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“It’s like a wave that hits you” | British Olympic federations on their commercial preparations for the Games

British Gymnastics chief executive Jane Allen, British Swimming chief executive Jack Buckner and UK Athletics chairman Chris Clark discuss their organisations' plans for the final run-in ahead of Tokyo 2020 and explain how to ensure a strong commercial return from the Olympic Games.

With nine months to go until the start of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, preparations are entering their final straight. For athletes, the early part of the year will be about ensuring qualification and setting targets for the Games. For rights-holders and federations, the coming months will be crucial in ensuring that they are able to secure a tangible legacy from Tokyo.

While the Games offer an unparalleled moment in the sun in terms of visibility for traditional Olympic sports, converting that into a measurable return can be challenging, particularly on the commercial front, where the International Olympic Committee works hard to protect the value of its Olympic Partners Programme (TOP), preventing other brands from using Olympic-related terms for the duration of the Games.

SportBusiness spoke to British Gymnastics chief executive Jane Allen, British Swimming chief executive Jack Buckner and UK Athletics chairman Chris Clark, to find out how three of the UK’s biggest Olympic federations are preparing for Tokyo.

Know your audience

While the Olympics brings in a mass audience of its own, it is important for rights-holders to be conscious of the make-up of their own particular following and how that following can benefit partner brands.

“No-one is fooled by an Olympic federation claiming that they can offer a brand however many billions of eyeballs just because that’s how many people are watching the Olympics,” says Clark. “You have to have that awareness of what you are offering to a brand in terms of you audience profile, and just as importantly, how you and your audience can benefit from what the brand is bringing.”

UK Athletics has tried to have a clear idea about the values that the sport promotes and has strived to work with brands who share those values. Clark says the best partner brands are those who “get involved in partnership programmes that say, ‘this is evidence that we live these values too’,” as opposed to brands which are “purpose-washing” – that is, companies that “shove these things in their annual report and say ‘these are our values’ but don’t do anything to support that.”

He points to dairy products brand Müller, the title sponsor of the London Anniversary Games and a long-standing partner of UK Athletics, noting that “from day one, they just got what it meant to be involved in athletics.”

Brands themselves have to have responsibility to understand who they are trying to connect with through Olympic sports, he says: “If you want to give your top-end, captains of industry-style customers an experience they’ll never forget, that might not be a grassroots athletics programme. But if you want to connect with people through diversity and inclusion, if you want to connect through good health and mental wellbeing? We’re pretty good for that, really. And in those instances, it’s less important that you’re not flashing someone’s brand up in the middle of the 100m final, because they’re looking for the wider things around what we can provide.”

Allen agrees, saying that while gymnastics is a “top-to-bottom sport” which offers brands access to assets from grassroots and hobbyists all the way though to elite, high-performance athletes, it is in community and participation where the sport is strongest and makes the biggest impact, something its most successful partnerships build on. Last year, British Gymnastics signed a major deal with Cartoon Network, allowing it to utilise the Powerpuff Girls to promote its POW! Academy initiative, which aims to engage children aged five to 11-years-old in the sport. The deal not only leverages the traditional audience base for the sport to promote Cartoon Network’s brand, but in turn helps build grassroots interest in gymnastics – an area on which the federation is increasingly focused.

British Gymnastics’ deal with Cartoon Network sees the Powerpuff Girls promote the POW! Academy initiative

“The most important thing we can do with the Olympics is use it to encourage more people to take up gymnastics, to attend their local clubs,” Allen says. “Our clubs are usually the hub of their communities. Building up that grassroots presence doesn’t just mean we create more opportunities for elite gymnasts to come through, but on the commercial side it creates a really strong brand connection with families and communities. A lot of our members are kids, but the parents are all involved, so we can offer a big impact there and a big appealing audience for brands. Especially around Olympics time, it’s important that we understand who our audience is and what the platform we’re able to offer is.”

