Why Did MacDonald’s End Their Long-Running Global Sponsorship of the Olympics?

usain bolt mcnuggets

After the 2012 London Olympics, one of the most famous people on the planet revealed in his just-released autobiography something that likely made the hearts of MacDonald’s executives flutter with pride and joy.

In his book, Faster than Lightning, Jamaican Usain Bolt, sprinter nonpareil, said that at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he essentially lived off of Chicken McNuggets, consuming an estimated thousand of the fried chicken chunks during his time in Beijing. Bolt won gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, as well as the 4×100 relay. You can be sure that McNuggets were on his menu for his subsequent triumphs at the London and Rio Olympics.

By virtue of being a TOP Sponsor of the Olympics, MacDonald’s had exclusive rights to market itself as a global Olympic sponsor, preventing any other food provider of associating itself with the Olympics. This privilege provided MacDonald’s the opportunities to create the biggest and best MacDonald restaurants in the world right inside the Olympic Villages over the past decades, a favorite dining area for athletes.

But after 41 years as an official sponsor of the Olympics, MacDonald’s and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided it was time to part ways.

Perhaps there was a persistent hum of discontent within the IOC that fast food should not be seen as the fuel for so many healthy world-class athletes, which may have needled the executives of MacDonald’s. “The brand relevance is simply not there anymore,” said Patrick Nally, one of the of the architects of the IOC’s revamped marketing model established in the 1980s. “At every games you see a storm of criticism in the media about McDonald’s being present at the Olympics, and that’s just gotten worse.”

Perhaps it was a matter of the bottom line. According to Business Insider, the CEO of MacDonald’s, Steve Easterbook, has been working on a plan to revamp its menu, employ greater digital innovation to its business processes, and cut costs by about half a billion dollars by the end of 2018. The TOP sponsorship is a hefty USD 25 million per year. MacDonald’s exited it’s contract with the IOC three years before the contract’s completion, so that’s a saving of USD75 million in the next three years.

MacDonalds in Olympic Village of 2012 London Games
Athletes Binging on MacDonalds in the Olympic Village After Completion of 2012 London Games

Perhaps it was a revision to Rule 40. This rule was established by the IOC to prevent over-commercialization of the Olympics by anyone who could draw the five Olympic rings or a close approximation of them. By creating a rule and a process for protecting the Olympic brand, the IOC has been better able to ensure TOP Sponsors that they would truly have exclusive marketing rights within their particular industry category.

However, as a concession to athletes, who are heavily supported by their own sponsors, and who have grown increasingly irked by the hammer hold the IOC and TOP Sponsors have on the ability to prevent their own sponsors of even a splinter of exposure around the time of the Olympics, the IOC decided to relax Rule 40. As explained in this Sports Illustrated article, in February 2015, “the international Olympic Committee decided to relax its guidelines to allow ‘generic’ or ‘non-Olympic advertising’ during the Summer Games. This also allows for athletes to tweet and post on social media about non-official sponsors as long as they do not use any Olympic properties or references. The U.S. Olympic Committee has to grant approval to American sponsors and brands.”

Rule 40 enforces a blackout period for the above-mentioned marketing of personal non-official sponsors, that extends from 9 days prior to the Olympic Games to three days after its completion. However, this did not seem to please MacDonald’s. According to Reuters, John Lewicki, the man who oversees MacDonald’s TOP Sponsorship relationship with the IOC, was reported to say last year that “the company would reevaluate its Olympic relationship after changes to a rule that ended a marketing blackout for companies that sponsor athletes rather than the event itself.”

So while athletes won’t have Big Macs or McNuggets to chow down at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, skiers and skaters will be able to enjoy their fast food fix at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea. MacDonald’s still has an agreement with the South Korean national olympic committee, providing them with marketing rights and access to the Olympic Village. If they can convince Bolt to start a career as a bobsledder like his famous countrymen from of the 1998 Calgary Winter Games, he can be a one-man-marketing machine for MacDonald’s, one last hurrah for a long-time Olympic sponsor.