Olympics advertisers hold their breath in coronavirus waiting game
A day after a senior member of the International Olympic Committee declared that the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic could very well result in the outright cancelation of the 2020 Summer Olympics, the Games’ Tokyo organizers are scrambling to quarantine the official’s comments. Unfortunately for those with a vested interest in the global sporting event, the glee with which the internet pounced on his name all but ensured that Dick Pound’s dire prediction would go viral.
By the time Tokyo organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto addressed a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Pound’s hot take had infected the news cycle. A member of the IOC for the past 42 years, Pound on Tuesday told the Associated Press that the unchecked spread of the coronavirus, or COVID-19, would likely force Japan’s government to scrap the Summer Games altogether, an assessment that all but squashed any hope that the event might otherwise be relocated or pushed to a later date.
Pound made his remarks 150 days before the Olympics torch is set to be lit in Tokyo’s New National Stadium. The IOC official told the AP that a final decision on the matter would have to be made by the end of May, if not sooner.
Muto on Wednesday looked to regain control of the narrative, telling reporters that the timeframe cited by Pound was completely arbitrary. “That the end of May is the time limit, we have never thought of this, or heard of such a comment,” Muto said. “When we asked about this, we received a response saying that this is not the position of the IOC.” In other words, Pound spoke ex cathedra, or without the sanction of the IOC, and his interpretation of the situation does not necessarily reflect the views of the committee and its 100 other elected members.
“Our basic thoughts are that we will go ahead with the Olympic and Paralympic Games as scheduled,” Muto said. While he went on to add that relatively little is known about the deadly virus, the Tokyo organizers would “take measures [so] that we’ll have a safe Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
Muto’s response to Pound’s analysis came two weeks after another Olympics higher-up had tried to put fears of a COVID-19 disruption to rest. “I would like to make it clear that we are not considering a cancelation or postponement of the Games,” organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said on Feb. 13. “Let me make that clear.” Mori went on to say that his team had been coordinating with the National Institute of Infectious Diseases and the Japanese government in order to ensure that the Summer Games would go ahead as planned.
Since then, the disease has found its way from mainland China and Japan to places as far-flung as Italy, Iran and the U.S. As of Wednesday night, the disease had been diagnosed in some 81,000 patients, of whom an estimated 2,800 have died.
As international supply chains began to strain and fears of the contagion continue to shake up the global economy, armchair epidemiologist President Trump on Wednesday morning took to Twitter to claim that the media is “doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible, including panicking markets.” The day before, the president made the false claim that scientists were “very close” to developing a vaccine for the coronavirus, a statement the White House later walked back, saying Trump had been speaking about an Ebola vaccine.
The president repeated this assertion Wednesday evening during a national address on the coronavirus, saying that a vaccine is being developed “rapidly” and “coming along very well.” Shortly after Trump made this claim, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stepped up to the microphone to clarify that a viable vaccine would not be available for “at least a year to a year-and-a-half at best.”
Rush Limbaugh, the host of the nation’s most popular syndicated radio program, this week advised listeners to discount warnings issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suggesting that the agency was perpetrating a hoax designed to “bring down Donald Trump” before declaring that the coronavirus “is the common cold.”
To date, 60 cases have been confirmed in the U.S.
It is under this cloud of misinformation that any chatter on the status of the Olympics must be assessed. Even before Pound offered his take on what lies ahead, many media buyers and advertisers had resigned themselves to a good long stretch of ambiguity, a period in which their Olympics investments would be shrouded by a haze of Rumsfeldian “known unknowns.”
“We’re going to assume that everything will go as planned until or unless it doesn’t,” said one national TV buyer in early February. “There’s some anxiety, sure. It’s a ‘hope for the best but brace yourself for the worst’ situation, and all we can do is wait and see.”
While the IOC did not take issue with Pound’s appraisal of the situation in Tokyo, a spokesman on Wednesday said the committee remains engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the World Health Organization and other medical advisors. “We have full confidence that the relevant authorities … will take all the necessary measures to address the situation,” the spokesman said. “The rest is speculation.”
For its part, NBC Sports this week said the status of the Summer Games hasn’t changed. “The safety of our employees is always our top priority, but there is no impact on our preparations at this time,” a spokesman said.
While some advertisers have drawn parallels to Rio de Janeiro in 2016—after months of anticipatory handwringing, a localized outbreak of Zika virus proved to have no material impact on that year’s Summer Games—those searching for a more apt comparison may have to go back a bit further in the annals. In 1980, in an effort to penalize the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter called for a U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, the first to be held in a Communist country.