She adds that the body has recently carried out a study into its brand strengths, and while the results were not surprising to the federation, given its demographic appeal – “our strongest propositions are are in digital and social media, and community,” says Allen – it has helped to guide both the kinds of sponsors British Gymnastics is looking for, and understand how it can service them.

“We’re heavily investing in innovation and technology, so we know we can offer a brand a platform there and really support them and give them a good return on their investment,” she says. “Having that understanding of what we’re able to offer to partners is crucial, especially with so many other Olympic bodies competing for the same sponsorship money. We need to give brands a reason to come to gymnastics instead of something else.”

Athletes are your strongest assets

A major trend over the last decade or so has been the quest for “authenticity” in marketing, says Buckner, particularly when it comes to putting athletes at the centre of a campaign and trying to leverage their personality.

“Lots of organisations are realising that the more you can use your athletes, use their voices in a credible way, that’s actually a really powerful platform,” he explains. The strongest activations British Swimming has worked on in recent years, he adds, “are those where there has been a strategy and a wider campaign in place, but then you’ve allowed the athletes’ voice to come through and back it up through your wider marketing channels,” particularly with endemic brands that athletes actually use and want to promote. British Swimming’s relationships with aquatics apparel brand Tyr and health drink company UP&GO has allowed it to use athletes such as Adam Peaty to endorse its partners products in a natural way, integrating them into Peaty’s social media posts.

Jane Allen, chief executive of British Gymnastics

“The other thing we’re really working hard on is telling the whole story, making athletes relatable,” Buckner says. “So it’s not Adam Peaty as an untouchable Olympian, but Adam Peaty’s relationship with his club and with his family. It’s about having that strong set of values that will come through during the Olympics but will continue to reflect well on Adam and, by association, British Swimming for a long time afterwards.”

With the IOC’s relaxation of Rule 40 allowing National Olympic Committees to decide how the regulations are enforced, NOCs face walking a delicate line between protecting the commercial interests of TOP sponsors and allowing their athletes greater freedom to work with brands. The British Olympic Association is currently facing a legal challenge from some of its athletes, led by sprinter Adam Gemili, who feel their earning potential is being stymied by the limits place on their commercial activities.

Similarly, the IAAF’s decision to allow sponsorship branding on team kits during certain events should provide a major boost to athlete-led marketing, says Clark. “Certainly, it’s going to make it [athletics] more attractive to sponsors,” he says. “When we’re competing with the front of the Manchester City shirt – we’re not really, but we sort of are – the fact that they’re relaxing [the regulations] is a positive, because ultimately that’s what commercial partners want, those kinds of direct associations with the athletes. Obviously, you’ve then got to add value from there, but it’s definitely something we need to be more able to offer our partners, the same as they’re able to get in other sports.”

Performance comes first…

As commercial partners and agencies look to squeeze maximum value out of their endorsement deals, utilising athletes as much as possible, Buckner says it’s important to ensure that performance remains the priority. “There’s always a balance between where the performance and commercial comes together,” he says. “Obviously better performance can lead to greater commercial return, which is one reason for the sponsors to take a bit of a backseat once the action gets underway, but it can be difficult for them to think like that when they’ve paid a lot of money to work with an athlete.”

In his prior role with British Triathlon, Buckner has considerable experience working with athletes who were thrust into the limelight after a strong performance at the Olympics. The sport experienced its highest-profile moment in the UK after the emergence of the Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonathan, first in London in 2012 and then again in 2016, when they took gold and silver respectively in Rio.

“There was an incident with a brand where I had to quite actively intervene to make sure that it didn’t compromise [the Brownlees’] performance,” he says. “Because now there’s that need, as I mentioned, to tell the story behind the story, every twist and turn, behind the scenes and in the changing rooms. That helps us and brands to add value, but we also need to be very deliberate about where that ends and ensure that everyone’s main focus remains on winning medals.”

