Lordy, Lordy – Rumour Has it They Are Tweaking Rule 40

Bill_Cooper_web101 Bill Cooper, Visionary & Innovator

It has not been ratified by vote yet, but late last month the IOC declared its intention to significantly alter two rules in the Olympic Charter that have been the catalyst for significant angst over the years, Rule 40 & Rule 50. Rule 40 prevents athletes who are competing in an Olympic Games from having their likeness used on commercial advertising or marketing during a prescribed window around the respective Games. And Rule 50 limits the size and visibility of apparel and sporting goods manufacturer’s logos and branding on apparel and sport equipment used on the field of play during an Olympic Games.

A rule change like this is tantamount to having your curfew removed by your parents or being told you can just help yourself to as many freshly baked brownies as you want even though guests are coming over tonight. It just doesn’t happen. But apparently this time some movement is on the horizon.

Apparently if the vote passes in July, Rule 40 will feature greater flexibility for athletes to allow their likeness to remain in commercial advertising and marketing during the Games window. This will be subject to limitations of course, such as the creative in question not constituting ambush. And in the case of Rule 50, size limits for branding on apparel and sport equipment used on the Olympic field of play will be increased. There is not much detail available yet as to the breadth of the changes, but any movement in both areas have been and will continue to be met with huge applause from the athlete community. Especially as these limitations, particularly Rule 40, have been for years widely seen as an unreasonable limitation on athletes’ ability to monetize their hard-earned success.

As a former head of commercial rights for an Olympic and Paralympic Games however, I can share first-hand knowledge that there are two sides to that story.

And here’s the thing – Rule 40 as it stands today only contemplates one side of the story. It only contemplates that the Games previously had an Achilles heel wherein they could be effectively ambushed by securing a short-term, high impact Olympic athlete endorsement deal. In response the IOC created Rule 40 that enabled them to prevent and/or effectively react to ambush in this form. What Rule 40 did not contemplate is that athletes might have long-standing endorsement deals that feature long-term, ongoing use of their likeness in advertising which was inappropriate to have been defined as ambush simply because it continued unchanged through the Olympic window.

It is anticipated that whatever level of change to Rule 40 is contemplated, it will likely contemplate the idea of long-standing use of athletes’ likenesses that do not attempt to build an unauthorized commercial association with the Olympic brand. This will be an important maturation as it will simultaneously evolve the policy past an unnecessarily defensive position while also allowing athletes to cultivate long-term endorsement deals irrespective of the Olympic window.

And now to add some music to this celebration – a little horn tooting to be specific.

In 2006 when I was with the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympic Games, we referenced the IOC-issued technical manuals and the Olympic Charter and did as we were ‘taught’ by those respective documents. And in this capacity we enforced Rule 40 as it is (was) written. We quickly noticed however, that while it might be delivering some protection to the Olympic sponsors, it was either eroding the ability of athletes to raise money vital to their training or it was being ignored despite the consequences.

In response we quickly developed the approach that Canada could apply a broader perspective and still achieve the goals of Olympic Charter. In response we created athlete guidelines that said long-standing campaigns featuring an athlete’s likeness could stay in market during the Games window. This was as long as the creative did not build an unauthorized association with the Olympic brand and the campaign was not significantly altered or escalated within the Olympic Games window that the respective athlete was participating in. In short we broke the rule, but we applied parameters that we felt achieved the objectives of the Rule.

And so with this recent news that Rule 40 and Rule 50 may undergo revisions later this year, I can’t help but hope that the reasoned adaptation we have been applying in Canada for the last eight years will be referenced.

Effective management of commercial rights after all, is about striking the appropriate balance between various rights holding groups so that all can effectively leverage their respective story. And in the case of amateur sport, where commercial investment into sponsorship is so hard-earned, we need to collectively take great care that investors in the various tiers of marketing rights (athletes, teams, national sport organizations, events, Olympic Games, etc) are all given a measure of exclusivity within which to tell their marketing story.