Olympic Ambitions

Olympics picRio 2016 will represent the first real Olympics of the mobile age, and a chance for organisers, teams and athletes to interact with consumers like never before. But is the Olympics ready for what mobile can offer?

2016 will see the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games come to Rio de Janeiro, bringing athletes and fans from across the world, and turning the global eye of the media towards the country as teams from every nation compete for a chance of sporting glory.

Around half of the world’s population is expected to tune in to watch the Games on television at some point, and of that audience, an estimated 85 per cent will be using an additional device while watching. The Games’ placement in Rio means that audiences in N. and S. America, western Europe and western Africa will all be able to watch live coverage. This huge live audience will transform social media into a real-time global conversation centred on the Games, with 79 per cent of fans planning to view or share Olympic content on Facebook, 27 per cent on Snapchat and 15 per cent on Twitter.

“Twitter’s event targeting offers a unique opportunity to reach users who are watching and engaging with the Olympics,” says Ruth Arber, director of solutions at Adaptly. “With about 80 per cent of social media users accessing social platforms through mobile devices, the Olympics is an opportune time to capture users when they’re dual-screening or on-the-go.”

Record-breaking and rule-breaking
Traditionally, the Olympics has proved a frustrating time for many brands looking to associate themselves with such a large, globally-observed event. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) put in place and enforced strict rules about how brands could make use of Olympic imagery and wording, so that only partnered brands truly had access to the event.

Even athletes found themselves limited in how they could discuss the Olympics, with Rule 40, a controversial section of the Olympic Charter, meaning that competitors and even coaches could not make use of their image or name to advertise brands for a period around the Olympic Games.
Rule 40 was a huge boon for those brands lucky enough to be official Olympic partners, as it guaranteed them more or less exclusive advertising coverage during the game, but athletes had become increasingly frustrated with the policy, as it ruled out appearing as part of existing endorsement deals (often the only way for them to earn money from their participation) during their most high-profile period.

The rule was equally unpopular with brands which sponsored the athletes outside the Olympics as, at the height of public awareness of sports, they had to remove all references to these figures and the Games from marketing materials or risk a fine for the brand, with athletes facing disqualification or even stripped of medals they had won if they break the rules.

During the 2012 Olympics, the London Organising Committee’s ‘brand police’ drew criticism for their handling of Rule 40 among local small businesses, while athletes took to social media to draw attention to the situation, using hashtags like #Rule40 and #WeDemandChange to raise public knowledge of the rule even as it prevented them from doing something as simple as posting a photo of the shoes they ran in.

Some athletes have taken their protests even further. For the London 2012 Games, two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds sold ad space in the form of a tattoo on his left shoulder, which was purchased by ad agency Hanson Dodge Creative for $11,000 (£7.650). He repeated the same stunt this year in advance of the Rio Games, and sold his right shoulder to T-Mobile CEO John Legere for $21,800.

“I want to raise awareness about the fact that our Olympians don’t get paid a single dollar from the IOC to compete,” says Symmonds. “This current model, that has all of the money passing through IOC and absolutely none of it going to the athletes, is unacceptable.”

Campaigning for Gold
In the age of social media, where athletes will tweet their training regimes, Instagram their victories and Vine their celebrations, Rule 40 felt increasingly like a relic of another time, and last year, the IOC finally listened to the comments of both athletes and brands, loosening the restrictions on how athletes could interact with brands during the Games.

“Social media is the next great frontier for sports sponsorships,” says Rob Mason, managing director of IMG Consulting. “But sports right holders need to understand their social media value, and sponsors need to know what they want from it.”

There are still complex rules in place, most notably that campaigns featuring Olympic athletes had to begin no later than 27 March this year and run continuously in order to quality, but the relaxation of Rule 40 means that more companies than ever can seize upon the Olympics as a way to strengthen their brand and engage consumers.

“We have a huge roster of Olympic athletes that are going to tell their ‘Rule Yourself’ stories through digital and social,” says Adrienne Lofton, senior vice president of global brand marketing at sports apparel brand, Under Armour, speaking about the company’s current campaign. “We plan to honour them before they go into the games, during the games and after.

