The Tokyo Olympics: A sporting success, but what about the sponsorship?

By Lucy Cadel & Garry Mockeridge, 12 August 2021 | 5 mins read

Empty stadiums… locals protesting… the weirdness of masked athletes and socially distanced medal ceremonies… But still, the Tokyo Olympics managed to be a phenomenal success, from a sporting point of view.

At first glance, the sponsorship performance of the Organising Committee of the Tokyo Olympics seems medal-worthy too. It raised over $3 billion in locally sourced sponsorship revenue (excluding that from the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic programme). That’s three times more than any previous Games.

But with 68 domestic sponsors, was there too much “brand clutter”? And did these sponsors get value for money?

How Olympic sponsorship works

There are two sponsorship structures. Firstly, the worldwide sponsorship programme is managed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). This is the highest level of partnership with just 14 partners, each granted exclusive global marketing rights within a designated category.

Secondly, the Domestic Sponsorship Programme is managed by the Organising Committee (OCOG), under the direction of the IOC. Each domestic sponsor has marketing rights within the host country. In Tokyo, there were 68 of these partners, a mix of local and global brands. There were three tiers, with Gold Partners paying reported fees in US$ of $128 million, Official Partners $50 million and Official Supporters between $8 million and $25 million.

What did domestic sponsors get for their cash?

They were granted rights to use select designations, mascots, slogans and imagery. They could also promote their products and services on site – although no actual advertising is allowed in or near Olympic venues.

But the big change for Tokyo was around exclusivity. For the first time, domestic sponsors didn’t receive category exclusivity. So that meant, for example, there were two sponsors from the airline industry (Japan Airlines and ANA), two in banking (Mizuho and SMBC) and three in the travel agency sector (KNT, JTB and Tobu Top Tours). As a result, some felt short-changed, with one quoted as saying:

“What do I really get other than the right to have a small Olympic symbol under my company’s logo?”

Was the sponsorship situation really a surprise?

We think not. Exclusivity is less of a priority in Japan which is partly due to Japan’s famous collectivist culture and sponsorships role as a marketing tool, which is still in its infancy. Combine this with a sense of duty to rekindle the economy, it’s not surprising to see so many brands on board.

As for “brand clutter”, the total number of sponsors was really only a small increase on what had gone before – and sponsors are crucial to the Olympics, as the world’s largest sporting event.

Plus, as Japan has one of the world’s largest consumer markets and Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, brands must have felt that there was still an opportunity to engage this sizeable and passionate audience.

How some sponsors stood out?

Since the Rio Olympics, more communication platforms and marketing techniques have become available to brands. Now they can reach audiences in more varied and precise ways than ever before, with creativity and budget the only limiting factors. In Japan, we saw several domestic brands devise innovative solutions to activate their rights and stand out from the crowd.

One of our favourites was the ‘Asics Reborn Wear Project’. Fans across the country donated sportswear rich with memories, to be recycled into the official Olympics clothing. At the donation points, users were asked to scan a QR code. This enabled them to register to receive messages from athletes, information on Tokyo 2020 and progress reports on the journey of the donated clothing, and its transformation into official Olympics wear. Fans could also digitally frame photos of their old, donated sportswear and share on social media during the build-up to the Games.

But, while we did see some innovation, not all sponsors activated to a visible enough level. And that, of course, led to the sense of clutter being reduced.

Have we spotted a future trend?

Until Tokyo 2020, major sporting events like the Olympics, the World Cup, Champions League and Ryder Cup divided rights across exclusive categories. This is partly because individual sponsors can’t afford the full rights, but also because the approach offers multiple revenue streams and partner marketing opportunities. Whilst category exclusivity remains the most valuable benefit for sponsors, it has been declining, as brands are reluctant to pay for it. Instead, we’re seeing rights-holders and brands place greater importance on ownable inventory or platforms.

A last word on “brand clutter” at Tokyo 2020: considering cultural factors alongside sports marketing and sponsorship trends, we don’t believe the domestic partnership structure was too cluttered. But is it a trend that will catch on? Will we see non-exclusive sponsorships in Paris in 2024? We don’t think so, but only time will tell…