London 2012 supercharged the Paralympic Games and Sochi was an important staging post. Kevin Roberts asks if the Rio Games, which begin on September 8, can continue Paralympic sport’s upward trajectory.
In almost every respect London 2012 was a turning point for the Paralympic Games.
Perhaps for the first time it became an event which truly captured the hearts and minds of the watching world as athletes delivered astonishing performances in front of packed crowds, while the electric atmosphere of the Olympic Stadium was transmitted around the world through breathtaking broadcast coverage.
In London there was no sense that the Paralympics were an add-on or that its competitors were anything other than stars who, by definition, had back stories of disadvantage and suffering countered by amazing courage, determination and self-belief.
At an International Paralympic Committee marketing workshop in London during the Games, delegates marvelled at the unprecedented media coverage in the home nation’s popular press and one of the world’s best recognised sports marketers was led to declare that the narrative of the Paralympics and its athletes opened up tremendous opportunities for brands to create new and powerful commercial relationships.
Among the speakers was then Mayor of London Boris Johnson who helped fuel the enthusiasm, saying that London 2012 had taken Paralympic sport to the next level and businesses should be fighting over the chance to invest in such prospects with endless possibilities.
“The product that is the Paralympic Games is something that is exciting,” he said. “Everyone is now following it, the media love it and so do the general public and its organisers. With over four million viewers around the world watching these Games, we need investment so that the IPC can continue to develop elite Paralympic sport and at the same time give it to the people.”
Four years on and with the Rio 2016 Games due to get under way on September 8, the question is whether the momentum created in London and sustained at the Winter Games in Sochi can be built upon once more. Alexis Schaefer, commercial and marketing director at the Bonn-based International Paralympic Committee, takes a measured, realistic approach to the question.
“The post-London 2012 confidence was certainly not misplaced, but you have to be realistic about what can be achieved in four years. We are not a league which is playing every week or an event taking place every year,” he points out.
Despite a build-up which was dominated by the IPC’s decision to ban Russian competitors from the Games, Schaefer says they are looking forward to Rio and that the Sochi Games have to be seen as a stepping stone along the way.
“Sochi was very important, even though it may not have made a big impression in some countries where there is a pack of participation in winter sport,” he says. “But the IPC has been busy in all sorts of areas, including television. We decided to bundle the Sochi and Rio Games, and that has helped secure some major market commitments, with greater overall coverage than London.
“At the Sochi Games people saw how the sport had developed. They could see that this is high-end elite sport. That’s the core of the product and it is strong and getting stronger.”
IPC President Sir Phillip Craven reflected on the importance of Sochi in the organisation’s annual report. He wrote: “It was a tremendous success, attracting a record 316,200 spectators and a cumulative TV audience of 2.1 billion people in 55 countries. Despite the political tensions in the region prior to the Games, sport and the tremendous performances of all para-athletes were the ultimate winners. One of the biggest feats of Sochi 2014 was their impact as a whole on Russia, a country that traditionally did not have a good reputation for social inclusion or catering for people with an impairment. Thanks to the inspirational leadership of Sochi 2014 president and chief executive officer Dmitry Chernyshenko, the Games redefined Russia’s attitudes towards impairment and acted as a catalyst for a more inclusive Russia. A blueprint for barrier-free accessibility was created in Sochi; a blueprint that is now helping 200 Russian cities further their own accessibility. It is vital that this Games legacy continues in the years and decades to come.”
And that, in many respects, is the challenge and opportunity of Paralympic sport. It is not simply about the sport, but the pursuit of social change and success will be measured against both targets.
“Rio is set to be the most competitive Games ever. The athletes will be front and centre of everything, and I am sure they will inspire another wave of developments,” Schaefer says.
If the Paralympic movement is to grow worldwide, it needs not only inspiration, but funding, making the continued success of the IPC’s commercial programmes vital to the future.
While the Olympic Games deals in billions of dollars, the sums involved in the Paralympic Games and across the Paralympic movement are significantly smaller, but moving in the right direction. According to the IPCs annual report published after the 2014 Sochi Games, annual revenue was €12.448m ($14.12m), of which around half came from marketing and broadcasting.
