Opinion

Are you brave enough to back the Superhumans?

As Usain Bolt lines his substantial coffers with more ad dollars for old rope, Mumbrella editor Alex Hayes argues its time for advertisers to be brave and back athletes who have shown the most bravery of all, our Paralympians.

“It makes me sick to my tummy”. Those were the words of cricketer Ed Cowan when he heard what one of Australia’s foremost Paralympic athletes has to go through to get enough funding to train and buy equipment.

And those words struck a chord with me.

Why are we bombarded with endless ads telling us all about Usain Bolt’s training history and back story – as told to us so far this year by Optus, Gatorade, Virgin Media, Nissan, Puma and All Nippon Airways. They’re the ones I could find from a very quick Google search.

It’s easy to understand why Bolt is such a popular pitchman – he’s good looking, charismatic, undoubtedly the best performer at the sexiest event at the Olympics, and very available to do commercial work. And fair play to him for insisting all shoots are done in Jamaica as a small way of boosting the local economy.

The problem I have is his back story really isn’t all that exciting. Certainly not interesting enough for me as a sports-mad punter to want to watch more than one of these back story pieces. Which when you’re designing a content series to battle for attention is not a good thing.

Which brings me back to Ed Cowan’s comments was talking to when he made his “sick to the tummy” comment was Carol Cooke, one of Australia’s best Paralympic cyclists.

She’d just explained at Mumbrella’s Sports Marketing Summit how tricky it was for her to find enough backing to get cash from day-to-day.

It’s either through friends and it’s not what you know it’s who you know, but going door to door and trying to get past that wolf at the door – the receptionist – to find out who to approach, that’s the hardest part as an individual.

“I don’t have a management team behind me, it’s me on my own, but it makes it that much harder to get into those companies.

“I’m very lucky as an elite Paracyclist I do get sponsor money from the Australian Sports Commission, and reimbursed for stuff which I use to pay my coach.”

That’s quite incredible when you think about it. An elite athlete struggling to get the time of day with the right people to pitch her case.

And I’d argue Cooke has a much more interesting history than Bolt – certainly from her bio:

Carol was born in Canada in 1961.  She worked as a Police Officer in Canada for 14 years including 4 years undercover with the drug and prostitution squads.  Carol moved to Australia for love and was devastated when diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in 1998 only 3 years into her marriage.  Told that she would never work again or compete in sport, she was advised she should put her affairs in order before she became incapacitated.  She defied the odds.  By 2001 she was using a wheelchair full time.  However, through regular exercise and Botox injections in her legs, Carol not only walks but rows and cycles at an international level.

Carol was a former national level swimmer in Canada, with a goal of going to the 1980 Olympics; the opportunity vanished with the Moscow Games being boycotted.  In 2006 she took up rowing, having been identify at an Australian Paralympic Talent Search day.  She proved a natural on the water narrowly missing out on a position on the Beijing 2008 team and placed sixth at the 2009 World Rowing Championships.

Carol switched sports to cycling with a plan to make the London 2012 Paralympic team.  In 2011 she made the Australian team for the UCI Para Cycling World Championships.  Carol made the impact she had desired claiming silver in both the Road Race and Time Trial.  Her form flowed through to the 2012 Australian National Road Championships.  Carol achieved her goal when she was named in the Australian Paralympic team for London 2012.  In London years of toil paid off.  Carol won a gold medal in the Mixed Time Trial T1-T2 event.  As of 2015 she has earned her World Champion stripes and is a 5 x World Champion, finishing 2015 ranked #1 in the World.

If your content production team can’t make six compelling pieces out of all of that then you need to fire them immediately.

Vice cop, denied an Olympic dream, MS diagnosis and using a wheelchair, taking up sport to start walking again, taking up rowing, taking up cycling and an Olympic gold. And that’s not even looking ahead to what’s next.

The problem is it’s really a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more exposure successful athletes have the more advertisers seem to flock to them, cramming our airwaves with the same faces over a six-week period and creating a homogenous mass of ads talking about how quick/great their service is which are utterly forgettable.

And those who compete in the less sexy sports, but are far more fascinating characters, can’t even get their foot in the door.

At best Australians may be able to name one or all of Kurt Fearnley, Ellie Cole or Dylan Allcott.

So how does it change? A good example of this is the UK, where the 2012 Paralympics are remembered as fondly as the Olympics.

And there’s one reason for that, the prominence given to them by a first-time broadcaster, Channel 4.

The TV network created what will, in my opinion, be in contention to be the best ad of the 2010s, Meet the Superhumans.

Then they did something really radical, put on wall-to-wall live coverage across its main and multi-channels and created ancillary content around it.

It’s probably not well known in Australia that Aussie comedian Adam Hills really shot to fame with the show The Last Leg, taking a humorous look at the competition and interviewing Paralympians. It was so popular it’s still on now and has made Hills a bigger star in the UK than here.

And Channel 4 got enough out of the experience to go again in a far less friendly timezone for the UK, including a rebooted version of ‘Meet the Superhumans’, ‘We’re the Superhumans’.

While the Paralympics has never had all that much prominence in Australia that could all be about to change, thanks to Seven Network picking up the rights. And CEO Tim Worner has promised to give it a good shake, with 14-hours per day coverage, as well as a localised version of Meet the Superhumans which will launch during the Olympics.

Seven actually took the rights from the Australian Paralympic Committee who had bought them themselves, in a move its CEO Lynne Anderson described on stage at the sports summit as a “real game changer”.

“It’s allowing us to attract a great suite of partners who are absolutely committed to what we can do as a different property,” she said.

“That’s allowing us to think about what we can do as an innovator, and obviously we’re going down the digital path and we do a lot of research and innovation at the core of what we do.”

She also urged partners to think about them in a different way, rather than an every four year proposition.

“We can put important propositions on the table. We can put diversity and inclusion in front of everyone and start to see how that can be fully embraced by the community,” she added.

“We have great stories and we have great content, and we will become Australia’s most loved team, I have no doubt, but for me it’s the exposure and getting that story out.”

“We don’t have budgets to do that we rely on our partners. For this Games our partners have been unbelievable and over the course of the next few weeks we’ll see campaigns roll out, we’re definitely looking to convert that into a great future for our guys.”

Australia Beef appears to be the first to step out with their ad, a compelling insight into the life and battles of basketball player Clare Nott.


On the same panel as Lynne Anderson, Seven’s Tim Worner said the “response has been outstanding” from companies interested in Paralympic sponsorships, adding: “We did not go into this initiative as a business proposition, it was something as an organisation we wanted to do.”

There’s a clear and easy path here to differentiation, and I’m really excited to see what some of these sponsors manage in the next few weeks. Any coverage will help boost the profile of the athletes and the Paralympics themselves.

But more than that there’s a real opportunity as an advertiser to stand out and be noticed as doing something genuinely great, not just lining the pockets of a multimillionaire.

It’s all up for grabs; ironically it’s bravery that will be the key here.

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