How CBC is handling the potential for disruption at the Winter Olympics

Despite Omicron's surge and the absence of NHLers, the broadcaster is focusing on flexibility and custom opportunities to ensure it delivers for sponsors.

Despite protests from human rights advocates and the Omicron variant wreaking havoc across the globe, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics are, for now, full speed ahead. With less than a month until the opening ceremonies, it’s not an understatement to say the games once again present a number of challenges for everyone involved.

But these are challenges CBC, the Games’ official broadcaster in Canada, has tackled before.

A challenge that might seem like a major one is an announcement from the NHL in late December that it would not be sending its players to represent their respective countries, citing the spread of the Omicron variant and schedule disruptions the league has already been dealing with.

But Joe Gottfried, director of sales and marketing for sports and Olympics at CBC/Radio-Canada, tells MiC that a Winter Olympics without NHLers is usually what it offers advertisers.

That’s because the league usually confirms its involvement in the games well after broadcasters have secured their major sponsors; this time around, Gottfried points out that the NHL had initially only confirmed its intent to participate at Beijing in September, while CBC was in-market with its Olympic offering to sponsors and advertisers nearly a year and a half ago.

“Plan A is always not having NHL players,” he says. “Nobody is ever just in it for the NHLers, they are doing it for all the amateur athletes. If they play, it of course delivers a lift, but we don’t jack up rates or audience expectations if that happens. We’d rather over-deliver for clients.”

Gottfried acknowledges that some advertisers may have a focus on hockey, but not having NHLers simply changes the narrative the CBC helps them be a part of. As in past years, that narrative will also include the women’s hockey team, which is favoured to play for gold, but could also include telling the story of the young and amateur players that will be named to the men’s team next week.

The key with any Olympics, Gottfried says, is flexibility. Part of that is with the nuts and bolts of the contracts it signs with brands; even before the pandemic, those contracts provided assurances to advertisers in the event that the Games are postponed or disrupted.

“We’ve made sure we’ve gone through and assured our partners, no matter what form of the games are presented or when, they are going to get their value,” Gottfried says. “We’re showing flexibility to clients and that we are going to do the right thing by them.” As of this week, Gottfried says it hasn’t seen changes on the advertiser and sponsor front, just as when no sponsors walked away when the Tokyo Summer Olympics were postponed.

It was only six months ago that the CBC tackled the challenges of covering the extremely delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which has helped the broadcaster understand how to navigate the uncertainty of Beijing. The Olympics are a premium opportunity for partnerships with CBC, but with many advertisers’ budgets strained or reallocated elsewhere when the Summer Games were initially delayed the broadcaster responded not by adjusting prices, but by offering a more targeted approach to sponsor integrations.

This past summer, the CBC focused on a strategy that offered more customized advertising and sponsorship, based on a brand’s specific objective, and has carried that strategy forward to the upcoming Winter Games. Instead of more traditional sports sponsorships, the CBC leaned in to focus on Canada’s athletes to offer ways for brands to be part of that storytelling experience, and heading into the games the CBC has lined up 12 top partners and 11 non-rights holders to work with them in Bejing.

“We’ve had a lot of success and people wanting to jump in onto the Olympic bandwagon to the degree that they can,” Gottfried says, listing Toyota, Bell, Petro Canada, RBC, Sobeys, Visa, and Kraft among the sponsors that have carried over from the Summer to Winter Olympics.

Lululemon, which was named the official outfitter of Team Canada last year, has also come on board as a new exclusive partner as well. The partnership marks the athletic apparel company’s first time in the sponsorship space, and Gottfried says CBC is looking to do some “really fun stuff with them and how we showcase their clothing and outerwear when it’s relevant within the games.”

Meanwhile, Samsung, which CBC had worked with in the past but sat things out Tokyo, is back and will be focused on hockey-heavy sponsorship, which is an extension of some of the company’s other sponsorships in the hockey landscape in Canada.

“The athlete storytelling is our specialty,” Gottfried says, explaining that it looks to align with brands in a “themed and purposeful way, and that doesn’t simply jam a logo on something.”

A key initiative for both the CBC and its partners is making sure that viewers don’t just hear an athlete’s name once they are on the podium, but are able to follow their story. An example of that has been the weekly program “Road to the Olympic Games,” which spotlights athletes’ stories, which started airing again in early December to get fans excited for Beijing.

This kind of uncertainty means trying to offer customization as best it can around certain themes or events, but it is also another area where flexibility is key, since some of the best moments for brand integration are often reactionary and can’t be planned for.

“Plus, sometimes events get cancelled, sometimes it’s close to the games when teams are announced, sometimes there’s a surprise success story or an injury,” Gottfried says. “We always have backups. If you produced 10 athlete profiles, but only eight made it to the games, you still have a lot. And there’s always some late production on new athletes or developments.”

With files from Josh Kolm.