Is a lack of exposure around Paralympians holding back marketing efforts?

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games wrapped up on 5 September in a colourful closing ceremony to signify unity and diversity. The games ran across 12 days featuring 22 sports with 4,400 athletes from 161 National Paralympic Committees. Despite a pandemic-ridden year, Tokyo still managed to pull off both the Olympics and Paralympics.

While both games celebrate the achievements and amazing feats of athletes, online chatter around the Olympics soared higher, compared to that of the Paralympics . According to statistics from Digimind between 23 July to 1 September, the number of online mentions for the Olympics peaked on the week of 26 July at 702,128. Meanwhile, the number of online mentions for the Paralympics at its peak during the week of 23 August was 95,193.

During that period, there were about 952k authors about topics surrounding the Olympics, along with two million mentions and a reach of 243 million. On the other hand, there were 111k authors for the Paralympics along with 200k mentions and a reach of 34 million. 

According to Digimind, key conversation topics around the Paralympics across Southeast Asia and Hong Kong gravitated around "mentality", "Malaysia", "wheelchair racer Jerrold", "Bonnie Bunyau Gustin", and "swimmer Ernie Gawilan", among others.

At the same time, statistics from Truescope also showed that the Paralympics gained lesser traction overall compared to the Olympics in the last two months across Asia. From 1 July to 31 August, the Paralympics had a volume of 13.3k mentions and a reach of 487 million compared to Olympics, which had 21.7k in volume and 779 million in reach. Most of the chatter for the Paralympics came from online (77.3%), followed by radio (14.1%), TV (5.6%) and Facebook (1.7%).

Meanwhile, the media buzz for the Olympics was more diversified, said the Truescope data. Online chatter for the Olympics comprised 61% of all media buzz followed by 18.1%, forums (6.9%), radio (4.7%) and Facebook (4.1%). 

Was there less marketing around the Paralympics?

Separately, brands also celebrated the victories of Olympians and Paralympians, creating social media posts to share their well wishes. Globally, the Olympics and Paralympics has 14 partners including Alibaba Group, Samsung, P&G, Visa, Coca-Cola, Airbnb, Toyota, Panasonic and Allianz.

While there were several brands celebrating Paralympic winners and athletes, and creating buzz around the games that MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spotted, the number we saw, was far lesser than when in comparison to the Olympics executions. 

Jonathan Drakes, Asia Pacific head of Omnicom Media Group's sports and entertainment practice, Fuse, told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that one reason brands marketed less around the Paralympics was that the exposure for the games is significantly lower on a global level. Citing Mediacorp as an example, Drakes said the Singaporean broadcaster had 14 dedicated channels for the Olympics while it had limited video on demand for the Paralympics. This is pretty much the case everywhere worldwide, he added, explaining:

The exposure for the Paralympics is much less and it's often harder to find. That exposure isn't there and that is one of the reasons why you won't see brands getting heavily involved.

A check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE found that Mediacorp showed livestreams of the Paralympics games on meWATCH, and also had a dedicated Team SG highlights section on its streaming platform for consumers to catch all the sporting action. 

The second factor was the recognisability of the athletes. According to Drakes, Paralympic athletes are generally much less recognisable than Olympic athletes. "Paralympians such as Yip Pin Xiu probably won't become a household name in the way Joseph Schooling did five years ago [in Singapore]. And it's even rarer that people would know a Paralympian before they compete in the games," he said. This poses "a real barrier" because brands want to associate themselves with athletes that have strong levels of recognition, which Drakes said is totally understandable.

If you are going to tell the story [of a Paralympian], you are going to have to work harder to get people to understand who they are, and what their story is. The brand is going to have to put a lot more effort.

This is especially unfortunate because Paralympians have wonderful stories to tell, said Drakes. The stories of Paralympians are very powerful and can, sometimes be even richer than the stories told about Olympians. "Paralympians can be incredibly inspiring people to watch and connect with which can be really valuable to a brand. But without the scale, it’s always a more difficult sell for marketers," he explained.

