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Michael Cole: Legacy is no longer just “a nice to have”

Andrej Kandare
Michael Cole, a renowned strategist who helped to secure British Telecommunications’ position into the Global 100 brands for the first time, after successfully executing BT’s London 2012 campaign, now runs his own consulting firm, TrueGold Communications. He has been actively engaged in future major sporting events, including PyeongChang 2018, Tokyo 2020, Pan American Games 2019 (in Peru) and PGA European Tour. For SPORTO, Michael commented on the successful IAAF World Championship and Para-Athletics in London this summer and the consequences of Usain Bolt’s retirement. He also touched on the London Olympic legacy, realities and predictions for bidding and organising major sporting events and stadium technologies.

Michael Cole

SPORTO: IAAF World Championship and IAAF Para-Athletics in London were stories of success, despite the fact that athletics has had a very tough period in the recent years, with the revealing of the corruption cases and doping scandals. What has been your involvement in probably the biggest sporting event of the year?
Michael Cole: My direct involvement was not on the operational side, but how the UK was able to take advantage of the Championships and demonstrate to a global audience that it continues to have some of the world’s leading expertise in major event delivery, with representatives from Tokyo 2020, Jakarta 2018 and Hangzhou 2022 (Asian Games) and Pan Am 2019 all attending and having the opportunity to experience three days of leading expertise in aspects including operational, commercial, cultural and legacy planning.

However, on the IAAF Championships themselves, up to 3000 members of press and broadcasting and around 1 million spectators, including over 100,000 school children, attended across both championships and made it the largest global event in the world this year. In fact, from an athlete’s point of view, with the number of disciplines and sessions incorporated, the events were actually bigger than the Olympics and Paralympics in many respects. And equally for the Para-Athletics, the organisers confirmed that 305,000 tickets were sold for the championships, with those lucky enough to be at the London Stadium over the course of the 10-day event witnessing an incredible 32 world records in London. So five years on from London 2012, a true testimony in legacy was delivered with considerable success.
How important is the Olympic legacy from 2012 for any sporting event being held in London?
The legacy of any major sporting event far exceeds the remaining physical infrastructures of a Games, it extends into factors such as active citizenship, economic impact, destination tourism as well as the surviving corporate memory, the experience and expertise gained in staging a major sporting event. London has continued to demonstrate its value as both a destination in its own right as well as being a centre of excellence in sporting knowledge. Legacy is no longer a ‘nice to have’. Legacy is the long-term return on investment for cities and is a fundamental part of making the business case for hosting a major event. As the cost of hosting the Games continues to rise, cities will stop bidding if the sums cannot be made to work. In the extreme, no host cities mean no Games, so the industry needs to consider this conundrum seriously, and come up with a solution that addresses and balances the needs of government, city authorities, fans, athletes and the event administrators.


“The earlier the activation starts, the easier it is to galvanise the organisation and create compelling plans across the company; sales, employees, and other key stakeholders.”

With some major federations facing scandals and negative stories in the recent period, questions were raised about sponsors affiliation ... Is it a difficult decision for brands to partner with IAAF at the moment?
Finding sponsorship continues to be a huge challenge for rights holders and the sport of athletics, given the well-publicised problems, has not done itself any favours to attract sponsors to its events. However to be clear, the IAAF is not alone in this regard. Ed Warner, the former chairman of UK Athletics, previously admitted they had to work “extremely hard” to attract sponsors for this summer’s World Championship following the crisis that has engulfed the sport. He blamed the Russian doping scandal – which exposed corruption at the very top of the IAAF – for the delay in bringing sponsors on board. Certainly, London 2017 struggled to land sponsors until tickets went on sale, although the huge demand no doubt helped clinch deals with the likes of Muller, the Co-op, Strathmore and Heineken. In fact, The Sports Consultancy as the appointed rights agency successfully contracted over 20 different partners and suppliers across the two events, and helped deliver significant marketing spend for the events through sponsor activation programmes across national media and in-store promotions.

However, the IAAF does continue to benefit from longer-term global sponsors, and we will see any change in sentiment when these deals are up for renewal. Brands are certainly thinking long and hard about association with sport right now, with many high profile sponsors such as RBS opting for a more balanced portfolio around arts, culture and charities to mitigate any risk of association with negative publicity.

Usain Bolt, one of the most charismatic sports personalities of all times, has ended his extraordinary career this year in London. How did you see his send-off and his unique role in athletics in the last decade?
I am not sure the sports industry has seen the last of Usain Bolt, only perhaps his appetite for competing in athletics at the highest level. I am sure he will continue to be effective at the grassroots of athletics and sport more generally. London appeared to be a fitting tribute for Bolt, and I am sure his presence as a competing athlete for athletics will be missed, however as a face of athletics, there is much more he can and will offer – perhaps watch this space with Manchester United!
After Tonga withdrew from 2019 Pacific Games this year, you commented on Twitter that Host Cities need better understanding at the bid stage of the costs and merits of staging major sporting events. The president of the IOC Thomas Bach also acknowledged this year that the candidature procedure has become “too expensive and too onerous for cities” and that “it is producing too many losers”. Even at the SportsPro conference in March, one of the panel discussions was called ‘Is this the end of mega-events as we know it?’ How do you understand a better and more efficient bidding process?
Quite simply, with a better understanding of the costs, greater transparency of both fundraising and spending, and far broader support on a national than a city level. Certainly for London 2012, legacy appeared to be centre stage for bidding cities. London won with its messaging around inspiration of a generation as its marketing legacy, creating impact on the IOC, the Olympic movement, the city of London, and of course the British people.