Carter’s decision cost NBC dearly. With about 90 days to go before the Games were set to begin, the network had booked some $170 million in advertising revenue, or about $532 million in today’s currency. Marketers were asked to commit to a minimum on-air spend of $1 million, with individual 30-second units fetching around $75,000 a pop, or $235,000 in 2020 bills. (Naturally, there’s a lot more riding on the 2020 Games; in December, NBC Sports said it had secured $1 billion in Olympics ad sales, putting it on pace to surpass the record $1.2 billion haul it took in during the Rio Games.)
On the other side of the ledger, NBC in 1980 had funneled around $85 million toward the rights fee and construction/production expenses, much of which was reserved to build a high-tech broadcast center in decidedly low-tech Moscow.
While NBC’s investment had been insured by Lloyd’s of London, which covered 90 percent of the network’s Moscow spend, the advertising dollars were not protected. At the time, Ad Age estimated that NBC’s replacement programming left it with a $30 million shortfall; among the programs that aired in lieu of the Olympics were an encore showing of the theatrical “Airport ’77” and the “Real People” spinoff “Speak Up, America,” an unscripted curiosity that lasted for all of two episodes.
Aside from all the squandered cash, the loss of the 1980 Olympics was seen as a terrible blow to NBC’s promotional efforts. NBC President Fred Silverman was so confident that the Moscow Games would lead to a stampede of viewers in the fall that he predicted the last-place network would be at the top of the Nielsen heap by Christmas. As it happens, all the promos in the world wouldn’t have moved the needle on NBC’s fall lineup, as a Screen Actors Guild strike delayed the start of the 1980-81 broadcast season by 10 weeks.
It’s the end of the world as we know it
If there’s little solace to be found in ancient history—the advertisers who’d built their marketing plans on the back of the Moscow Olympics had almost no chance at replicating those ratings points anywhere else; with just three networks in play, thwarted clients largely had to make do with two weeks of second-run disaster movies and unasked-for “Real People” clones—the lessons of 1980 are worth internalizing.
“We talk a lot about worst-case scenarios, like a client’s going to leave or you make some bad investments and their KPIs get trashed,” said one TV buyer. “If this is so bad they have to call off the Olympics, trust me when I tell you we’re all going to have a whole lot more to worry about than lost impressions.”
In the absence of any insight into the pathology of COVID-19 and how the bug will fare in the summertime heat, economists are limiting their impact projections to the immediate future. According to a recent analysis prepared by Capital Economics, disruption from the coronavirus is on track to cost the global economy north of $280 billion in the first quarter of this year, thereby ending a growth streak going back to 2009.
“We assume the virus will be contained soon, and that lost output is made up in subsequent quarters,” wrote Capital Economics’ Simon MacAdam. “For now, our forecasts assume that containment measures will prove successful enough for them to be relaxed in the coming weeks.” On the whole, economists are of the opinion that the outbreak is more likely to postpone economic activity than derail it altogether, although such optimism leans heavily on an undefined variable.
The Dow shed nearly 2,000 points from Monday’s opening bell to Tuesday’s close, before tumbling another 124 points on Wednesday. The tech sector was among the hardest hit by this week’s sell-offs.
In the meantime, NBC continues to prepare for July 24, the target date for the Games’ opening ceremony. The network is expected to host a press gathering to kick off the 100-day countdown to Tokyo during the week of April 13, and an update on the Olympics ad sales tally is said to be forthcoming sometime next month.
In another nod toward maintaining the status quo, Tokyo organizing committee CEO Muto said the ceremonial torch relay will proceed as planned. A symbol that bridges the ancient games with those of the modern age, the torch is lit in Olympia, Greece and then transported to the host country. Upon arrival in Fukushima on March 26, the flame will travel across the country for the next 121 days. Muto yesterday told reporters that Tokyo organizers hadn’t even considered canceling the relay, although the route may be altered in order to minimize any risk of spreading the virus.
As there’s no telling how the coronavirus will evolve over the coming weeks and months, Summer Olympics advertisers may not begin to breathe easy again until that torch reaches its final destination. From here on in, it’s a waiting game.
When asked yesterday for his thoughts on the outlook for the Tokyo Games, President Trump seemed to set aside his characteristic bluster, if only for a moment. “It’s a little tight, you know. It’s a little tight,” he said. “They spent billions of dollars building one of the most beautiful venues I’ve ever seen … I hope it’s going to be fine. We hope it will.”