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Nick Bennett

Strategy Director

Marketing at the Olympics & challenging Rule 40

The world of sport sponsorship and commercial rights is vast. The huge sums of money involved are mind-boggling, and some of those at the top of these organisations have questionable ethics and intent.

Certain sports enjoy a glamour and panache where players, chairmen and agents alike are rewarded at the top end to the tune of millions of pounds. Life is not hard.

By contrast, as the Olympics launch today - much focus is being placed on its responsibility toward the athletes that it represents, and preventing them from a potential windfall of sponsorship incentives.

As part of agreeing to be an Olympic athlete, you agree to abide by Rule 40 - legislation that essentially means the following:

The above movement, Rule 40, has been set-up by Brooks Sportswear - challenging the IOC, and in doing so, the campaign has gone viral to highlight the absurd nature of what has been implemented.

In the guidelines, it states that - “Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.”

What the IOC are doing here is setting a very dangerous precedent, by essentially saying that unless you have paid many millions of pounds to the IOC, you cannot use an athlete you sponsor in any form of marketing. To make matters worse, it doesn’t matter if you have sponsored an athlete for years, if a company even tweets their athlete a good luck message before an event, that athlete can face strict sanctions all the way up to not being allowed to compete or having medals taken away.

Much was made back 4 years ago with London 2012, with fans and commentators alike criticising the over-commercialisation of the entire event. Looking back at the foundations of where the Olympics originated, it was a competition focused on amateur athletes who could achieve outstanding achievements.

The big irony in this is that the IOC appear to be hiding behind this sentiment, claiming that Rule 40 was designed to prevent over commercialisation, stop ‘ambush marketing’ and preserve Olympic funding. On closer inspection, it actually does the opposite.

The stark reality that faces many of those that compete at this year's Olympics is that they are amateurs. Aside from the household names of Bolt, Phelps and Team GB stars like Farah and Ennis-Hill, many of us would struggle to name many of those taking part. In addition to this, many of those taking part are self-funded and also amateur. They have no choice but to juggle the balance of working and training, but such is their commitment they still get to compete by excelling at their individual disciplines.

For these athletes, the Olympics is the golden opportunity every 4 years. Some, will only ever get to participate at one Olympic games - so for them, it is the biggest opportunity to raise the profile of their sport and to perhaps grow enough interest that that would enable them to pursue it as a full-time profession. Without the commercial support, it can be difficult for athletes from less known sports to carry on self-funding their hopes and dreams. With the harsh rules on communicating with, or being promoted by any sponsor they be so lucky to have, those competing in niche sports miss the biggest opportunity of their sporting career for self-promotion.

Where athletes in these sports become influencers in their field as a result of their achievements, it is natural for companies to want to support and promote them. This is not just as a way of telling interested people about their product, but because they are passionate about their sport. When one of these athletes manages to reach the pinnacle, level that enables them to qualify for the Olympic Games, the pride these companies is genuine and reinforces why they showed a commitment in the first place. For the one or two success stories, there are many, many others that simply don’t get told.

The real question, is why are the IOC so doggedly following this legislation?

One of the key arguments of rule 40 for the IOC is the need to preserve Olympic funding. They argue if the sponsorship deals made by companies like Coca-Cola etc. are eroded by this ‘ambush marketing’, this will have knock-on effect on the athletes.

Are these multi-national corporation bands really going to see tiny companies sending good luck tweets and happy emojis to athletes, and decide that this is a more effective way of marketing their product than plastering stadiums with their logos for billions to see throughout the two week period? Does a local bakery painting Olympic rings on their iced fingers really constitute a bigger threat to the IOC than recent bribery and drugs scandals?

The tragedy of the situation is the IOC doesn’t have a leg to stand on legally. If a company were to ignore the rule and continue to promote their sponsored athlete throughout the Olympics, there are no sanctions that can be brought against the company! They aren’t using Olympic intellectual property after all. What the IOC can do however, is pass the punishment on to the athlete in question, something that when you think about it, is scandalous in its own right. The fact that small companies are so frightened of breaking the rules just goes to prove how much they care about the sport.

The rules enforced by the IOC only help to earn revenue for the IOC, a handful of big businesses and a small selection of athletic superstars. The ten thousand other athletes are forbidden from even receiving a good luck tweet, and are probably scared of showing any form of personality. From a marketing perspective, this all feels like a massive over reaction. If we try to regulate marketing to such an extent, it takes away the essence and pureness of creativity to enhance a company or individual’ position. Enforced rules exist, that make total sense and of which professional marketing teams abide by, but in the social and creative world that we live, the IOC has so short sighted in not letting the sponsors promote the relationship they have with the athlete, and instead let them try to enhance the reputations of only those big corporate bucks.

Sadly, unless something changes (or maybe it is too late) the Olympics will lose sight of what it was intended for, and we may as well only invite those that can afford to participate.