The value of O

They say that a name has a greater chance of fame if it has an O in it. Elvis seemed to do well enough without one but there are enough mega famous and infamous O names out there to make this ridiculous claim seem plausible for a second. Obama and Osama are names that will dominate the media-sphere for some years to come. Usain Bolt has the O but his characteristic lightning bolt defies the stasis of the O.

6 August 2012

Might the Big O be better off without the corporate opt-ins? (Reuters)

Brand police and the ‘Big O’

James Rose

James Rose

I’d like to write about that big sporting event currently in the capital of the UK this year.

I’m not sure if I can mention it as I’m not sure how far the long arm of the UK plod reaches in its efforts to hold up the PR wall for the chosen few corporate sponsors of the, er, event.

The effort the International Olympic Committee puts into protecting its brand has emerged as one of the odder and perhaps darker themes behind The Thing – let’s call it the Big O.

Corporate involvement in the staging of the Games has tended to skew, shall we say, the culture of the Games, certainly in the past few decades. But it’s not a recent phenomenon. In the first games of the modern era in Athens 1896, Kodak was one of the backers.

But since the era of Juan Antonio Samaranch (1980-2001), the commercial angle has sharpened and the previous discomfort with corporate backers was bought off by big money interests. The Olympic Partner (TOP) Programme, established by Samaranch as the lead IOC sponsorship vehicle, has, reportedly, fees of $US50 million for four-year memberships.

Roughly $US1 billion will be spent on advertising around the Big O and around $US4 billion has been spent gaining TV rights. Overall, it has cost the London organisers about $11 billion to pay for the Games (a little higher than the initial estimate of $2.4 billion).

Presumably, most of that ad spending goes to other corporate interests, such as media, but some goes to the IOC as licence fees to be “official” sponsors, supposedly – hopefully – to help fund the O.

So, some of this corporate money goes to the IOC. Some goes to media corporations. The companies, however, will win gold everywhere.

The consumer brand giant Proctor and Gamble have already stated they expect to get a $US500 million return of their Olympics investments. All the big sponsors have the backing of state security in enforcing the brand exclusion zone that enfolds the Olympic precinct, ensuring no-one who hasn’t paid the big bucks gets a look in. That includes small operators looking to capitalise with ring-shaped bread or pubs showing the Games on TV.

Many of the London organisers have made the point that the Games wouldn’t exist without corporate dollars. But the real fact is that corporations make a pile – no Olympic spirit there – and the taxpayers not only stump up the outlay, but wear the risk should the Games tank in economic terms – as most in fact have.

Not only that, those taxpayers then have to queue up for overpriced tickets for obscure sporting events which they may not even get, be subjected to mind-boggling cattle prodding by major consumer brands with an iron-clad monopoly, lose control of their city for a while, face traffic restrictions, raised prices, and security hassles.

They will also wake up after the Big O to see that the country has been on hold for months.

A study of the 2000 Sydney Olympics suggests that, for the hosts themselves, the direct economic benefits of the Games are non-existent. The taxpayer contribution for Sydney was around $3.3 billion (those were the days…) Real consumption in that period dropped by almost exactly that amount, which means the economy gained a flat zero in real terms.

Sydney was, however, in the midst of rude economic times. The market was more or less full enough and had no real capacity to go anywhere fast. London, being mired in a recession, may do better as there are more dormant spaces to fill. The injection of that $11 billion may act as a kind of Keynesian hit – nowhere near enough to get the UK economy back on track, but perhaps enough to give the London economy a noticeable boost.

Whatever happens, and with the Big O a lot can, taxpayers are taking a ride. Corporate dollars fund less than half the show and that is only given on the proviso that huge profits can be gathered and thrown at another Lear jet or more underpriced and under-regulated offshore manufacturing plants.

As the great Norman May might have put it, “It’s all about Gold, Gold, Gold …”

The bottom line is that there would be no Games without willing, generous and altruistic taxpayers. The corporations are only there to spend, yes, tax-deductible marketing fees to make even more obscene profits.

Might the Big O be better off without the corporate opt-ins? Do we really need all the ads, the outrageous branding, the corporate tie-ins, the post-performance interviews as auditions for sponsorships, the corporate seats being sold on eBay, and the corporate-driven obsession with medals, world records and quantifiable success?


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