“It allows us to be part of the conversation when it is hot and when that sport, or that win, or that moment, is most relevant. We are happy to see the relaxing of that rule and we are going to take advantage of it.”

The campaign will have a 50/50 media mix between television and digital, using social media to reach second-screening viewers during the Olympics and enabling the athletes it has deals with, which include swimmer Michael Phelps, football star Memphis Depay and the US gymnastics team, to interact with consumers in a more intimate, engaging way.

“We are going to use social and digital as a lever that we have not really maximised, quite frankly, in the past,” says Lofton. “Because we know that is when we can have our most authentic one-to-one dialogue with athletes all over the world.”

Periscope’s eye view of the games
The spread of athlete-supported brand campaigns to social media isn’t the only way mobile will impact on the Rio Olympics. Perhaps the biggest change coming to the Games is the rise of mobile live-streaming technology.

At London 2012, Snapchat was barely a year old and only just starting to make waves in the mobile community; for Rio 2016, consumers looking to access photos and footage from the games will be able to choose from Snapchat, Periscope, Meerkat, Facebook Live and more. These apps and services will be able to circumvent traditional forms of coverage, robbing sponsors and advertisers of viewers, while also presenting a more unfiltered, ground-level version of the atmosphere at the Games.

Live-streaming apps have been seen as a threat to exclusive sports events since their creation, with official sporting bodies taking a variety of approaches to counteract the increase in the number of people broadcasting footage, the rights to which that has been sold at high prices to television networks. Some sporting teams have even taken to hosting their own live-streams in an effort to retain at least some form of control and maintain coverage for sponsors.

“The International Olympic Committee probably ranks Periscope somewhere between an ISIS attack and double toilet installations on its list of major threats to the Rio Games,” says David Berkowitz, chief marketing officer of creative and technology agency MRY, referring to photos that emerged of cubicles featuring two toilets, with no partition, at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. “If too much good footage is available via unauthorised video streaming, that eats into broadcasters’ ad revenue.”

As tech platforms continue to make improvements and mobile technology advances to capturing footage in 4K HD, live-streaming services come to represent more and more of a threat to the existing sports broadcast model. Periscope now enables users to stream and watch in landscape mode, and has integrated streaming direct from drones, another new technology that may well feature at Rio 2016, despite the best efforts of the organisers.

“Twitter wasn’t built for sports media – but as it turned out, the two were made for one another. The former brought unfiltered access to the latter to all, without the crap you had to wade through to get there in the first place,” says sports writer Colin Anderle. “Meerkat and Periscope are going to do the exact same thing for video media. Together, they are going to flood the antiquated top-down system with access, and the industry will either adapt or perish.”

Faced with such dire warnings, the sports broadcasting market is indeed adapting. Earlier this year, American broadcaster NBC placed GoPro cameras around Churchill Downs for its coverage of the Kentucky Derby, enabling fans to stream the feeds through linked Twitter and Periscope accounts. For the Olympics, the broadcaster has gone one step further and agreed to share video of the Games for the first time in history.

NBC, which is owned by Comcast, has signed a deal with Snapchat that will see the video messaging service set up a dedicated channel for the Games. Buzzfeed will curate short clips from the competition, along with behind-the-scenes content, for a Discover channel on the app, while Snapchat will create daily Stories using content provided by NBC, along with on-the-spot footage of athletes and sports fans.

“We have never allowed the distribution of any game highlights off NBC’s own platforms,” says Gary Zenkel, president of NBC Olympics. “But [Snapchat] really effectively reaches a very important demographic in the United States, and is very important to our efforts to assemble the large, massive audience that will show up to watch the Olympic Games.”

What does this all mean for marketers hoping to tap into the Olympics on mobile? Well, thanks to social media and live-streaming, there will be more channels than ever where consumers are hoping to access content related to the Olympics.

While there are still plenty of rules and guidelines governing how brands can associate themselves with the Games or athletes who are competing, the omnipresent nature of mobile technology is forcing the Games and those associated with them to evolve like never before. While traditional organisations like the IOC may struggle to adapt to the ways mobile is transforming the consumption of the Olympics, demand from both consumers and brands means that this is set to be the most mobile-friendly Olympics ever.

This article first appeared in the June 2016 print edition of Mobile Marketing. You can read the whole issue here.