Terrence Burns | Rethinking the global event narrative

Olympic and global sports marketing veteran Terrence Burns explains his role in Doha's successful bid for the 2030 Asian Games and predicts the impact of the Covid pandemic on city bidding strategies

Terrence Burns

I just returned from a few weeks in Doha and Muscat where I was hired at the last minute to revamp the brand positioning and messaging of the Doha 2030 Asian Games bid, and to write the Final Presentation to the Olympic Council of Asia on December 16.

Typically, these Final Presentation assignments take three months or so; for this one we had about three weeks.

The good news is that our client Qatar won. And, in a first-ever double award of the Asian Games, so did Saudi Arabia by picking up the 2034 edition. It really was – for all the hype about “sport building bridges” – a true demonstration of sport bringing together two nations.

Want proof? Qatar and the KSA just re-opened their borders on 4 January 2021.

It was an amazing and satisfying moment when OCA president Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah stood between Doha 2030 chairman and Qatar Olympic Committee president HE Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad Al-Thani, and HRH Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Alfaisal, president of Riyadh 2034 and the Saudi Arabian Olympic Committee and raised each of their hands in unity and victory. That just doesn’t happen very often outside the world of sport.

Doha 2030 was my 13th bid for global events like the Olympics, Fifa World Cup, and the Asian Games. In many ways, it was the same assignment (albeit in a crushed timeframe), but in other ways it was very different.

It also gave me a chance to try out a hypothesis that’s been rummaging around in my mind since I served as CMO of the LA2028 bid for two years.

The reality is that unlike the Doha 2006 Asian Games, Doha 2030 didn’t really need to host the 2030 Asian Games for political, economic purposes, or brand re-positioning purposes – unlike Saudi Arabia.

Yet, when we got involved, much of the Doha 2030 bid’s positioning and messaging revolved around the standard, tried and true (old) tropes of “being ready, athlete-centric, risk-free, sustainable, affordable, prudent”, etc. These are important but don’t tell a story. Doha needed a story.

The IOC’s Olympic Agenda 2020 and the “New Norm” have been wildly successful in at least one area – the homogenization of bid city messaging.

It’s been this way for quite a while now – bid cities essentially saying the same things about their technical plans. For a voter I am sure it is often hard to differentiate between cities when they are all essentially saying the same thing.

So, we decided to make Doha 2030’s message not about Doha 2030; we made it outward looking instead of inward looking. In my experience, winning bids are able to express an emotional value proposition that is less focused on themselves, and more focused on the broader needs of sport.

On my first hastily prepared phone call with the Doha team I decided we had little time and nothing to lose so I proposed a new tagline, “We All Belong.” I presented (thanks Zoom) a 25-page deck as to why it made more sense than their existing positioning, and why it was time for Qatar to step up to a new role in global sport. To the Doha’s team’s credit, they understood it and said “yes” on the spot.

Sport is now part of Qatar’s national identity; it is in their DNA as they like to say. They have invested in literally hundreds of world-class sports facilities over the past two decades. Our point was: instead of simply showcasing its success in hosting global sport as a means to host more, it was now time to share this success with those National Olympic Committees in the OCA who see Qatar as an example.

And that’s just what we did. Our Final Presentation was 180 degrees from the Saudi presentation. To be fair, Saudi Arabia is where Qatar was twenty years ago (at least) in terms of its desire to harness sport as a catalyst for society.

So necessarily, the Saudi presentation was one hundred per cent inwardly focused on sport and the societal needs of the Kingdom and how the 2030 Asian Games would help them. I know that script well; it is the same one we used for the 2008 Beijing and 2014 Sochi Olympic bids I worked on.

This tells me that old bidding messages are irrelevant in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Yes, sustainability, prudence, etc. are now required as “table stakes” – but what else?

In terms of big impactful global sporting events whose hosts haven’t been decided, there are the 2030 Olympic Winter Games, the 2032 Olympic Games, and the 2030 Fifa World Cup. All of these events are far enough in the future that (hopefully) they will not be affected by Covid-19. Yet, bidding for these events is – or should be – already underway.

And that is the crux of the matter.

Right now, given the pandemic’s impact on our economies and societies it is very difficult to get any national leadership – at least in most western democracies – to even think about bidding for an event in 2030 or beyond.

Yet, that is exactly what they should be thinking about. How can hosting a global event make the world better, not just the host nation or the sports property in question? Is that a pollyannish, naïve stretch on my part? Many may think so. But is it also a refreshing and needed new way to look at bidding? I think so.

The power of sport is undeniable. Its impact on society is undeniable. Its ability to unify and inspire is undeniable. Its universality is undeniable.

It is precisely for these reasons that cities and nations should take a long hard look at the Olympic and World Cup opportunities. My only caveat is that the cities and nations need to be prepared, or have a realistic plan to be prepared, and the resources necessary to host events like these in 2030 and beyond.

Likewise, the IOC and Fifa should be much more proactive with potential bidding and/or host cities to get them prepared to either bid or host. Beauty contests as bidding contests are (hopefully) a thing of the past.

We are not quite at the point where the word “bidding” has been replaced by “begging”, but we are at the point where sports properties need to understand that the long-term health and viability of their brands and products – for example the Olympic Games and World Cups – are directly correlated with the tangible success and benefits that accrue to host cities and nations, and the creation of positive messages and opportunities for the world at large.

That’s real brand management.

Terrence Burns is a longtime veteran of Olympic and global sports marketing. He is the Owner of the T. Burns Sports Group, LLC, and serves as a Senior Advisor to the Bruin Sports Capital Group. Learn more at www.tburnssports.com.

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