As television technology itself evolved, the potential and promise of this medium for the Olympic Games grew still more. The innovations of live broadcasting and color television could convey the essence not only of the sport and show the Games in the moment, but could also convey the place where the Games were being held, thereby expanding possibilities for revenue generation, both for the Olympic economic machine and for the host country and city of the Games (Bale & Krogh Christensen 89; Roche 10-11). This was a critical point, because it stimulated other countries’ and cities’ interest in hosting the Games, thereby making the Games themselves more competitive and interesting, and drawing the attention and—importantly—the ticket revenue of spectators. In the post-war period, as transportation options expanded and as the economy recovered and as many middle and upper class people began to develop modest reserves of disposable income, more and more spectators could travel to the Games, thereby boosting host countries’ and cities’ economies.
The media, for their part, recognized that the Olympic Games offered them a certain cachet, too. Just as the media provided the Games with exposure, the Games provided the media with exposure (Roche 10). As Roche explained, while the advertiser was promoting itself and the Games, the Games also “helped to disseminate the media” (10). He elaborated by indicating that the Olympic Games “often provided a platform for the first public display and use of [emerging] technologies (Roche 10). This continues to be an apt description of the relationship between the Games and advertisers today.
Olympic organizers also realized that television could be a powerful medium with respect to sponsorship and advertising, and this has been another aspect of the televised age of the Olympics that has shaped the Games. In fact, the International Olympic Committee itself acknowledges that it has become profoundly dependent upon advertisers and sponsorship. Roche quoted a former International Olympic Committee President as describing the relationship between the Olympics and media as follows: “‘The media… are an integral part of the Olympic Movement and in every sense are a member of the Olympic family’” (Roche 147). Roche went on to observe, tongue-in-cheek, that “[t]he ‘family’ has been reproducing at a rapid rate in recent times….” (147). In the United States, at least, the major television networks have fought over the rights to broadcast the Games, paying ever increasing sums to earn this privilege (Roche 147). Major corporations have scrambled to offer the International Olympic Committee, the networks, and host countries and cities the best package deals in order to secure plum sponsorships that will permit their name and brand to be disseminated before densely populated domestic and foreign viewing audiences. Businesses large and small have competed to attach their names to the Olympics in order to build their own brands through that of the Games.
Such has been the case since 1984, the year in which “the first substantially commercialized Olympic Games” were held (Roche 147). Los Angeles organizers envisioned an ambitious plan for revenue-generation and worked closely with the International Olympic Committee to implement the plan. The Committee was interested in the Los Angeles commercialization plan, but its interest was tempered with skepticism. The International Olympic Committee was somewhat concerned that the image and spirit of the games would become tainted by cheapening and kitschy forms of advertising that were “bland and banal” (Bale & Krogh Christensen 2). It was also preoccupied with the possibility that the advertising could attract more attention and interest than the Games themselves, as other mega-sports events have in recent years; a case in point is the Super Bowl, the event itself having largely been eclipsed by clever and sensational advertising campaigns.
The International Olympic Committee’s concerns were largely unfounded, however. As Roche reported about the 1984 Los Angeles Games, “The event turned out to be a great financial success, generating a large surplus, and this reignited interest around the international community in staging the Games” (153). The unanticipated and unprecedented commercial success of the 1984 Games served to cement the relationship between the Olympics and the role of television, advertising, and corporate sponsorship. “Since the Los Angeles Olympics,” Roche observed, “media companies’ payments for the rights to broadcast the Games have constituted at least a third of the total income of the event” (183). The Games benefit directly from these astronomical investments made by the media companies, which, in turn, recuperate massive amounts of money from their advertisers. Beyond being a global athletic event, the Olympic Games have become a “global media event” and, this writer would add, a global economic event (Roche 183).
