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“People have to perceive the value of the Olympics beyond just the Games” | Australian Olympic Committee’s Matt Carroll

Matt Carroll, chief executive of the Australian Olympic Committee, tells Adam Nelson how a focus on athlete engagement, grassroots participation and community schemes has helped to boost the AOC’s commercial programme throughout the Olympic cycle.

  • Australian Olympic Committee commercial programme is focused on giving partners maximum exposure throughout the four-year cycle
  • “Holistic approach” to growing participation and community programmes creates virtuous circle that helps to boost commercial returns
  • Athlete content and endorsements  “one of the best ways we can help partners leverage their sponsorships”

“The five rings is still very powerful with Australians,” Matt Carroll, chief executive of the Australian Olympic Committee, tells SportBusiness Professional. “The Olympic brand still means something, it’s still something partners want to be affiliated with in a sport-mad country like Australia. But people have to perceive the value of the Olympics beyond just the Games.”

Carroll was appointed to the role in early 2017, at what he describes as a “difficult time” for the AOC, with the body accused of fostering a “culture of bullying”. One of his first moves was to engage Australia’s Ethics Committee to conduct and independent investigation into the culture at the organisation; its review concluded that the body had been failing to “celebrate the best of the Olympic ideals”.

Since then, he has focused on promoting those ideals through all of the AOC’s work – from the top-level athletes to promoting grassroots participation and growing the commercial programme – throughout the calendar. Indeed, Carroll argues that for a National Olympic Committee, these elements shouldn’t be viewed as independent strands, but rather as cohesive parts of its overall mission.

Community and schools programmes have formed an increasingly important part of the AOC’s work, with Optus sponsoring Olympics Unleashed

Exposure throughout the cycle

One of his primary objectives on joining the AOC was to boost its commercial profile throughout the four-year Olympic cycle. While the body’s partnership programme was performing “reasonably well”, as Carroll puts it, all NOCs are subject to “the fluctuations of the cycle”, with partners focusing their efforts and investments on the Summer and, to a lesser extent, Winter Games.

The Summer Olympics is always going to offer brands “their biggest ray of sunshine”, says Carroll, “and we didn’t want to discourage our partners from building their campaigns around that, because it’s such a visible, high-profile event. But we felt like we had to take it away from just being about the team, to help our partners activate against our other brand assets, the things that we’re doing all throughout each year, and throughout the four-year period. They’re paying a lot of money to be an official partner of the AOC and for that they expect more than just a two-week window of exposure every couple of years”.

Offering exposure to sponsors in off-years as well as Games years has become increasingly important, with the economic environment in Australia meaning companies have “tended not to go too large on their sponsorships anymore, because they want to be seen as spending shareholder’s money responsibly. We’ve found that we really have to offer value from our sponsorships, but we try to do that in ways that are beneficial to everyone”.

While he declines to give precise valuations on deals, he says that the lowest-value partnerships begin at “just under AUD$1m [$690,000/€610,000]” and scale up to “multi-millions” annually for the biggest deals. The total revenue target for the 2017-2020 Olympic cycle is AUD$110m, which Carroll says the AOC is set to exceed, “depending on a few sponsorship opportunities that we are currently in discussions over”. That is an increase of AUD$22m over the 2013-2016 cycle.

Boosting the profile of other Olympic-related events, particularly among a younger audience, has been crucial to growing the value of those deals and reaching that revenue target. For last year’s Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, the AOC sent skateboarder Noah Fuzi to produce a series of YouTube documentaries about the Games and the athletes who were performing there. Vitamins and supplements brand Swisse sponsored the series, “and loved it, because it was something different, and helped them target a completely different audience. It gave them far more exposure than they’d usually have got at that time, [because there’s] usually a bit of a drop-off after the Winter Olympics”.

Swisse will again sponsor a similar series in Tokyo, and Carroll says content pieces “that use the athletes and get close to the athletes” are becoming increasingly a focus of how partners want to leverage their AOC sponsorships.

“It’s one of the best ways we can help them to use our brand and image,” he says. “Channel Seven produce our coverage, they do a great job of that, so we don’t get access to the Olympics themselves. But what we do have is world-class athletes that we can give them to work with.”

Participation underpins growth

“Our primary role is to grow participation in the sports and educate people about the sports,” Carroll says. “Those things are genuinely as important as taking a team to Tokyo or selling big sponsorships – mainly for all the good reasons about the benefits of playing sports, but also because everything else that we do follows on from building strong participation.

“The only way to get talented athletes is to have a strong participation base, creating the pathway that connects grassroots to performance athletes. If the AOC isn’t working to build the participation base, then down the line, we significantly reduce our chances of success elsewhere, both at the Games in terms of medals and with our commercial programme, because sponsors will drift away without those success stories to leverage. Then, of course, the more commercially successful we are, the more we can put back into building a participation base and being even more successful at Games.”

The AOC is focused on celebrating participation as much as medals, he says – something that has filtered through to how sponsors choose their athlete representatives. “A medal can be won on the day, but you never really know what is going to happen, so you don’t build a business model on that,” he notes. “So we celebrate just getting there, an athlete just being at the Olympics, and that’s a value our sponsors share. We’ve seen that a number of the ambassadors they choose are from a much more diverse spread of sports than what they’ve been doing in the past, they’re not necessarily those who have the best chance of winning.”

Sponsors have been very keen to get involved with participation and community programmes, he says, again as a way of not only leveraging their sponsorships throughout the cycle, but interacting with a younger audience than the Olympic Games themselves often attract.

Telecoms firm Optus joined ahead of the Rio 2016 Games on a ten-year deal, described at the time as ‘one of the biggest in AOC history’. It has since leveraged that investment by becoming the title sponsor of the AOC’s schools programme, Olympics Unleashed, which has already reached over 40,000 primary school children across Queensland and New South Wales. This will be rolled out into secondary schools across the winter of 2019.

Jaclyn Narracott addresses a crowd of young Australians during this year’s SportAccord Convention on the Gold Coast

“Again, we’re using the athletes, getting them into classrooms so that the kids can enjoy their stories, which is a very, very powerful message,” Carrol says. “It’s also a way for us to really bring the sports back into the fold and encourage people to get involved in a diverse range of sports from a young age. We have [World Championship gold medal-winning canoeist] Alyce Burnett and Jaclyn Narracott [who competed in the skeleton for Australia at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics] involved, and that’s really given a boost to the awareness of those disciplines.”

Evidence for the commercial programme’s success, Carroll claims, can be seen not just in the financial statements’ bottom line. He also points to the fact that, despite the negative press that surrounded the AOC at the time, all of the new partners which signed up to sponsor the team through Rio 2016 stayed on, encouraged by the platform Carroll was building.

“We’re talking with our partners more regularly,” Carroll says. “It’s not about breaking the cycle as much it is extending the cycle, so that we don’t end up doing all our renewals and new business in the first year of an Olympic cycle. By making the sponsorship broader than just the team, giving the sponsors the opportunity to activate every year, having conversations with them whenever we have the opportunity to do so, we’re building a more robust and future-proof programme.”

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