scene, public relations agencies should advise clients that the old sports marketing play book can not solely be relied upon to produce positive results and that new thinking should be considered.

Here’s what public relations agencies and sports marketing sponsors should consider:

  • When divvying up their budgets marketers should consider that the media no longer covers up the transgressions of once untouchable mega-stars and that major sport organizations are under constant media scrutiny.
  • Companies should always demand that their agencies suggest other more targeted advertising and publicity possibilities to complement their sports sponsorships.
  • Sponsors also should consider reducing sports sponsorships budgets and use some of the money on “good citizen” PR programs that will receive positive publicity in both social media and traditional news outlets. That can produce a “good corporate citizen” image that may help off-set a portion of any problems resulting of tie-ins with athletes or sports entities that generate negative coverage.
  • Sponsors should realize that effective social media attacks can derail sponsors’ long-planned multi-million dollar promotions and that brilliant promotions are not a defense against activists groups.
  • Sponsors should accept that because of what happened at the Olympic Games in Sochi and Tokyo that back-up PR plans are necessary.
  • Sponsors should also accept that in the U.S., because of President’s Trump’s tweets about football players’ protests and President Biden’s asking that baseball’s All-Star Game be moved from Atlanta in 2021, politics will forever be part of the sports scene and sponsors can become part of the story at a moment’s notice. They should be prepared for such an eventuality.
  • Sports marketers should ask agencies to investigate possible problems that may occur at a sports venue or because of an athlete spokesperson’s comments or behavior and craft a fast-response plan.
  • Sponsors should make certain that sports fanatics are not part of a PR account team. The team should consist of publicity-oriented personnel with marketing and corporate experience who have knowledge of sports but view sports promotions as a selling tool and corporate good-will vehicle?
  • Sponsors should realize that there is no way of preventing successful ambush marketing programs, which receive media coverage despite their not being “official” sponsors.
  • Olympic sponsors should be made aware that saying “we just follow the athletes” is not believed by journalists who question a client’s support of an Olympics being held in a totalitarian country or one that is an enemy of the U.S.
  • But most important: Sponsors and PR agencies should keep an open mind to alternative promotional opportunities.

Together with the traditional media’s increasingly negative reporting about sports and athletes, especially the Olympic Games, there is more than enough evidence for clients to demand new sports marketing thinking from their agencies.

As someone who has been associated with the sports scene for many years as a newspaper reporter and sports marketing specialist at Burson-Marsteller, during the days when Burson was the leading international PR agency, and before that at Arthur Cantor/Advance Public Relations (another international firm), I can attest that new thinking when crafting sports programs, especially Olympic ones, is as rare as an Olympics without controversy, and that there is no assurance that a sponsor’s marketing plans will not be affected.

Arthur Solomon
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He has been a key player on Olympic marketing programs and also has worked at high-level positions directly for Olympic organizations. During his political agency days, he worked on local, statewide and presidential campaigns. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.


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