The UK's Channel 4, for example, understood the importance of telling the stories of Paralympians and made them the face of its summer campaigns beginning in 2012 with the film "Meet the superhumans". Channel 4 continued with its superhuman theme for the Paralympics, releasing the films "We're the superhumans" in 2016 and "Super. Human" for Tokyo 2020. The British broadcaster also showed more than 300 hours of the Paralympics on traditional TV this year and made all 1,200 hours of the games available across digital platforms, IPC said.

Channel 4's efforts have since led to strong levels of brand engagement with the Paralympics in the UK. British Paralympians have since became household names in the country, and sponsors naturally followed suit by working more closely with them. Nissan, for example, gave British Paralympian Matt Wylie a gold Leaf after his triumph in Rio. "That may not have happened had Channel 4 not put in the effort behind the Paralympics, and had the British Paralympics Association not created the development pathways for these individuals to win medals," he said.

Another reason why the Paralympics has yet to gain as much attention from brands compared to the Olympics is also due to the socio-cultural barriers in some countries around disability, and the comfort brands in individual markets have with engaging with this issue, Drakes added. When Schooling clinched Singapore's first Olympic gold in 2016, brands from Changi Airport Group and Singapore Airlines to The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Grab and OPPO were quick to congratulate him. The IOC had to then warn the Singapore National Olympic Council that except as permitted by the IOC executive board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.

On the other hand, while several media outlets reported and congratulated Paralympian Yip Pin Xiu for clinching two gold medals at the 2020 games, not as many brands shared their well wishes online. A check by MARKETING-INTERACTIVE found that Changi Airport, Singapore Airlines, and Singapore Tourism Board as well as A Good Citizen were among the few to have congratulated Yip. Meanwhile, Yakult Singapore published a post prior to the Paralympics to cheer the athletes on.

(Read also: Will HK's success in sports see more marketing dollars for emerging athletes?)

Separately, an agency leader told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE under the condition of anonymity that none of his clients in Asia have spoken about marketing around the Paralympics. While the agency has clients who are Olympics sponsors, he explained that sponsorship conversations generally happen on a global level rather than market by market. "This is because there are enormously different structures in clients when it comes to managing sponsorships  and how things are executed because of the peculiarities of working with sponsorship and IP. Hence, the big sponsorships are normally managed globally and the assets are then cascaded down locally," he explained.

The lack of marketing around the Paralympics, however, is not the sole fault of brands. Co-founder and principal of R3, ShuFen Goh, said consumer attitudes influencer marketing spend, and in Asia, the lack of visible support by brands of the Paralympics is indicative of wider societal sentiment.

"We have a lot of work to do in this region around accepting and embracing people with disabilities. Until this is addressed, the Paralympics will continue to have less marketing exposure in Asia than the Olympics," she explained.

According to Goh, overall, there were lesser marketing executions this year compared to previous years for Olympics, and the Paralympics was also not spared either. Also, brands had to tread carefully on the PR front as there were conflicting feelings about whether the games should have been held at all during the pandemic. Citing a poll by Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, Goh said 68% of Japanese didn't believe that the games could be held safely.  That said, what is heartening is that more broadcasters opted to cover the Paralympics this year, with countries including Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand offering daily coverage for Paralympic athletes, Goh said. She explained:

Seeing these athletes in action is one way to change attitudes around ability and performance. Increased exposure is important, and if it is not done by brands right now, it's being done by the media.

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The 2020 Paralympic Games viewership predicted to break records

According to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the increased investment from broadcasters for this year's games resulted in live coverage from 21 disciplines across 19 sports, which was more than ever before. The broadcast rights in Asia for both the Olympics and Paralympics were held by companies including Mediacorp in Singapore, Astro in Malaysia, TVB in Hong Kong, and NHK in Japan. Meanwhile, in the West, NBC in the US has rights to both the Olympics and Paralympics while Channel 4 in the UK has rights to the Paralympics. NHK, for example, had more than 540 hours of coverage planned, while NBC had more than 1,200 hours of games coverage across all platforms. 

