SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
February 09, 1987
After decades of moralistic breast-beating over the corruption that money supposedly imparts to the essence of sport, the Olympic movement has at last openly—even proudly—capitulated to the formerly unthinkable. It has embraced the ways of professional sport and accepted the means of the marketplace as being the only logical vehicles by which the Olympic Ideal can be transported, alive and thriving, through the rest of the 20th century and on into the 21st.
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February 09, 1987

Goodbye, Olive Wreaths; Hello, Riches And Reality

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It is the centralized selling concept and the exclusivity that make ISL's operation work so well. As George Miller, secretary general of the U.S. Olympic Committee, puts it: "ISL offers one-stop shopping for any major international company that wants to merchandise products with the Olympic emblem." Jürgen Lenz, executive vice-president of ISL, says that in addition to the six corporations that have bought in as major sponsors so far, there will be no more than nine other such sponsors for this quadrennium. The sponsors' money is split this way: 6% to the IOC, 10% commission to ISL (low for the average agent firm), and the other 84% among the Seoul and Calgary committees and the NOCs, which dish out large chunks to the various sports federations.

So far, not even ISL's would-be competitors are criticizing what the company has done. Barry Frank, senior group vice-president of Trans World International (the TV branch of Mark McCormack's International Management Group), which was brought in by the Seoul and Calgary committees to negotiate Olympic TV rights for 1988, said recently, "No, I wouldn't say ISL is doing a bad job. Conceptually the idea is good, and they've sold it well—although, I must say, it's a little like selling ice-cold Cokes in the desert." And Rodda says, "They're doing fine. I think that if McCormack or West Nally [a London marketing firm] tried to move in, ISL would still get the contract on the strength of how well they're doing."

With the merchandising machinery in place, the new pragmatists of the IOC took another giant step into commercial reality last October 15 by voting overwhelmingly to split up the Summer and Winter Games. The 1992 Olympics-Winter in Albertville, France; Summer in Barcelona—will remain twinned, but starting in 1994 the Winter Games will operate as a separate—and, everyone dearly hopes, equal—entity.

This is a change that affects the aesthetics, the politics, the financing, the very chemistry of the Games. It is every bit as major an alteration as the one that occurred in 1924, when the Winter Olympics were first spliced onto a Summer Olympics that had been doing very nicely as an only child since 1896. That change had been preceded by four years of divisive debate within the Olympic movement.

This time, by contrast, the mighty upheaval occurred with almost no debate at all. From first glimmer of the concept until the resounding final vote was a matter of perhaps eight weeks. George Miller of the USOC recalled, "We had heard about it in August, and there wasn't even time to call a meeting of the USOC's executive board. Our response was, 'It sounds like a good idea, but could we maybe study it a little?' "

No one studied it much. And, as it turned out, there isn't anything seriously wrong with it—and there is a lot that is right. A split Olympics will keep the Games ever more visible and prevalent in a world of people whose attention span grows more gnatlike every day. It will avoid the previously unavoidable dip in Olympic fund-raising that has occurred in the first two years of every quadrennium. It will allow ISL's hustlers to sell sponsorships over two quadrenniums instead of one. It should bring the price of TV rights for the Winter Games much closer to the Summer instead of being substantially less, as it has always been. It would, for the first time ever, open the possibility of having a Winter Games in the Southern Hemisphere—say in July—without conflicting with a Summer Games.

Not to be overlooked is the fact that the split would offer a tremendous boon to beleaguered U.S. TV network sports departments. They have wallowed in an ever-softening market, caused by a stagnant economy, so-so ratings and cutbacks in TV sports advertising by many former standbys. ABC's whopping $309 million bid for the Calgary Olympics could leave the network with a $50- to $75-million loss. NBC's more conservative $300-plus million for rights to Seoul, with the deal's many elastic clauses, will probably not result in heavy losses, but no one is counting on massive profits, either.

The TV arithmetic in the double Olympic year of 1988 is scary. Using rough figures, the estimate is that there will be about $8.5 billion available in 1988 for all U.S. TV advertising, and roughly $1.25 billion of that will go for sports programming. To break even on rights and production costs in Seoul and Calgary, NBC and ABC will have to generate about $1 billion in advertising in 1988, which leaves a mere $250 million for all other TV sports programming—such as all of the NFL season, all college sports, all baseball, all Wide World of Sports, etc.

Someone must take a terrible beating. And, as a matter of fact, after the '84 Games in Sarajevo and Los Angeles were over, so much TV advertising money had been spent on Olympic programming that the cupboard was bare and the networks were forced to drop their autumn prices—for all sports programming, including the previously platinum-solid NFL—to such bargain-basement levels that they had to operate at a loss.

This commercialization of the Olympics is radical, but not nearly as radical as the effect that professionalization will have on the Games. For the sake of contrast, it is interesting to recall how fierce and exhausting the struggle was to keep the Olympics "amateur." It began with Pierre de Coubertin himself, the French baron who founded the modern Olympic movement; he thought full-time pros should be kept out of the Games because it wasn't fair for them to compete against part-time amateurs. Of course, there were few professional athletes then—boxers, jockeys, baseball players were about it—and the problem was more or less academic. But it didn't stay that way. When Avery Brundage of the U.S. reigned as IOC president from 1952 to 1972, his attempts to keep the Games pure were both pathetic and infuriating. But he never stopped blowing the smoke of his pipe-dream definitions of Olympic amateurism: "An amateur does not rely on sports for his livelihood. The devotion of the true amateur athlete is the same devotion that makes an artist starve in his garret rather than commercialize his work."

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