“The most successful Games are those where the Olympics are integrated into longer-term city development master plans such as Barcelona, rather than be the cause of such plans.”

As was reported at a recent conference in London, an entirely different story around Olympic legacy is now emerging which does not make enjoyable reading for the IOC or indeed for potential future host cities. It says that the real Olympic legacy is unsustainable debt, unproductive infrastructure, and a socio-economic burden to bear for generations to come. The paradigm has shifted, causing cities to rethink the value of the Games and retreat from bidding. What should be a competition for a golden opportunity for all bidding cities is in danger of turning into what some are calling “a reluctant duty for the more well-off countries”.
What is your view on Paris and Los Angeles hosting 2024 and 2028 Olympics? There have been attempts of smaller countries and cities bidding, Budapest and the Netherlands with its ‘Dutch Approach’ in particular. It seems the Olympics have never left megalopolises after Athens 2004. Is it reasonable that they would?
The Dutch Approach was an interesting concept, which sadly has failed to materialise to create an active bid for a future Games. At inception, it originally stated that the days when only big cities in countries with big economies can hold the Games are numbered, and in the future it will be mineral resource-based emerging economies that do most of the bidding. However, given the award of the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024 to Paris and in 2028 to Los Angeles, it would appear that megalopolises would probably continue to dominate. And no doubt amplified further I suspect, when the challenges of PyeongChang as a relatively remote destination over two hours from a major city infrastructure dampens success in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Of course, I hope this is not the case.

That being said, one concept that appears to be proven when we look back on history and the apparent success of Games’ location, is that the most successful Games are those where the Olympics are integrated into longer-term city development master plans such as Barcelona, rather than be the cause of such plans. This was the premise of the ‘Dutch Approach’ principle, being able to leverage a long run-in period in which to determine and implement sustainable master plans.
As the London 2012 Marketing and Communications Director for British Telecommunication’s Global Services, you helped secure BT’s position into the Global 100 brands for the first time. Could you reveal some of the key learnings from BT’s successful Olympic marketing campaign?
Probably the top five lessons for me are as follows: firstly, start early to optimise the activation period – the earlier the activation starts, the easier it is to galvanise the organisation and create compelling plans across the company; sales, employees, and other key stakeholders. Also, do not underestimate the length of time to recruit the very best resources into the Olympic delivery teams, especially for technology partners.

Secondly, own the key milestones – it is critical to get the timing right to ensure cut-through of activation and, critically, to do it ahead of the TOP partners who invariably possess more mature experience and deeper pockets.

Next lesson is to drive activation through the line, especially for B2B – when a brand sponsor delivers VIK (Value-in-kind), it is creating a powerful case study outlining the success of its contribution to the sporting event, and therefore a strategy that incorporates the run-up to the Games, the Games themselves and then critically the two years or so after the Games is fundamental to the ROI. From experience, over 60 percent of new business generated for B2B comes about after the event!

Also, have a brand strategy that is recognised and effective across all Line of Businesses (LOBs) – it is perfectly alright for LOBs to activate their respective brand strategies in the run-up to the Games, however on the home straight (i.e. into the calendar year of the event), it is imperative those strategies are interlocked as one voice to the outside world.

And finally, international activation – even though many domestic sponsors will feel restricted to the home country, there are ways in which organisations can engage with its international clients and global employees while keeping within the boundaries of the commercial contracts in place. It just requires some creative thinking!
How has the sponsorship been evolving in recent years in your opinion?
The traditional sponsorship of logo placement is outdated and definitely does not drive ROI. Neither does the in-vogue digital marketing, with many aspects of measurement especially around social media tending to be for vanity only.
Organisations need to consider their ROO (return on objectives), and generally brands are becoming much better at this. However, individual LOBs also need to feed into the process and determine how the sponsorship can help drive their own strategic imperatives, and this is an area I feel still lacks in many organisations I come across.

“I am sure Usain Bolt’s presence as a competing athlete for athletics will be missed, however as a face of athletics, there is much more he can and will offer – perhaps watch this space with Manchester United!”

Another contemporary challenge is stadium digitalization. Sacramento Kings Golden 1 Center, one of the most high-tech facilities built anywhere, named also ‘the Tesla of arenas’, is a building where fans can use a mobile phone app to order food from their seats, summon Uber for a ride home or find the shortest bathroom line … Technology is changing the sport and fan experience on different levels. What is next in your opinion?
There are indeed some significant stadiums now being showcased in the US, and aside from Sacramento, the Mercedes-Benz Stadium now sits as Atlanta’s new downtown centrepiece, being home to both the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United. While I have no doubt that technology can deliver the heralded claims, such as orders from seats, or even bringing meals to seats in the stadium, I remain cautious on the logistical fulfillment of such services and remain unconvinced on the economic modelling.

Far more important, in my opinion, is that the stadiums respect the spectators and create the ultimate experience that will provide loyalty and retention. For example, one of the most viral facts about the new Mercedes-Benz stadium is the concession prices. Fans are used to being held hostage by stadiums and arenas with exorbitant prices for food and drinks. Not so in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The folks behind the stadium are calling it ‘Fan First Menu Prices’, with reasonable pricing, and no doubt technology can provide a critical role in controlling queues.
Ultimately, technology should enable the fan experience, not drive the experience, especially if expectations set and promised cannot be delivered – as in the IT systems world, there remains no substitute for user acceptance testing and giving the fans what they want and expect.

This interview was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 10 (October 2017).


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