What’s Old is New, Again.

Terrence Burns ©2017

It’s been a while; I’ve been busy with LA 2024 and our quest to host the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games. As the debate for the 2024/2028 Games heats up with two great potential Host Cities vying for the honor, the IOC continue to review and consider a new approach to bidding on and hosting the Games.  I thought I’d share my thoughts and recommendations that I sent to the IOC back in 2014, for their then-new Olympic Agenda 2020 process. In light of recent events, it makes for interesting reading.

May 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to present my thoughts pertaining to the Agenda 2020 Committee on Bidding for the Olympic Games.

Background

I began my Olympic “life” as a sponsor, managing Delta Air Lines’ sponsorship program for the Atlanta Games.  After the 1996 Games, I joined Meridian Management SA, the IOC’s then new marketing agency where I was responsible for managing the marketing relationships with the TOP Partners and helping to institute a first-ever brand management program.

After leaving Meridian in 2000, I’ve had the opportunity to work on many Olympic bids as an advisor, among them Beijing, Vancouver, Sochi, PeyongChang and the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup.  I also worked on many bids that were not successful such as Moscow 2012, Doha 2016, Rome/Baku/Madrid 2020 (that may be a record, by the way, for one campaign) and Lviv 2022. One often learns more by losing than by winning.

For bids, I have traditionally worked on the image, marketing, communications, and branding areas, which included the presentations to the Olympic Family and global sports community.  Sometimes, although rarely, we work on the technical plans. For a variety of reasons both personal and professional, I have never engaged in lobbying IOC members on behalf of bid clients.

Rightly or wrongly, because of my background and experience, I tend to view virtually everything that happens in the Olympic Movement through the lens of “brand management”.  Much has been said and written about the foundation of the Olympic Movement, which to me is the athlete.

There are, however many other important moving parts such as IOC Members, National Federations, International Federations and of course National Olympic Committees.  I believe that there is one item often missing from the list: Bid Cities.  Without bid cities, there would be no Host Cities.  Thus, in my mind, Bid Cities also have a place at the heart of the Olympic brand; they are the seedlings of the Olympic forest.

Situation

Olympic bid cities are the “canaries in the coal mine” of the Olympic Movement.  The number and “quality” of bid cities is a direct indicator of the future health of the Games. I say future because there seems to be a cycle (or two) delay in how the future bid cycle reacts to the current economic situation due to the seven-year timeframe between bidding and becoming an OCOG.

As economic pressure increases on cities, regions, and nations (as it has since 2008/2009), coupled with a seemingly never-ending escalation in size, scope, demands, amenities and costs of Games editions, we are finally seeing negative responses to the perceived cost/benefit analysis for hosting the Olympic Games.

 Looking ahead

Bid Cities as Brand Ambassadors

First and foremost I firmly believe that Bid Cities competing to host the Olympic Games present a tremendous yet undervalued brand opportunity for the Movement. Bid City campaigns take place virtually every month of every year regardless of the timing of an Olympic cycle. The opportunity to “generate good news” (and what could be better than a city and its citizens yearning to host the Olympic Games?) year-round is self-evident.

Imagine the 2012 race, when the Movement had New York, Paris, London, Moscow and Madrid pursuing the Games. What a communications opportunity for the Olympic brand!

Unfortunately, the IOC’s highly constrictive rules on bid city promotion preclude virtually any brand benefit to the Movement from a bid cycle campaign.

I am not advocating letting the bid cities do as they please, what I am advocating is that the IOC use them and the race as branding and communications opportunities.  A healthy field of bid city candidates with the proper promotion and communications activities helps to create positive news about the Olympic Games – and will encourage future bids.

Recommendations:

-The IOC team should craft a global communications and promotional framework that includes all bid cities’ activities aligned with the existing Olympic calendar

-The IOC brand and communications team should meet with bidding cities (potential and current) early in the process and explain the program their roles in it and what is trying to be achieved

-The Olympic Movement should look for creative opportunities for bid cities to promote themselves within a set of standard parameters that generates parity for all cities, yet creates the greatest opportunity for news and content for the Movement

-The IOC needs to take the lead on a true, unbiased economic study of past Games but it cannot only be economic; it should attempt to track and measure progress across a variety of measurements including, quality of life, health, brand image, education, etc. Too often opponents of bidding have an array of negative reports and studies purporting to illustrate the “waste” of hosting an Olympic Games.  Some of the data is, unfortunately, accurate; however, the Movement needs to engage in this debate honestly and with data of its own.

