COMMONWEALTH GAMES DON’T PRESENT A MARKETING OPPORTUNITY FOR ONE OF SPORT’S MOST VALUABLE BRANDS
If you’re grumbling about the number of athletes who have opted out of or are still prevaricating about whether to compete in the Commonwealth Games, blame Usain Bolt. The most charismatic and globally popular sports star since Muhammad Ali has decided to skip the games’ individual sprint events and run in only the 4x100m relay. Bolt (pictured above) has redefined track in much the same way as Tiger Woods redefined golf and Michael Jordan basketball: not with his style, so much as his brand – his name, image and imprimatur sell goods, most unrelated to sport, to any market in the world. Last year, Bolt renewed his endorsement deal with Puma, which lies well behind adidas and Nike, the sports goods market leaders. The deal is worth $10 million over two years (until 2016) to Bolt, who also has promotional contracts with Virgin Media, Visa, Nissan, Gatorade, Swiss watchmaker Hublot and Soul Electronics with which Bolt will develop his own line of headphones. He has also published two books, pushing his early earnings to about $20 million.
So for him, the prize money available on the IAAF Diamond League circuit from which most athletes earn a stable living (winners are paid $10,000 per event) is negligible. Typically, Bolt will command an appearance fee of between $200,000 and $350,000 per meeting. Promoters may balk at this, but his appearance guarantees a full stadium. He alone would have conferred respectability and glamour on the Glasgow tournament. So why isn’t he interested?
A Commonwealth Games medal would not add commercial value to Bolt’s brand and, a defeat or disqualification (remember: he was DQ’d from the 2011 World Championships) would be damaging from a marketing perspective. Bolt’s declination is a big blow for the Commonwealth Games. But imagine the cost-benefit calculation behind the decision. The tournament has nowhere near the lustre of the Olympics, nor even the IAAF World Championships. Its television audience is relatively small and interest among the world’s richest economic nations – and hence the most prosperous markets for advertisers – is limited. The Commonwealth embraces some of the world’s poorest countries, such as Mozambique and Rwanda. Thirty-one of the member states have populations of 1.5 million or less.
So while there is a collective population of near two billion and a few fast-emerging economies, the games do not present an especially attractive proposition for advertisers. One can imagine the global corporations that pay Bolt wondering out loud whether it is worth risking his reputation in a tournament that counts for little. Those who reject this explanation as too cynical should recall the fuss Bolt kicked up last year when he was invited to participate in a post-Olympics event. HMRC, the British government’s tax service demanded its cut of his earnings. Because he spends so much of his time in the UK, he is liable to pay 50 per cent of his earnings in tax.
A tax amnesty was brokered for the 2012 Olympics, but Bolt was reluctant to return for only half his usual fee. Sports Minister Hugh Robertson was obliged to step in to help induce Bolt, though British taxpayers were understandably upset at the prospect of a multimillionaire athlete’s being excused paying tax, while they were forced to surrender a chunk of their wages to the government. Asked if it was because he would lose as much money as he would earn from running in London, Bolt replied: “That’s what my agent told me.” And, of course, agents are in business to make money. It may disappoint fans to learn that their heroes are motivated by much the same pecuniary incentives as everyone else, but sports stars are not idealists. The Chariots of Fire have long since bolted. Nowadays professional sportsmen and women are working for money. Bolt’s official position is not clear: he is apparently not injured but just hasn’t trained enough. His fellow Jamaican Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce has also decided to miss the games. Yohan Blake followed Bolt’s example and pulled out of the Commonwealth Games. While Blake pulled up in a race last weekend, few believe it is an injury that is prompting his withdrawal: the double Olympic silver medallist said he could not put his preparations for Rio 2016 at risk. Translated, this is: “The Commonwealth Games are worthless. There is no money, prestige or any kind of benefit to be gained from winning a tupenny ha’penny medal at a third-rate Games.”
Glasgow 2014 will, for sure, be a specular success: it will be efficiently organized, well attended and viewed by television audiences all over the …. er, Commonwealth. It is just not a marketable product; it does not present a commercial showcase in which “brand ambassadors” can advertise their sponsors’ wares to an international market. Even if the individual competitors are enthusiastic about the event, their agents and sponsors will be deterring them. Bolt may be secretly disappointed: an appearance at a venue full of adoring fans where he can do his usual shtick in front of tv cameras and pick up another medal for his cabinet would not be an onerous task for him, even if he does end up weighing-in to the British taxman. But he isn’t in control: like other pro sports stars, he’s made a Faustian pact that renders him at the mercy of his corporate paymasters.