Breaking the Olympic cycle: The IOC’s bidding dilemma

As tonight’s bidding application deadline for hosting the 2022 winter Olympics approaches, The Sport Consultancy’s Robert Datnow asks whether the candidate cities – and the communication consultancies that steer their bid strategies – will find the rules of the game beginning to change?

New International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach began his reign by setting out a clear vision for improving and streamlining Olympic bidding, which he sees as creating formulaic proposals through bid books “written by the same people around the world”. We may learn more about Bach’s plans when he chairs his first executive board meeting next month, but arguably the need for change is about current levels of risk, complexity and need for prior experience.

The Olympic bid industry is very much a product of that process, as Bach recognised when he observed that the IOC expects too much too soon from its prospective hosts. When a bid requires the investment of significant money and political capital, plus industry knowledge and expertise, it is natural its backers will seek the experience of those who have been through the process before. The problem with that is the consultants who accumulate knowledge about the priorities and preferences of the voting constituency just pass the same view on from one cycle to the next.

The IOC could certainly encourage a wider pool of bidders and reduce costs and complexity overall by having a clearer set of ‘pass/fail’ criteria implemented at an early stage to prevent the under-qualified progressing too far. For example, Doha and Baku were passed through the applicant stage when bidding for the 2020 Olympics, only for the evaluation process at candidate phase to reveal they did not meet current IOC requirements.

But, as Bach rightly pointed out, the IOC is not tendering a franchise – it also wants creativity, legacy and inspiration from its bids. That is where the conflict lies, because bid committees will always respond to what they understand to be the IOC’s priorities. If the priority is simply to fulfil a specific list of requirements – a simple yes or no question – then leaner bidding and a wider candidate pool are possibilities.

Bidders may offer creativity as well, but will still turn for help to tried and tested consultants who can deliver imaginative proposals better aligned to IOC preferences. In fact, placing a new emphasis on undefined creativity (which, by nature, cannot be prescriptive) could conceivably increase the premium on the same small group of consulting and communication agencies and increase cost as a result. Where there is uncertainty about the scope of creativity expected, there is risk. Where there is risk, there is also disincentive to participate.

Trying to strike that balance between broader access, affordability and creativity is not a conundrum unique to the IOC. The Sports Consultancy’s experience in host city strategy and bid process management elsewhere is that affordability is not just about the cost of bidding, but more about clarity and transparency of expectation, as well as published and reasonable evaluation criteria. A level playing-field and honesty around a candidate’s prospects of success also enable bidders to make decisions on potential return on investment and risk, and go on to commit to investing in the creativity the rights holder seeks.

If the IOC wants to limit spending on strategic consultancy, it can do that – even to the point of imposing US election-style spending caps on marketing communications. But it may find that a more prescriptive approach to the pass/fail elements of bid requirements at the outset, earlier shortlisting and a clear set of published parameters for the creative thinking it seeks, might better enable its twin objectives of broadening its group of bidders whilst encouraging creativity, so that parrot-fashion answers are no longer repeated.

Robert Datnow is co-founder of The Sports Consultancy, a strategic sports marketing consultancy which provides commercial advice and delivery to venues, brands, rights-holders and others involved in top-level sport.

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