Planning for Future Host Cities

Per my recent post, I believe that the IOC has entered a new era of brand stewardship and the bid process can no longer just be a “game of chance” around parameters that can be manipulated.

I am not advocating a systemic process whereby the IOC chooses a city ahead of time.  I believe the Movement still needs the “thrill and excitement” of a real bid city campaign, but the cities should be chosen and prepared ahead of time, prior to bidding.

I believe the IOC should review and identify where and when they believe the Games should be held over the next four bid cycles based upon the needs of the IOC, the IFs and NOCs and global sport. This review should include:

  1.  Where in the world the Games can help develop sport (such as emerging economies)
  2.  Where do the Games have to be every ten years or so to keep the brand relevant in the first-world economies, and
  3. What is the true risk basis for each city and its bid (sophisticated financial and political risk analysis tools exist in the private sector that the IOC should use instead of asking bid city to provide what is most likely, inflated or exaggerated data)

The IOC should then make a list of the global regions where they desire to see the Games hosted.  In these regions, they should then make a list of cities/nations “most likely and most desirable for the Olympic brand to succeed”, and implement a long-term plan to assist those cities and nations to be prepared to bid when the time comes.

Recommendations:

-This means fully engaging the public and private sectors early on in the process

-This means that teams of IOC experts, IOC members, and former OCOG executives should visit the potential bid cities with advice, encouragement and above all, facts about bidding for and hosting the Games

-This means laying the groundwork by helping create a rational, long-term venue development (use of existing facilities, more temporary facilities, only new facilities as a last resort) plan tied to their city’s long-term municipal or regional planning.

-This means setting criteria that must be met in order to bid for a Games, e.g., 70+% of the needed venues must exist or be in process with fully transparent funding models in place; the city/country must have hosted a certain amount of world championships/cups to illustrate operational competence ability; the potential host nation and NOC have a desirable record as it pertains to anti-doping; the public and private funding discussions and responsibilities should be fully agreed to in writing ahead of bidding; etc.

-This means asking the bid cities to address the “Fundamental Principles of Olympism” per the Olympic Charter in their bid applications, point by point

-This means implementing a communications plan foundation around the potential bid to illustrate the “what’s in it for me” rationale to the general population and local, regional and federal governments.

-This means engaging the National Olympic Committees to be part of this process and every National Federation

-This means utilizing former Host Cities and their leadership as case studies and, never allowing a member of the Movement to denigrate a former Host City (as is often done with Atlanta, for example). That is unprofessional and self-defeating – former Host Cities are also still part of the “franchise” and should be treated accordingly. It is also insulting to the thousands of Volunteers who gave the Movement months and months of their personal time for the Games, and to the citizens who supported the bid, the Games and welcomed the world with open arms.

-This means making International Federations a working partner in the process. To be honest, and I’ve been there, in the past many IFs placed inordinate demands and expectations on Bid Cities. And Bid Cities being Bid Cities have no choice but to try to comply in order to attempt to obtain votes. This process is upside down and it leads to ever-increasing and often illogical venue commitments. I understand that many IFs want gleaming new, state-of-the-art venues at every Games, but that is just not sustainable and in the end, it is not good for sport because it inevitably leads to White Elephants, which scares away future potential Bid Cities.

 Whose Brand is it?

The IOC has to take control of the image and reputation of the Olympic brand. During and after the Slake Lake City Bid scandal, I worked on the IOC crisis team that helped made the decision that the OCOG or Games brand should be the “hero” brand in all Olympic communications activities because, essentially, the brand image of the IOC itself was in serious trouble.  This made sense at the time, but no longer.  The IOC’s image and reputation cannot be left up to others to define (Germans and Norwegians claim they like the Winter Games – just not the IOC!); the IOC must define its own image and reputation going forward.

The Games are too complex, too expensive and too subject to geopolitical machinations for the brand to be left in the hands of amateurs (Organizing Committees, and I use the world amateurs in the most respectful manner possible) every two years. The IOC cannot leave “success” up to a group of well-intentioned people who have never done it before – and only in seven short years. And, I mean “success” in a context that is far beyond the 17-day hosting of the Games.

