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Olympic Games: Who's Really Getting Ambushed?

By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek

August 3, 2012

Even though it’s quite expensive, among the many perks of being an Olympic sponsor are the strict ambush marketing rules and worldwide category exclusivity that prevent competitors from associating with the iconic rings. As part of their strategy to prevent ambush marketing from damaging the abilities of their TOP sponsors like McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Coca-Cola and others, and sponsors at other levels, to fully capitalize on their Olympic investment, the IOC and the USOC restrict athletes from appearing in ad campaigns not affiliated with Olympic sponsors during a self-imposed blackout period. The period began July 18, nine days before the Games, and runs through August 15, three days after the Closing Ceremonies.

This is all summarized in a rule called Olympics Rule 40, which prohibits athletes from associating themselves with non-Olympics sponsors during the Games. And these restrictions include mentions on Twitter and Facebook.

Not surprisingly, this policy doesn’t go over well with athletes, who can’t publicly acknowledge their non-Olympic sponsors during the blackout. In today’s athletic endorsement environment, the social media reach that Olympic and other athletes have is a big selling point with marketers when they’re choosing which athlete will best represent their brand. Before the blackout, for example, American gold medal record breaker Michael Phelps found a way to work Hilton, Head & Shoulders, and VISA into the Olympic training updates he posted for his 5.4 million Facebook fans, while Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt shared a Gatorade photo with his 622,000 Twitter followers. “With almost every single deal that my group puts together, sponsors ask, ‘Can you tell me about the athlete’s social media footprint, how many Twitter followers do they have? How many Facebook fans? Will they do some tweets for the campaign?’” CAA Global Director of Sports Endorsements Lowell Taub shared with the Financial Times.

Also not surprisingly, in the social media world in which we now live, the athletes have taken to Twitter to argue against this principle.

One of the policy’s biggest critics is U.S. sprinter Sanya Richards-Ross, who claims only 2% of U.S. athletes can tweet about their sponsors because only that small percentage has IOC or USOC sponsors. Ross, who has sponsorship deals with approved companies such as BMW, BP, Nike, and Citi, is pushing for a redistribution of IOC sponsorship revenue to stand up for her less fortunate teammates.

While it’s highly unlikely to be successful, Richards-Ross is drawing plenty of attention to a noteworthy problem in the Olympic Village, and with other athletes chiming in, their group protest is all but unprecedented

Olympic Rule 40 isn’t the only element of the London Olympic Games drawing criticism—U.S. broadcast partner NBC is getting its fair share.

If there’s one complaint NBC’s received more than any other during these Games, it’s about the network’s delayed coverage of marquee events. People around the world are now used to watching live-streams of soccer matches and golf tournaments, wherever and whenever they take place. To watch taped Olympics games seems anathema to many. But delaying Olympic coverage is nothing new, and in London’s case, it’s impossible to ensure events will be held at times preferred by TV networks. What is new is the prevalence of social and digital media and the number of ways to access information—and like the athletes themselves, upset American fans are turning to social media to voice their complaints, many of which are grouped around a popular new hashtag, #nbcfail.

While unpopular, you can’t fault NBC for its delayed coverage strategy. NBC Sports is paying $1.1 billion for Olympic U.S. TV rights, and the network is entitled to do whatever necessary to maximize its return on investment. Even rival CBS President Les Moonves agrees with the approach, saying he’d make the same programming decisions if his network held the rights. And let’s face it—the smile on women’s gymnastics all-around gold medal winner Gabby Douglas’ face is a joy to watch, even on tape delay, even if you’re seeing it over and over again.

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Beyond the Scoreboard
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
Beyond the Scoreboard eBook
Rick Horrow, America’s leading expert in sport business, and coauthor Karla Swatek give fans an inside look at the multibillion-dollar world of professional sport.
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