… but medals alone aren’t a guarantee of commercial success

“It’s not enough to just have a medal-winning moment these days,” Buckner adds. Fans who grew up in the pre-Team GB-era, witnessing the country’s nadir of a single gold medal in Atlanta in 1996, are still adjusting to this new reality. But with Great Britain having picked up 183 medals across the last three Summer Games, including finishing second in the medal table in Rio, a podium finish is no longer enough to move the needle very far for commercial partners.

“It sounds awful, but we’ve all got very used to medal-winning moments,” says Buckner. “For a partner brand, a medal is nice, but they’re going to want more than that. An engaged marketing platform can’t rely on medals. You have to have a story to tell, a backstory, family, friends, to give you that differentiation and give brands and partners a reason to want to work with your medal-winning athlete.”

Jack Buckner, British Swimming chief executive

He describes the Olympics as being “like a big wave that hits you: you can be as prepared as you like in the months ahead, but you also have to be ready to react, ready to move off the back of what happens out there. That’s the real key – a medal is great, but if you’re not responding in the right way to winning medals, you’re not going to make the most of that success. You need the supporting marketing platforms back here in the UK ready to go, especially with the time difference. We need to be sure that whatever success we get out there is seen back over here.”

Look beyond the Olympics

While the Olympics can offer a huge platform for athletes and for a sport as a whole, Clark cautions that, for many stakeholders, the period when the Olympic and Paralympic Games are actually on can be a difficult time to generate exposure. “Because of the intellectual property restrictions that the Olympic movement puts around its own assets, it’s quite difficult to leverage the actual Games and the coverage in any way,” he says. “It’s quite right that they protect their interests with the right sort of vigour but, for us, it’s then about working out how we harness and talk to those fans who become much more interested in an Olympic year.”

Buckner argues that the best way of achieving this is through raising the profile of Olympic sports throughout the calendar and placing less emphasis on those few weeks every four years. “All Olympic sports, but particularly the traditional ones that make the most noise during the games, need new formats and we need to reach new audiences,” he says, pointing toward the International Swimming League as an independent, high-profile new competition that can raise awareness of swimming away from the Olympics and the World Championships.

British Swimming is supporting the series, backed by a Ukrainian billionaire, and aiding in the delivery of its event in London at the end of this month. For all the objections of Fina, the sport’s global governing body – which threatened to ban from its own competitions athletes who competed in the ISL – Buckner is adamant that innovative new events are a crucial element in sustaining swimming’s commercial future. “Whether it’s an entrepreneurial project like the ISL or our own European Short Course Championship, we need more noise and we need more volume so that we can cut through a little,” he says. “Any product that helps us do that is unquestionably a positive for the sport, anything that allows us to create a narrative that feeds into the Olympics and carries on after it will help us maintain that interest in the sport.”

Clark agrees that capturing the interest of casual fans through an expanded calendar of events is key. Next year, as part of its Olympic campaign, UK Athletics is set to hold a “festival of athletics” during the London Anniversary Games, which take place just two weeks before Tokyo 2020 commences. While the Anniversary Games, as a Diamond League meet, will attract a traditional athletics fan, Clark is hoping that the extra activities put on around the event will help to pull in more casual followers, to boost interest ahead of the Olympics and provide extra visibility for British Athletics’ sponsors, particularly the event’s title sponsor Müller.

Chris Clark, chair of UK Athletics

British Gymnastics, meanwhile, is putting its long-term focus onto youth, recently announcing its intention to invest £7.5m into its facilities across the country over the next ten years, part of an attempt to capitalise on the 12 Olympic medals won by Team GB gymnasts since 2008. The funding includes £2m of British Gymnastics’ own money, as well as government funding and social investors, and Allen is hopeful that it will help to show the ambition of the sport and drive attention throughout the Olympic cycle.

“Because we’re investing in ourselves, we think that should be attractive to brands because we’re not sitting hoping that someone else’s money does our work for us,” she says. “With British gymnasts having lots of success at the moment and the fact that we offer fantastic access to both youth and family audiences, we think we offer a good platform for brands, during the Olympics but around the rest of the year as well.”

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