Russian Bombings Send Chill Through Olympics Sponsors

Experts: Marketers Could Send Fewer Execs to Sochi, Shift From On-Site Events to Digital Efforts

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The bombings that killed at least 31 people just 24 hours apart in the Russian city of Volgograd could have a chilling effect on February's Sochi Winter Olympics, even though sponsors won't pull out.

NBC Sochi Winter Olympics
NBC Sochi Winter Olympics

With only 38 days to go until Sochi, global International Olympic Committee sponsors such as McDonald's, Procter & Gamble and Visa have neither the time nor the inclination to bail out at the eleventh hour, said Edward Turzanski, co-chair of the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Center for the Study of Terrorism.

"I'd be hard-pressed to understand a sponsor that withdraw their support from the Games. There would be a PR cost to that. You wouldn't be bathing yourself in glory by pulling out," he said.

But the specter of violence leading up to and including the Sochi Games could spark other changes. It could scare off some corporate attendees, cause cancellations of planned events at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, or lead advertisers to channel their event dollars to more arms'-length social or digital marketing around the games.

The fact that the Russian military is beefing up security that will likely lead to long waits just to gain entrance to Olympic venues could also dissaude some marketers from attending. They may decide that the allure of Russia's first-ever Winter Olympics is not worth the potential danger or hassle for execs or VIP clients (The former Soviet Union hosted the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics boycotted by the U.S.).

Digital could benefit
"It could be different if a company were going to take a large number of its customers, or most important customers, to the Games. Now, all of a sudden, there's security concerns," noted Mr. Turzanski. "What would have been a very unique, pleasant experience turns out to be nerve-wracking and more complex than it's worth."

Olympic sponsors such as Visa deferred questions to the IOC. In a statement, IOC President Thomas Bach called the bombings a "cowardly" and "despicable" attack on "innocent people." But he said the IOC is "certain that everything will be done to ensure the security of the athletes and all the participants of the Olympic Games."

Ray Katz, managing partner of Source1 Sports, who consulted with sponsors on the 2006 and 2008 Olympic Games, said that sponsors could cancel or move planned events around Sochi due to security concerns. "There might be a heavying up, and moving of some money, toward digital and away from experiential. That would be one of my first gut thoughts when advising a client," said Mr. Katz.

NBC, the broadcaster airing the Olympic games, issued a statement: "The safety and security of our employees and guests has always been our top priority. We are taking every precaution to ensure their safety, including working with numerous domestic and international government security agencies on an ongoing basis."

There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the twin suicide bombings in Volgograd, a southern Russian city 400 miles from Sochi. But the bombings in the former World War II city of Stalingrad are widely believed to be the work of Chechen rebels or Islamist militants operating in the nearby North Caucasus region.

Low odds
The IOC should be concerned due to the personal nature of the blood feud between Islamist militants and Russian President Vladimir Putin, warned Mr. Turzanski. From the beginning, the Sochi Olympics have been Mr. Putin's pet project. A safe and successful Olympic Games would elevate his image, and that of his new Russia, on the world stage.

However, the odds of a successful attack on the Sochi Games are low, he said. The same terror fears swirled around the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics just a few months after the Sept. 11 terror attacks on New York City and Washington D.C. "Their inclination to do should not be in doubt. Their capacity to do it is another thing."

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