Some of Canada’s highest-profile companies, along with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, were scrambling Monday to find a path forward after the Canadian Olympic Committee decreed late Sunday that it would not send athletes to Tokyo if the Olympic Games went ahead as scheduled this summer.
Companies such as Bell, RBC, Canadian Tire, and Hudson’s Bay, which pay several millions of dollars a year for the right to call themselves Premier National Partners of the COC, must now quickly re-evaluate marketing plans that were set to shift into high gear in the final few months before the Summer Olympics, which are scheduled to take place July 24 to Aug. 9.
And CBC/Radio-Canada, which is the official broadcaster of Tokyo 2020, is in a holding pattern while the International Olympic Committee continues to resist growing pressure to cancel or postpone the Games. On Monday, the public broadcaster told The Globe and Mail that, if the IOC proceeds with the Olympics this summer, it would be obligated to air the Games despite the lack of Canadian participants.
Sponsors are striking a respectful tone, lest they be seen to be abandoning longtime partners in their hour of need.
“The COC has made their statements, and until the IOC has a clear and definitive path forward, it's anybody's guess as to what the decision will be and how they have a plan to execute, if at all, on the Games,” said Mary DePaoli, the executive vice-president and chief marketing officer of Royal Bank of Canada, which has a decades-long history of Olympics sponsorship.
“We were very proud of the stand [the COC] took, as difficult as it was,” said DePaoli, noting the move was the first in the world by a national Olympic committee. “It was the right decision, given the health and economic context, that we are all living in, globally. And a decision like that is bigger than a marketing partnership. It’s even bigger than the sports that make up the Olympics themselves.
“Ultimately, the basic principles of health and safety have to come first. And so we respect that, and we admire that they took a leadership position, where the world was still pausing.”
Bell Canada echoed the sentiment. “It’s a fluid situation, but no matter the outcome with the Tokyo Games, we’ll continue to support Team Canada and the Canadian Olympic Committee as a sponsor,” spokesperson Marc Choma said in an e-mailed statement.
Companies such as Bell spend years planning campaigns designed to kick off at the Olympics. One person close to the Olympic movement said premier sponsors might spend upward of $5-million to $7-million a year to buy the rights to market themselves as official partners, then several millions more to capitalize on those rights with advertising buys and other programs during the years in which the Olympics are staged.
Companies were believed to have been in the final stages of the planning and production of commercials intended to air during the broadcasts, as well as dozens or hundreds of ads intended for digital platforms.
One person with experience in Olympics sponsorship suggested the COC’s move could provide its sponsors with an unexpected bit of good news, allowing them to hold off on spending those dollars at a time when there would be little point in marketing, anyway, with the economy in a tailspin and consumers suddenly showing extreme caution.
RBC’s DePaoli agreed that any communications from marketers would face challenges in the current environment. “Any sporting event … that would try to occupy a moment in a consumer’s mind while we’re facing one of the biggest health and economic crises of our lifetimes, it would be very hard to [get people’s attention], given what is happening in the world today,” she said.
If the Games were to go ahead, CBC would be bound by its contract to broadcast them, regardless of whether Canadian athletes are involved. While a person familiar with CBC’s negotiations with the IOC told The Globe and Mail there is language in the contract that might allow the broadcaster to opt out of airing the Games, CBC’s executive director of Olympics and Sports told The Globe it is not considering that option.
“We would have an obligation and a responsibility to cover the Olympics, as per our contract. And we live up to our contracts,” Chris Wilson said.
“In the long shot [scenario] that that’s what ends up happening, we would do it,” he added. “And so we’re just going to wait the four weeks that [the IOC has] asked for, until we hear an official statement from the IOC and then we’ll make our plans at that point. But clearly nobody would be wishing for that. And you could count us among that.”
He did not say whether CBC would enforce the contracts it has with Canadian companies that had booked ad time on the Olympics broadcasts.
RBC did not reveal whether the bank had yet scrapped its ad purchases pegged to the Olympics. “We now need to work closely with our partners and just navigate the path forward,” DePaoli said.
CBC’s Wilson said the broadcaster had envisioned strong ratings for Tokyo 2020. (The 2016 Rio Games, which were held in a time zone that made them easy for the majority of Canadians to watch live, regularly pulled in more than three million viewers for the biggest events, with 7.2 million viewers watching Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse place second to Usain Bolt.)
One source familiar with CBC’s revenue expectations – whose name The Globe is keeping confidential because the source is not authorized to speak on the subject – said a successful Olympic Games could add tens of millions of dollars to the broadcaster’s bottom line: A rare bright spot at a moment in which other revenue lines are shrinking.
Wilson said that, if the Games were moved to the summer of 2021, CBC/Radio-Canada would likely be able to find room in its schedule. He said it was too early to know what the broadcaster’s replacement programming for this summer might look like.
“We were expecting the  Olympics to continue to be the sort of iconic event that brings Canadians together in numbers that most other television programs can’t,” Wilson said. “To be frank, I think, when the Tokyo Olympics happen, I’m feeling it has a chance to do it again in a very big way.”