Official sponsors who pay millions see ambush marketers as … ring dings

An executive from AT&T recently spotted an MCI commercial that featured the image of a runner with an Olympic like torch. The spot introduced a promotion offering customers the chance at a trip to Barcelona in late July–in time for the start of the Summer Games.

Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Olympic Committee received a call from AT&T. The telecommunications giant had paid $4 million to become an official sponsor of the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team and wanted to make it clear that it didn’t appreciate the Olympic-themed advertising of its rival, which is not a Games sponsor. Following talks with the USOC, MCI pulled the commercial.

Instances of marketers trying to take a free ride on an event are nothing new. But because the Olympics offer a unique mass-market spectacle and a chance to tap into a worldwide market, the Games draw more “ambush marketing” than any other event.

Such unofficial tie-ins have become the bane of the International Olympic Committee and the Olympic committees of each nation, which are charged with selling official sponsorships. These organizations can’t afford to have the investments of their marketing partners diluted by outsiders.

“For anyone to come along at the eleventh hour and create confusion in the marketplace as to who has an Olympic sponsorship is absolutely unconscionable,” says John Krimsky, deputy secretary general and marketing chief of the U.S. Olympic Committee and the organization’s top cop when it comes to enforcing official sponsorships. “By looking for a near-term opportunity to violate what someone else has bought, they’re trying to diminish the value of Olympic sponsorship. Who gets hurt? The athletes. That’s not ambush marketing. It’s parasitic.”

The ability of non-sponsors to buy media on Olympic telecasts became a source of controversy earlier this year during CBS’ coverage of the Winter Games from Albertville, France. American Express received a call from the USOC about ads featuring Alpine scenes and the line “winter fun and games.”

No matter how staunch the anti-ambush posturing, the Olympic Games are simply too big a property to be encircled by an ironclad perimeter. The purchase of umbrella sponsorships from the lnternational or U.S. Olympic committees affords only the price of admission. The mar- keter is then responsible for creatively leveraging its tie among 160 countries and 10,000 athletes. Each sport is under the control of national governing bodies which, in turn, sell their own sponsorships

Domestically, there are two backdoors for unofficial marketers seeking Olympic tie-ins national governing bodies (NGBs) and star athletes. The much-hyped U.S Olympic basketball is a prime example of a secondary sponsorship buy. With a roster of NBA stars, the team drawn corporate partners like McDonald’s, AT&T, Visa, IBM and Quak er Oats’ Gatorade brand. The tie has been supplemental for established Olympic sponsors such as Visa and McDonald’s. But for a non-Olympic Sponsor like Gatorade, it offers the chance to show endorser Michael Jordan in a Team USA uniform.

Similarly, the Athletics Congress (TAC), the governing body for track and field, has held a high sponsorship value, and its events have been a major focus of every summer Olympiad. This year Fuji Photo Film USA has heralded its ties to the TAC–to Kodak’s chagrin–with a “Commitment to Excellence” promotion with free-standing inserts and coupons, and print ads featuring decathlete Dan O’Brien.

Nike Inc. also brandishes a TAC sponsorship, outfitting the team in spite of Reebok’s official Olympic sponsorship.

Nike is another company using the backdoor. In addition to a contract with the Athletics Congress to outfit the U.S. team, the No. 1 athletic-shoe maker has tie-ins with Jordan and several other Olympians.

“If you’re Coke or Chrysler, it’s more efficient to just throw a single lever in the form of a big mega-sponsorship, but Nike takes a more holistic approach,” says Scott Bedbury, Nike’s director of advertising. “For a company that is all about the authenticity of sport, you find yourself on par with a lot of companies that have nothing to do with sport. We don’t benefit from that kind of association.”

It’s hard to convince organizations to share the wealth they garner as premier NGBs.

“There’s no such thing as a seamless sponsorship,” says John Bevilaqua, president of the Atlanta-based sports marketing consultancy Bevilaqua International. “You can buy up all worldwide rights, lock up every NGB, and I can still go out and sign up Florence Griffith-Joyner and take her to every mall in the U.S.”

Coca-Cola, the Olympics’ perennial No. 1 corporate partner, may be a victim of such a scenario. The company paid the IOC $33 million for worldwide sponsorship, bought some $40 million worth of media on NBC’s Olympics broadcast and spent several million dollars more to lock up 22 U.S. NGBs. While Coke positioned the latter agreement as representative of its commitment to U.S. athletes, one source close to the company calls it “purely a defensive move,” to keep PepsiCo from using backdoors.

Pepsi, however, found another way by tapping Magic Johnson of this year’s Olympic basketball team for a campaign building into the Olympics. Coke’s media package with NBC blocks Pepsi from the network’s coverage, but Pepsi will break its campaign next month as a preemptive strike.

Some Olympic marketers concede that standing deals are valid. Nike, after all, has had Jordan and fellow NBA stars under contract for years. Miller Brewing Co., which split the beer category on NBC with official sponsor Anheuser-Busch, is running TV advertising highlighting its sponsorship of the U.S. Olympic volleyball team.

The USOC’s Krimsky is prepping what he calls his “ambush patrol,” a team of lawyers across the country, for battle this summer, and Pepsi may be the first opponent. “If a soft-drink company ambushes our soft drink sponsor, then all sponsors are infringed upon,” he says. “That might well result in, say, our official airline discontinuing its business with a certain soft-drink supplier. Or if it’s a credit-card company ambushing Visa, our airline or other service sponsors might consider discontinuing acceptance of a certain other card.”

Sponsors and Olympic officials alike feel that the Games are no game.

“Ambushers imply Olympic sponsorship, and that they’re supporting athletes,” says Peter de Tagyos, director of Olympics and corporate sponsorships at AT&T. “In fact, the more effective their ambush, the more they take away. It’s like going into a job interview and talking about how tough grad school was when you only have a high school degree. It’s false advertising.” Cashing In on the Olympics


Official: Coke ($33 million). Plus some $40 million in NBC Olympic media, plus some change on 22 NGBs. Coke will use Randy Travis and Natalie Cole.

Unofficial: Pepsi will reintroduce Magic Johnson, recently retired NBA legend and member of the U.S. Olympic hoop team.


Official: Visa ($20 million). Also a USAB sponsor, Usage-incentive program, plus “They don’t take American Express” ads.

Unofficial: AmEx last winter broke ads with an Alpine look and a message of “winter fun and games.” Who knows?


Official: AT&T ($4 million). Also USAB sponsor. Advertising features vignettes of real-life athletes.

Unofficial: MCI hooked time on NBC, but one “0lympicized” spot, with a runner offering a trip to a Spanish city, was nipped in the bud by the USOC.


Official: Reebok ($3 million, official supplier). Used Super Bowl media as launch for “Dan & Dave” campaign, gambling huge media schedule on two unknown decathletes.

Unofficial: Nike, longtime sponsor of the Athletics Congress, doesn’t need Olympic tie because it has contracted so many top Olympians in two of the biggest fields, track and basketball.


Official: Eastman Kodak, worldwide sponsor (est. $20 million). Running Olympic”scrapbook” ads.

Unofficial: Fuji Photo Film USA has this year heralded its ties to TAC, to the chagrin of USOC sponsor Kodak, with a promo, FSIs, coupons and print ads featuring U.S. decathlete Dan O’Brien.

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