On 20 August, the IPC predicted that this year's Paralympics was set to break all viewing records with an estimated cumulative global TV audience of 4.25 billion people likely to watch the games. IPC added that the combination of more broadcasters, increased levels of coverage and more live sport than any previous games, making it highly likely that Tokyo 2020 will surpass the 4.1 billion cumulative viewers for Rio 2016. The Paralympics was covered by more than 150 TV, radio and online outlets in 177 territories, which according to the IPC was a record number. 

Separately, Astro's spokesperson told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that the International Paralympics Committee offers broadcasters only four live feeds for the Paralympics, compared to 13 for the Olympics. Astro added that this was also the first time the Paralympics is broadcasted live in Malaysia.  Astro Arena HD CH801 showed most of the available live coverage throughout each day on linear TV and its YouTube channel, while the remaining live feeds were shown on four of its other sports channels, Astro SuperSport One to Astro SuperSport Four. According to the spokesperson, the event has seen good viewership on Arena with an average of 250K views daily, with a peak of over one million. 

As a pay TV platform, the spokesperson explained that its customers expect high-quality broadcast of sports events and it had to ensure that the live feeds met these criteria. However, some of the provided feeds were not fully produced.

"There are many gaps in between events; many Paralympic events are not produced live for TV where only highlight clips are provided to broadcasters," the spokesperson explained. Astro's spokesperson also said there are instances where in the absence of these live feeds, Astro had to supplement its coverage by arranging for a separate production crew in Tokyo to capture moments and send over the videos.

"As you can understand, there may not be sufficient live feeds to justify a need for full dedicated channels," the spokesperson added. To promote Malaysia's Paralympians, Astro created on-air promotions to drive awareness and short clips for its other digital and radio brands such as ERA and Zayan to share on social media. Astro Arena also published multiple highlights daily focusing on its athletes on its YouTube channel. "Aside from highlights, we drive higher engagement and viewership through exclusive interviews with these athletes and their teams/coaches in Japan," the spokesperson said, while declining to share total viewership and ad spend numbers.

Reasons for "significant gap" in broadcast value between Paralympics and Olympics

Despite the increase in broadcasters for the Paralympics, there is still "a significant gap" between the monetary investment for broadcast rights behind the Paralympics and the Olympics. Fuse's Drakes told MARKETING-INTERACTIVE that the best indicator of market value for both games was broadcast rights investment.

NBC's deal with the Olympics for the US market is valued at US$7.75 billion, while Discovery's deal for European rights is US$1.5 billion. Meanwhile, Drakes said the Olympics deal with CCTV in China is between US$500 to US$600 million.  "All are eight-year terms. These are very significant broadcast rights deals which tells us that those organisations believe they can recoup the investment from a combination of subscription revenue and ad spend," he said.

Paralympic deals, on the other hand, are much smaller than those for the Olympics.  Citing Channel 4's deal in the UK as probably the "biggest Paralympics deal" for a single market, Drakes said it still won't be anywhere in the realms of the billion-dollar deals inked with the Olympics. While the IPC and Channel 4 did not reveal the monetary value of its Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 deals, The Telegraph in the UK previously reported in 2012 that the British broadcaster forked out about US$12.48 million for the London Olympics.

"There have been some suggestions that Channel 4 is not seeing commercial return on its investment from ad revenue [from the Paralympics]," Drakes added. At the same time, when it comes to sponsorship spend, he explained that the industry is increasingly seeing integrated deals. The IPC and IOC, for example, entered into a Memorandum of Understanding a few years back to jointly sell commercial rights. Both parties also agreed to collaborate to increase the visibility of the Paralympic Games and enhance the Paralympic brand, with the partnership continuing until 2032.

