2020 Olympic Brand Partners Play Waiting Game Over Coronavirus

Hundreds of millions of dollars in Tokyo brand partnerships hang in the balance

Woman wearing mask taking photos in front of city skyline
Japan has $12 billion at stake this summer as it hosts the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Getty Images
Headshot of Paul Hiebert

Key Insights

In the less than two months since the coronavirus outbreak began its global march, everything from manufacturing, consumer behavior, travel and large-scale gatherings have been altered.

Japan, with more than 800 infections, said today it will shutter schools for a month. The country has $12 billion at stake this summer as it hosts the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

“Countermeasures against infectious diseases constitute an important part of Tokyo 2020’s plans to host safe and secure Games,” the International Olympic Committee said in a statement to Adweek. “We have full confidence that the relevant authorities, in particular in Japan and China, will take all the necessary measures to address the situation.”

The IOC is also keeping in contact with its global partners, which include major U.S. brands Coca-Cola, P&G, Intel, Dow, Visa, GE and Bridgestone.

“At this time, our preparations for the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 are continuing as planned,” Keith Cawley, senior communications manager at Bridgestone, told Adweek. “However, we are monitoring this situation very closely and taking necessary steps as it evolves.”

“We have full confidence that the relevant organizing bodies will take the necessary measures to effectively manage the situation,” Visa said in its statement.

For big brands, the price tag to be an official Olympic partner can run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Chinese retailer Alibaba is said to have paid roughly $800 million to partner on six games over 12 years.

“It’s so far out at this moment that there’s just so many things that can happen between now and then,” said a spokesperson for a top-tier Olympic sponsor who wished to remain anonymous. “We’ve got five or six months. A lot could change in five or six weeks with the coronavirus. Certainly, we’ll have some contingency plans, as we always do.”

“I don’t think anybody can predict what’s going to happen with this,” added Rob Prazmark, long-time Olympic consultant and founder and CEO of sports and entertainment agency 21 Marketing. “I think the IOC is telegraphing their cautiousness, but they’re on top of it and they’re not going to make a stupid decision, one way or the other.”

Prazmark estimated that consumer-driven Olympic sponsors can spend up to a billion dollars when combining rights fees and marketing activities around the globe. This includes $200 million to be considered part of The Olympic Partners (TOP) program.

NBCUniversal paid the IOC more than $1.4 billion for the exclusive U.S. broadcast rights to the Tokyo games. They’ll spend millions more to produce the games for multiple NBCU platforms. The games were also hoped to be a significant launching pad for the company’s streaming platform Peacock, which launches July 15. The Tokyo Opening Ceremony is nine days later.

“The safety of our employees is always our top priority, but there is no impact on our preparations at this time,” an NBC Sports spokesperson said.

United Airlines has had a four-decade relationship with the U.S. Olympic Team, which continues through the Tokyo games. A source with direct knowledge told Adweek United was paying $4 million a year for the partnership. Delta will be the new airline partner for Team USA beginning in 2028.

As the spread of the coronavirus is measured in hours and days, 2028 seems a lifetime away. For the IOC and organizers of Tokyo 2020, July can’t come soon enough.

“[The IOC has] been in business since 1896, so they’ve been down this path before,” added Prazmark. “I think they’re going to do this very calmly and logically. They, more than anybody, understand what’s at stake here.”

@hiebertpaul paul.hiebert@adweek.com Paul Hiebert is a CPG reporter at Adweek, where he focuses on data-driven stories that help illustrate changes in consumer behavior and sentiment.