The IPC’s marketing programme is shaped by a co-operation agreement with the International Olympic Committee, which currently runs through to include the 2020 Games. Under the agreement, the Paralympic Games and Olympic Games are held in the same host city in the same year, enabling the Paralympic Games to benefit from being an integral part of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ and the wave of excitement that goes with it.
The co-operation between the two bodies, which also sees the IOC providing some funding to its counterpart, extends to sponsors, with TOP partner brands having the opportunity to become Worldwide Paralympic Partners with category exclusivity. In Rio, Panasonic, Samsung, Toyota, Atos and Visa are worldwide partners, along with Ottobock, a specialist prosthetics service company with a 25-year history with the Paralympic Games. In addition, the IPC has two international partners: Allianz, the insurance giant, and energy company BP. While the cash generated through these partnership deals is clearly important to the IPC, Schaefer says that the way the brands activate their involvement is also critical to the growth of Paralympic sport.
“It is massively important to us,” he stresses. “The engagement of brands and broadcasters, like Channel 4 in the UK, helps us build our position and get our message out there.” As awareness of the Paralympic sports scene has developed, the messaging from brands is becoming stronger.
“Before Beijing, brands found it difficult to find new creative ideas,” he explains. “The partners weren’t quite sure of what to do and, therefore, asked us. Now the partners really understand activation and are effectively helping each other to maximise the benefits of their partnerships.
“We spend a lot of time working with partners, working on ideas, and the dialogue is really helpful to both sides. What the partners give us is an enormous vehicle and visibility in society, which is important, because we aspire to create a more inclusive society through the opportunity of Paralympic sport. We are not simply a sports property, but a driver of social change.”
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That was something that global car-maker Toyota had in mind when it signed a partnership deal with the Paralympic Games, which Schaefer describes as “a massive game-changer”. The nine year deal, which kicks in after Rio, is the first ever to cover the Paralympics, the IPC and all National Paralympic Committees, with Toyota becoming Paralympic sport’s mobility partner, a category that has a unique relevance and resonance.
“The Toyota deal is very important and the company is showing great excitement. The president was in Bonn to meet (IPC president) Sir Phillip Craven and he showed such passion and excitement about the opportunity to become a role model for overcoming mobility challenges. For Toyota, it is about redefining mobility for the future and, of course, mobility is at the core of what we do. The president sees the agreement as creating a showcase for areas such as automated driving and how that will impact on people with an impairment,” Schaefer says.
The global corporate might of Toyota is sure to add muscle to the promotion of Paralympic sports and the company will be following a path already well-trodden by brands such as BP, which has endured significant corporate and reputational damage in recent years.
“Sure they have had a tough time, but they have embraced their relationship with the IPC, aligning their values [with ours] and taking them to heart internationally. They have taken their Paralympic campaign to the world on social media where their ‘The Energy Within’ campaign of short films has gained phenomenal feedback,” says Schaefer, whose first Paralympic Games was in Athens in 2004, when he was particularly inspired by the performance of US athlete Marlon Shirley, winner of the T44 100 metres event.
“The speed was just incredible, the sort of thing which makes you think about yourself. Paralympic athletes have had such massive difficulties to overcome and I know that people can relate to that. They see something in Paralympic athletes that they don’t necessarily see elsewhere.”
For Schaefer and his colleagues at the IPC, the positivity surrounding the Paralympic Games has helped create a base for the development of Paralympic sports worldwide through the National Paralympic Committees and he is keen to encourage more IOC TOP partners to come into the Paralympic fold.
“We have worked with Repucom to access the research that explains how a partner of the Olympics can derive complimentary benefits from the Paralympic Games, the IPC and the movement,” he says.
“We are also working to expand our international partner category and want to help other National Paralympic Committees by bringing in global brands and creating partnerships with different NPCs. They bring tremendous value and we hope to bring partners to NPCs which have never had sponsors before.”
As a flagship for sport for people with impairments, the Paralympic Games has come a long way since its first edition in Rome in 1960. With stronger TV distribution in place and a growing sponsor base, Rio 2016 looks set to become another significant milestone on an incredible journey.