While the deal only formally starts this year, Drakes said that in reality, it has seen a move towards integrated portfolios. Toyota, for example, has an eight-year deal worth at least a billion dollars that includes sponsorship rights to both games.  

One of the reasons for the stark difference is that the industry has only seen real growth in exposure and recognition around the Paralympics during the last 20 years.

According to Drakes, London 2012 may have been the first time when the Paralympics "had anything like an equal billing compared to the Olympics". This is also a time where consumers see the most progress in the way individual societies and cultures perceive disability. That progress, however, is not the same everywhere, Drakes said. "Different cultures are at different points on that journey. For example, there has been plenty written about Japan and how there are still some barriers to overcome when it comes to perceptions around physical disabilities," he explained.

Funding is also another issue as Paralympic movements and athletes tend to receive less funding. Drakes attributed this to Paralympic sports being a "newer phenomenon", and partly because it is more complex with the number of disciplines and categorisation of disability. That said, it is also related to the value individual cultures place in disability sport.

"This means that the pathways to encourage disabled people into sports aren't always as strong and as established. That's pretty universal but [the funding] is still better in some countries," he explained.

"We are starting from a culture that has historically valued able-bodied sport more highly and this is why, for example, Paralympic athletes are often less well-rewarded for their efforts," Drakes said. Also, the amount of funding, investment and focus that educational institutions put into disability sport is normally much lower. However, Drakes is of the view that there is no real reason this should be the case because society is not starting from zero.

In Singapore, for example, there has been chatter around the disparity in payout between a Paralympian and an Olympian. A Paralympian only receives one-fifth of the SG$1 million reward offered to an Olympian for winning the gold medal, The Straits Times said. On the other hand, Malaysia has implemented an equal reward system for both Paralympians and Olympians since 2016, while the US and Australia did the same this year. ST noted that the reward payouts in these countries are all lower than what is offered in Singapore.

Separately, a marketing guide for Tokyo 2020 by the IOC said 90% of the Olympic marketing revenue goes to individual athletes and coaches via the Olympic Solidarity funding, as well as the National Olympic Committees to help them support their athletes at a national level. The guide added that an equivalent of more than US$3.4 million is distributed every day by the IOC to support athletes and sports organisations at all levels worldwide. The Olympic Solidarity budget for 2021 to 2024 currently stands at US$590 million and is funded by Olympic broadcast rights and redistributed to all National Olympic Committees. At the same time, 90% of IOC revenues go straight back into sport and athlete development.

The marketing guide did not state if the budget includes the Paralympics and MARKETING-INTERACTIVE could not find a similar guide for the Paralympics.   

Recognise the storytelling opportunity with Paralympians

Brands need to start recognising the wonderful storytelling opportunity around the Paralympics and Drakes said couple that with a little bit more effort, the rewards can be very strong.

If you can find ways to engage Paralympians and tell their stories in a way that is meaningful for your brand, then they can become really fantastic ambassadors for your business. 

Another answer, albeit an obvious one, is to see a real effort to create more opportunity and exposure for disabled sports people, and change the way society values and supports disability sport, Drakes added. This can be done by recognising that it is equal in achievement terms with able-bodied sport. When that happens, there will be growth in recognisability and exposure for the Paralympics and its athletes and barriers to brand investment will break down.

"Commercially, there also needs to be joined up operations between local National Olympic Committees and National Paralympic Committees. That is the fastest way to get investment into the Paralympics and this is really important. Acting independently does no good for either and local Paralympic organisations often lack the resources to really engage brands," he explained.

Another area would be the broadcasters and this is where Channel 4 excelled in. According to Drakes, broadcasters need to be willing to show the games fully rather than just running highlights or putting everything on video on demand. While this may, unfortunately, be loss-making in the short term, in the long term, Drakes believes it pays back and says a lot about the brand.

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