The Opening Ceremony of the XXXIII Summer Olympic Games was supposed to be Friday. In a year full of postponements and cancellations, it’s easy for the date to go by unnoticed. Except, of course, for the thousands of athletes who had it circled on their calendars for years—and also the businesses that built entire strategies around Tokyo 2020.
NBC scheduled its flagship streaming product, Peacock, for a mid-July rollout, with plans to stream the Opening Ceremony. Instead the service is launching a “Road to Tokyo” channel featuring documentary content.
The International Olympic Committee’s digital Olympic Channel, meanwhile, had been looking forward to this summer since the end of the 2018 Games. Launching on the heels of Rio, the channel saw 2020, its first Summer Olympiad, as a pivotal chance to further its mission of getting fans engaged with Olympic sports and athletes beyond the biennial bonanzas. Now, the media platform has programmed a schedule of classic competitions tied as much as possible to the events that would have been happening each day over the next two weeks.
Meanwhile, general manager Mark Parkman has been figuring out how much of the Olympic Channel’s already filmed content will hold up a year from now. “All the profile pieces we had been working on, who knows whether or not we’ll be able to reuse those,” he said. “I think every sport and media entity in the world has had to start from scratch.”
Sponsors are going through the same process, evaluating each asset to see what’s salvageable.
While direct Olympic sponsorship costs can be rolled over for 2021 in most cases, Elizabeth Lindsey, president of brands and properties at Wasserman, said that as much as 40% of a company’s marketing expenses might have to be spent again due to sunk activation costs like commercial shoots and travel. “It takes more time to unplan an event than it takes to plan it,” she said. Most companies are also maintaining their sponsorship commitments to athletes, many of whom rely on those dollars to pay for training.
For some companies, up to 50% of their annual marketing budget is dedicated to the Olympics every four years. As one of the newest major Olympic sponsors in 2018, Intel showed off its drone technology and earned nearly 10 million social interactions during the games, second only to Coca-Cola. This time around, Airbnb was set for its first Olympiad as a major sponsor ahead of a hotly anticipated IPO. Now, it has had to settle for a five-day virtual festival while managing layoffs and a radically altered travel landscape.
“A marketer’s dream is having a platform as reliable and consistent as the Olympics,” Lindsey said. “When that reliability is shaken when you never thought it would be, that can be almost insurmountable.”
She added that marketers would be smart to speak to the country’s mood when they do unveil their Olympic messaging, but as to what that would look like, it’s hard to say.
“I know a lot of people who have campaigns really focused on getting out on new platforms like TikTok,” she said. “But who knows what the new platform is going to be a year from now? Who knows what TikTok is going to be in a year?”
NBC Olympics president Gary Zenkel is hoping that all of the uncertainty doesn’t undermine the event’s worth. When the Games were officially postponed, NBC had already sent more than 20 shipping containers full of equipment to Japan, with more en route. The cargo ships turning around in the Pacific provided a perfect metaphor for the network returning to its drawing board.
Zenkel is now trying to plan next year’s coverage without final guidance on what kind of COVID-19 related travel, distancing, or media limitations might be in place. Much of that is expected to be finalized in September. In the meantime, he is learning from the other NBC Sports divisions, like golf, NASCAR and the NHL, which are getting up and running. He’s also beginning to allow disappointment around the Olympic delay to grow into anticipation.
“I do think about this from time to time,” he said. “When the team from Greece leads the parade of nations in Tokyo, followed by 200-plus countries, it’s going to be an emotional and spectacular moment….
“The Opening Ceremony may be one of the most meaningful gatherings that we will or have experienced in our lifetimes,” Zenkel added. “Hopefully it will restore some faith. And I look forward to that. I think we all do.”