By the 1996 Atlanta Games, “$568 million came from the sale of TV rights, most of this coming from USA TV (i.e. NBC)” (Roche 139). Corporate sponsorship was still more impressive for the Atlanta Games. $633 million was netted solely through sponsorship agreements between major corporations and the Olympic organization (Roche 139). What is even more interesting and impressive about this figure is the fact that the majority of the $633 million came from just ten corporate sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Kodak, VISA, Xerox, Time, IBM, Panasonic, UPS, Bausch and Lomb, and John Hancock (Roche 139). Each of these corporate sponsors made a $40 million “contribution” in exchange for sponsorship privileges; as part of their agreement, the corporations also provided certain logistical or material services to athletes and the Olympic organization (Roche 139).
Clearly, an entire segment of the advertising and media industry has grown up around the Olympics, despite the fact that they are a time-limited and periodic event. The Games and the media have fostered a symbiotic relationship, but one that has not always been easy or wholly comfortable for either partner. Because of the nature of sponsorship agreements, the Games have, quite literally, sold off their own image. Corporate sponsors pay impressive sums to earn the right to attach the Olympic logo to their own icons in their advertisements. Sponsors get a lot of miles out of their relationship with the Games. Although the event is short, the 24-7 coverage has the impact of imprinting the advertisers’ images and messages in the consumer consciousness of the viewer, and the very fact of the constant repetition serves to create an impression that lasts long after the event itself. In addition, corporate sponsors do not only get exposure on the television; increasingly, they are also getting exposure in the host cities themselves. One of the issues that have been increasingly controversial amongst International Olympic Committee members is the role that advertising and sponsorship is playing in the arena where athletes’ and spectators’ attention are being pulled away from the event towards flashy banners, billboards, and digital advertisements (Burbank, Andranovich, & Heying 96; Roche 183).
Although these types of advertising and sponsorship dilemmas are only likely to increase with the rapidly evolving and expanding technologies, it is unlikely that the relationships between the Olympics and television, sponsorship, and advertising will attenuate any time soon. The entities have become entirely too dependent upon one another to loosen the ties they have tied between them, and they will be challenged to continue negotiating the terms of their agreements to ensure that their mutual needs and interests are served without compromising the spirit and integrity of the games. Already, for instance, the International Olympic Committee has attempted to maintain some degree of control over thetype of advertising it permits. It does not permit tobacco or alcohol advertising, for example (Roche 198).
“Are late-modern Olympics something fundamentally different from those of the early twentieth century?” asked Bale and Krogh Christensen rhetorically (2). “Are they more predictable, more standardized, more kitsch-like”, they continue, since the advent of television and other emergent technologies (Bale and Krogh Christensen 2)? While it is indisputable that television and the relationships of sponsorship and advertising have changed the Olympics in many ways—namely, by lining the coffers of the Olympic machine—Bale and Krogh Christensen contend that the contemporary incarnation of the Olympics are not fundamentally different from the Olympics of the end of the 19th century and the opening of the 20th century. After all, they argue, “Olympism has [since its earliest days] been a prosletyzing religion, a movement that its modern founder wished to diffuse to all parts of the world” (Bale & Krogh Christensen 2). Media, advertising, and the mechanism of corporate sponsorships merely act as forums for diffusion, and they have been incredibly effective (Bale & Krogh Christensen 2).
It will be interesting to see how recent and emergent technologies continue to shape the Olympic Games in the coming years. In the past year alone, a host of new platforms have emerged that are likely to have immediate application and impact in the next Games. Advertisers’ and sponsors’ interest in using the Olympics as an exposure-generating medium will not wane. As Jackson and Andrews pointed out, “Only sports has the nation, and sometimes the world, watching the same thing at the same time, and if you have a message, that’s a potent messenger” (9). As Roche adds, “Mega-events have had, and continue to have, an important role to play in the development of this global consumer culture,” and, in the same way, the global consumer culture plays a vital role in the propagation of sports and mega-events (26). While the Olympics have changed a great deal over the past 100 years, the spirit of the games and their global interest have not decreased, and one reason to which this phenomenon can be attributed is advertising, sponsorship, and technology.