To win at Tokyo 2020, sports need to look beyond the medal tally and at their comms strategies

Comms teams working on the 2020 Olympics need to worry less about creating news and satisfying existing fans, and more about capitalising on the unique opportunity to secure new, long-term audiences and revenue, argues Lee Robson.

In just five short months, the 2020 Olympics will get underway in Tokyo. While the mainstream news agenda will have its eyes on the medal haul of Australia’s Olympic hopefuls, success or failure at the Games will run far deeper for the sports themselves, where the consequences of under-performance, and failure to keep the pipeline of future fans and supporters stacked, could be felt long after the closing ceremony confetti has been cleaned up.

Right now, Olympic sport communications departments and social media teams are busy working on their Tokyo content plans, internal resource allocation and on-the-ground logistics mapping. A large part of that thinking will be spent figuring out how to make sure that if and when their medal contenders step onto the podium, the whole world will get to hear about it through a flurry of posts and press releases.

These comms strategies revolve around a legitimate compulsion to service a sense of community and belonging that permeates sport. But the Olympics is unlike every other major sporting event in the calendar. Rather than only watching a favourite sport, viewers abandon preconceived affinities in favour of whatever is being played or broadcast. In other words, most people drawn to the Games this July will be interested in the Olympics first and its composite sports second.

National sporting organisations that only have eyes for existing fans and followers will be missing a crucial opportunity to grow their numbers, and in turn increase their future revenue potential from both the Australian Sports Commission and lucrative sponsors. In other words, any sport walking away from the Games with the same type and tally of fans they arrived with will have failed.

At the 2020 Olympics, news will find its audiences faster than communications departments will be able to serve them.

Being able to accept that the news will take care of itself, and fans will self-serve with updates, brings with it the potential to liberate comms teams from resource-heavy, reactive tasks, and in turn, provides them with the freedom to explore more constructive and ambitious brand and communications strategies.

The Olympics isn’t business as usual. For anyone involved in the business of promoting the sports represented there, that means following a different set of guidelines, adjusted to meet the behaviour of a special kind of sports fan that emerges only once every four years.

There’s no silver bullet for achieving that and every individual sport needs to consider its unique DNA carefully before deciding what’s best, but they should start by considering the benefits of occupying a space at the heart of the Olympic party, instead of a single-minded focus on trumpeting personal success.

That means finding a way into other people’s conversations and the special Tokyo Olympics zeitgeist. No matter what individual sports have to say about themselves, it will only ever represent a tiny and transient percentage of what the rest of the Olympics-invested community is talking about. So instead of expecting new fans to come to them, sports communications specialists should find ways to embed their brand with potential new fans on their home turf.

No matter what their podium presence proves to be, after the high of the Olympics, many Australian sports will be facing an almighty comedown as they return home.

How long that hangover lasts and what the future looks like in the sober light of day will depend on how well sports win not just in the medal tally, but in their comms strategies.

Lee Robson is founder and chief storytelling officer at Istories, with two decades’ experience working with sports brands and elite athletes in Australia and the UK


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