If we want healthier bid cities in the future, we need to ensure that once chosen, Organizing Committees are great sources of news about progress and are a brand investment in the Movement. A thriving and healthy Organizing Committee preparing for the Games creates a positive media environment and helps stimulate interest in hosting the Games instead of fear of hosting the Games.

Is “Great Sport” Enough to define Success?

I think that the IOC can no longer afford to say “sport was great, so the Games were a success”. Because of costs and investment, it has become more complex than that in the eyes of those outside the Olympic Movement – the Olympic Movement is no longer the sole target market for appraisal of success or failure. Many more variables are now at play.

Look at Sochi and Rio, for examples. For Sochi, the venues were perfect and sport on the field of play was successful by virtually any measure. But in the end, what did the negative reports leading up to Sochi cost the Olympic brand? Well for starters, we know negative media reports around Sochi (again, real or imagined) have cost us two, possibly three European first-world capitals as bid cities in the 2022 race.

I would state unequivocally that this is NOT Russia or Sochi’s fault.  They did what they said they were going to do. They built a city for the Winter Games. It is the IOC’s responsibility or should have been, to “manage the world’s expectations” about the Sochi Games.  It would have been, and still is, easy to say “No single Games is a perfect example for future Games. The expenditures made by the Russian government to host the Sochi 2014 Winter Games made sense for Russia, and we thank them for a tremendous Winter Games.  But we do not, by any means, expect similar investments by future bid cities going forward.”

We cannot hide behind the shield of sports success as the sole arbiter of an Olympic Games’ effectiveness. The Games have to make sense for local communities.

Recommendations:

National brand building as the sole source of hosting an Olympic Games “isn’t good enough”. Potential bid cities must illustrate the value of their bids beyond their own borders – not just with words, but also with deeds years ahead of time from their bids.

-Rewarding desired behavior. As an example, look at the 2018 Winter Games race.  When appraising the technical plans of Munich and PyeongChang, there was no “bonus weighting” applied to Munich’s creative use of existing venues or its world-class environmental plans.  From the IOC’s members’ perspectives (the people who vote) it appeared as if the Munich and PyeongChang technical plans were both of equal value, when in fact, Munich’s was much more visionary and one could argue better for the Movement at the time.  The IOC selection criteria must be more objective with quantitative metrics and it should be willing to give “credit” (enhanced value) to cities that put forth responsible, prudent plans instead of being impressed (or blinded) by expensive new building projects.

In closing, allow me to summarize:

  1. Bid Cities can and should be key pieces of the IOC’s overall global communications strategy – let them compete more openly, yet under control of a strategic IOC communications plan designed to achieve objectives
  2. The IOC should alter the Bid City selection process by 1) looking 20 years into the future to determine where and when the Movement would like to see the Games hosted, and 2) identifying potential cities far in advance and helping them “get prepared” to bid
  3. The IOC should consider more stringent criteria (such as existing venues, experience, etc.) that must be met before allowing a city to bid
  4. Allow the “bid city race” to continue (it generates media interest and excitement – or should), knowing that the Movement has prepared cities whose plans are predicated on the IOC and the Movement needs, rather than left to chance, or worse.
  5. The IOC needs to implement a communications program (not just PR) to take control of its own image and reputation. This can be done in concert with OCOG brands but the IOC has to control its own reputation destiny
  6. If the IOC doesn’t want bids that are based on theory and fiction, then stop rewarding them. Given credit and praise (openly) to cities who provide thoughtful, affordable, responsible plans to host the Games.
  7. The IOC needs to be more involved with the operational success of the OCOG. True functional matter experts in Games operations and planning, Sport, Sectary, Branding and marketing communications, Sponsorship, etc. should work alongside the OCOG
  8. As to member visits, I think that is up the IOC Members themselves to debate and discuss. But I do think it is unusual (and perhaps ill-advised) to ask one hundred-plus people to make a multi-billion dollar decision without ever having seen the city.

Thank you again for this remarkable opportunity to share some of my views with you and your colleagues in Lausanne; please know that all my observations and suggestions are my own, and they reflect my complete respect for the Olympic ideals.  Every day I wake up and am so thankful that I have the chance to be a (small) part of the Olympic Movement.  Thank you for all that you do to make that happen.

Sincerely,

Terrence Burns

So, that’s was my point of view three years ago. It remains so, today. Time will tell if these ideas and concepts have any impact on the 2024/2028 decision, or beyond. I hope so. If so, you read it here first.  Thanks as always.

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