Just days after one of his top lieutenants dismissed any speculation that the coronavirus pandemic might altogether derail the already postponed Tokyo Games, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach on Wednesday offered a more nuanced assessment.
Speaking from Lausanne following a five-hour meeting of the IOC Executive Board, Bach said his team “remain[s] focused on delivering a safe and successful Games next year.” Bach acknowledged that the protean nature of the virus has made it difficult for him to arrive at any long-range conclusions about the Summer Olympics, before going on to say that the IOC is closely monitoring the global health crisis.
“In the coming weeks you will see important and intensive discussions taking place with regard to … the COVID-19 countermeasures,” Bach said. “Overall, we will continue to follow the principle that has driven all of our decisions so far with regards to Tokyo. That means to organize the Olympic Games in a safe environment for all people involved next summer.”
Bach’s comments came on the heels of a defiant declaration by IOC vice-president John Coates, who earlier this week told Agence France-Presse that the Tokyo Games will launch next July 23 “with or without COVID.” Noting that the Olympics have never been canceled for any reason shy of a World War, Coates leaned all the way into his hell-or-high-water outlook. “These will be the Games that conquered COVID, the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
Coates’s bullishness was echoed by Japan’s Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, who on Tuesday told reporters that the 17-night sporting event should be held “at any cost.” Of course, the human cost of the pandemic makes suspect such displays of certitude; according to data collected by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering, 27.6 million people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus worldwide, and 900,000 have died as a result of contracting the disease. The U.S. is the most infected nation on the planet, with 6.33 million confirmed cases and north of 190,000 deaths.
Back on March 24, when the IOC announced that the 2020 Olympics would be put on hold until next summer, fewer than 423,000 cases had been identified around the globe, and the death count was at 18,900. Here in the U.S., some 55,000 patients had tested positive for the virus; of these, 790 cases to that point were terminal.
In the weeks leading up to the IOC’s decision to postpone, Bach had issued numerous “the show must go on” bromides. Five days before throwing in the towel on this summer’s plans, Bach was defiant, telling The New York Times, “We are not putting the cancellation of the Games on the agenda.”
Five-and-a-half months later, Bach served up a more cautious read on the XXXII Olympiad. He acknowledged Wednesday that the ever-shifting nature of the virus prevents him from providing guidance as to whether spectators would be allowed into the various Olympic venues. “The situations are changing day by day,” Bach said. “It’s just too early to set a deadline [or] give a concrete answer to what will be the final scenario and the final approach [to the Games]. The only thing we can say is, it will be … a safe environment for all participants.”
Bach added that while the IOC has been monitoring the activities of rebooted sports confederations such as the Premier League and NBA, there’s only so much his team can do with that information. “We cannot automatically transfer the experience we are gaining,” he said. “If we don’t know what the world looks like tomorrow, how can we know what it will look like 320 days from today?”
If the virus is sufficiently contained to justify inviting representatives of 206 nations to Tokyo in a year’s time, that return to whatever you care to define as “normalcy” would resound throughout the sports advertising market. Five months before the Opening Ceremony was meant to take place on July 24, Dan Lovinger, NBC Sports executive vice president of advertising sales, stated that “nearly 90% of our Tokyo Olympic inventory and the vast majority of our tent-pole sponsorships have been sold.”
By early March, NBC had booked a record $1.25 billion in sales for its presentation of the Tokyo Games, and while the coronavirus disrupted that windfall, the network expects that most of those clients will be back in the fold come next summer. As much as the postponement was an unlucky break, insurance provisions helped soften the blow for NBC parent Comcast.
Speaking at one of the very last in-person industry events to take place before pretty much everything in New York shut down, Comcast Chairman and CEO Brian Roberts on March 3 told the throng at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference that the company was covered “by the contract language that… anticipates big events that might not happen.” The Comcast capo went on to say that rather than take a loss, “there just wouldn’t be a profit this year” at NBC.
As has been the case with every ad-supported media outlet, the ravages of the coronavirus left a mark on Comcast’s TV business. While the company won’t report what would have been its Olympics-quarter earnings until late October, sales at NBCUniversal’s broadcast unit (which includes its TV stations) and cable networks plummeted 28% to $1.64 billion in the period from April 1 to June 30. Excluding subscription-VOD revenues, affiliate fees fell 15% in the quarter to $1.46 billion.
If the events of the last six months have been a “total bummer”—which is how NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell characterized the Olympics delay back on July 30—a global return to form next summer could lead to a massive influx of dollars at NBC Sports. “You’ve got to remember, not only will we have the Olympics in the summer of ’21 in Tokyo, but then we’ll have the Winter Olympics seven months later in Beijing,” Shell said.
And just as the second of those billion-dollar spectacles is getting underway, NBC also will have bragging rights to Super Bowl LVI. Add the billion-plus in ad spend that is expected to be re-expressed in next summer’s games to the projected haul for the 2022 Winter Olympics and Super Bowl—about $1.35 billion, based on past performance—and NBC’s looking at raking in some $2.6 billion in sales cash over the course of the three events.
Elapsed time: 28 weeks.