Postpone, Don't Cancel: A Perspective on the 2020 Olympics

‘Postpone, Don’t Cancel: A Perspective on the 2020 Olympics’ by Jordan Ruby, Brian Wedl and Tim Lay

Published in Campaign Magazine here.

The global outbreak of COVID-19 has changed the way people live their daily lives around the world, and caused the postponement or in some cases outright cancellation of many tent pole sporting events. Earlier this week, the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2020 Olympic Games would be postponed one calendar year to the summer of 2021, when it will still be held in Tokyo. Even as the global sporting calendar has already become increasingly barren, the first postponement of the Olympics in the modern era of the games struck a particularly unsettling chord. It has also sent marketers planning on leveraging the games, either as formal sponsors or from outside the traditional ecosystem, scrambling.

While the postponement of the Olympics will cause dramatic changes to both the timing and substance of every Olympic marketing campaign, it will provide more structure, and thus opportunity, than all of the other sports which have also been delayed. Basketball, soccer, baseball and the major European football leagues have been delayed indefinitely, and while there is optimism that the football season will start on time, pessimism grows every day that will in fact be the case. The NFL Draft is confirmed as moving forward on April 23rd, but without any fans. As the immediate timeline of our current crisis remains in flux, the upcoming sporting calendar is, similarly to the nature of the postponement itself, indefinite.

The 2020 Tokyo Games, as they will still be called when they are held in 2021, will now be held July 23rd – August 8, 2021. This gives Olympic marketers a leg up in their planning, as even the most conservative estimates indicate society and culture should be relatively back-to-normal within a year’s time. While other sports marketers are in limbo, Olympic marketers can proceed with their plans with a confidence that is uncommon in this time.

The Olympics also provide a unique opportunity for marketers to create alternative content to run in the summer of 2020 that is focused on the athletes themselves, or other games-related creative come July when fans and consumers will still be craving Olympics-tied content.  Here are directional pivots brands should be thinking about at this unique moment in time:


Olympic athletes are unique from their professional peers in that many of them, particularly in the smaller sports, are amateurs in the truest sense. They plan entire four year cycles towards being at their best in the Olympic year, and often put other potentially more profitable endeavors on hold in order to do so, working retail and/or administrative jobs simultaneously to support themselves and their training. As a result of the postponement of the games, many are now scrambling to set themselves up for the next few months. While the focus of most cause marketing campaigns in the next few months will be COVID related, and for good reason, brands should also be considering opportunities to support and lift up athletes who may have lost out on the significant exposure and financial opportunities they have planned for and depended on for the past four years. If done with the right touch, highlighting these stories in a personal, sensitive and authentic lens will provide both a platform for these notable athletes during the Olympic gap and give consumers a form of the Olympic content they will likely be yearning for come July and August.


Additionally, the postponement of the games opens up an opportunity for brands who were/are non-official Olympic sponsors to engage with Olympic talent. Traditionally, the IOC’s Rule 40 prohibited non-Olympic sponsors from working with current Olympic athletes during the games. While the IOC significantly relaxed Rule 40 stipulations in 2020, measures such as a registration and separate contracting process and limits as to how branded partnerships during the games between active athletes and non-sponsors could live remain in-place during Olympic timeframes. While these regulations will still be in place in 2021, with the games no longer happening this year, brands now have access to “active” Olympic athletes during that July-August timeframe they would have otherwise been restricted (or regulated) from working with Olympic athletes had the games gone on as planned. This means brands now have the ability to work with active athletes in more meaningful ways throughout summer 2020.

Many of these athletes have strong reach and/or powerful stories that brands would otherwise not have access to had this summer had the Olympics gone on as planned. Leaning into current technology, brands should be looking at virtual panels or fireside chats connecting athlete stories/perspectives to relevant industry topics and hosted on platforms like IG Live to leverage talent followings (and of course being in-line with social distancing) and maximize reach and exposure.


Finally, Olympic marketers should also look to leverage a phenomenon proven out in the early stages of this crisis in other sports, and one that the Olympics has more access to than any other sporting event – legendary and historic moments. Replays of old sporting events are generating massive interest among sports fans that are missing the current incantations. Later this summer as we begin to hit historic Olympic anniversaries, marketers could take advantage by partnering with the retired athletes at the center of these moments or rising stars who have been inspired by said moments.

As we approach the timeframe where the Olympics would have been held, fans who have looked forward to this edition of the games for years will be looking for relevant content to fill the void. By leveraging fan cravings, Olympic nostalgia and the ever-growing consumption of digital content, brands should be seizing the moment to pivot and fill the gap.


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