USA House 11
Peter Zeytoonjian of the United States Olympic Committee

Hey, there’s Bonnie Blair, the speed skater. Grab that seat near the screen – ice hockey’s up. Oh look, Michelle Kwan’s in the house! Oh, cool, the burgers are out! I hear Shaun White’s coming tonight.

USA House in PyeongChang. It’s kinda like the bar in Cheers!, where everybody knows your name.

For Americans, many of whom have been to many Olympics, USA House is an oasis Americana in PyeongChang, a place where Team USA athletes, friends and family, sponsors, donors and staff can be at home.

USA House 12
Me and Dmitry Feld

Dmitry Feld, a retired luge coach for Team USA, said “at USA House, you meet friends and family, Olympic athletes. You eat American food, and watch the American TV broadcast. It’s like being back home.”

For Kathryn Whalen, it’s the end of a long great ride of working the Olympics in her meetings and events role in corporate communications for McDonald’s. She’s grateful for USA House, “especially if it’s in a foreign culture you’re not used to, because you have everything from strong internet, to American food, to the NBC feed of the Olympic Games broadcast.”

USA House 1

Getting in USA House is part of the charm. “It’s hard to get in,” said Whalen, “so this place has prestige, which is cool.”

Cookie and Kate Reed-Dellinger are Olympics super fans. He’s been to 16 Games, while she’s been to nine, and they always enjoy the hospitality at USA House. “When I get back to my hotel room,” said Cookie, “I can only watch the Games only in Korean, and only what the Koreans want to see. But here, we can watch American television, eat American food, and see Team USA athletes here all the time.”

Shortly after, Cookie pointed out figure skater and two-time Olympic medalist, Michelle Kwan, and went up to her to shake her hand.

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Cookie and Kate Reed-Dellinger with Michelle Kwan in the middle.

Peter Zeytoonjian, sr. vice president of marketing for the United States Olympic Committee, has organized USA House for the past six Winter and Summer Olympic Games. The former marketing leader for the NFL, Zeytoonjian said that USA Houses in the Olympic Winter Games are usually on the smaller side to accommodate the size of the winter delegation and expected number of visitors. USA House in PyeongChang is a full-service 2,000 square meter structure which holds about 100 people at a time. It has an admittedly great view of the mountains where alpine ski events were held.

He said that Tokyo American Club will be a significantly larger venue for USA House at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

Tokyo 2020 is shaping up to be a great Olympic Games and we think that USA House at Tokyo American Club has the potential to be one of the best houses we’ve ever organized. It’s an incredible building in a great location, perfectly suited for welcoming Team USA athletes and supporters during the Games. We are already well into planning – and excited about what’s to come.

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Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba and IOC President Thomas Bach seal the deal

China is sports mad. And when one of the biggest emerging markets in the world wants something, the eye may pop. For example, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo was offered over USD100 million per year to play for a Chinese Super League Club, with an additional USD300 million to go to Real Madrid for the transfer.

While Ronaldo turned the Chinese down, others are turning their thumbs up.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos, in mid-January, 2017, the International Olympic Committee announced the addition of Chinese e-commerce giant, Alibaba, to the IOC’s exclusive group of global sponsors known as TOP Sponsors. Alibaba is one of the biggest e-commerce businesses in the world, and joins such firms as Coca Cola, Toyota, Visa, McDonalds, Bridgestone, Samsung and GE granted rights to the marketing of the famed five rings.

This deal is huge: USD 800 million over 12 years or 6 summer and winter Olympiads. In addition to payment, Alibaba will also build a global shopping platform for the IOC, as well an Olympic-related digital TV channel in China, which will help build the IOC’s reach within this highly valued market. Considering that the 2022 Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, Alibaba becomes a significantly powerful and possibly pathbreaking partner for the IOC in building stronger relations within Chinese business and government circles.

As Alibaba founder and CEO said, “We are proud to support Olympic Agenda 2020, using our innovations and technologies to help evolve the Olympic Games for the digital era.”

According to sports marketing consultant, Michael Payne, who was intimately involved in the early days of the IOC’s TOP program, “This is so much more than about marketing or sponsorship. It is potentially the single biggest, groundbreaking partnership the IOC has done to date.”

A pedestrian walks past Alibaba.com adve

Alibaba is a powerhouse in China, particularly with its e-commerce businesses T-Mall and Taobao. But these services are not as well-known as sites like Amazon, and those who know them may be wary of their reputation for selling counterfeit goods. Thus major brands and buyers…beware.

According to the IOC, building the e-commerce platform for the IOC will give Alibaba greater incentive to figure out how to uncover the counterfeit goods from flooding the market.

Additionally, its growing cloud services business is weak overseas. Jack Ma wants to increase global revenue ex-China to fifty percent. Cloud services is already an area where Alibaba is gaining global traction. Being a TOP sponsor will give Alibaba overseas exposure of the likes they would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, particularly in their home region of Asia, where the next three Olympics will be held (PyeongChang, Tokyo and Beijing).

According to Bloomberg, Alibaba had to fight for this sponsorship. IOC TOP sponsors are given exclusive rights to market their products and services within their industry. Alibaba is the official “Cloud Services” and “E-Commerce Platform Services” and it is assumed that big cloud service providers (Amazon? Microsoft) were also in the mix.

 

citi field not so clean venue
The home field of my New York Mets, CitiField, displays over 20 sponsors in this particular view. You wouldn’t see any ads in an Olympics venue.

For the International Olympic Committee, the “Clean Venue” policy has been inviolate. No advertisements or hint of commerce is allowed to be seen on or within the Olympic stadium. Not even the top global sponsors are allowed to show their logos in the stadium despite paying millions to market using the Olympic brand. They do so, somewhat ironically, because the Olympic brand, with the clean venue as a symbol, represents ideals beyond consumerism.

Olympic turnaroundAs Steve Jones of head of Coca Cola’s Marketing in the 1990s put it, “A clean field of play is an Olympic equity. One of your core assets. The field of play is an important branding space that you own. Own every inch of it! Sharing your branding space dilutes the Olympic brand. Don’t compromise your greatest opportunity to build brand power. There is no valid loss of revenue argument when the risk is loss of brand equity.”

Thus, the IOC aggressively protects the Olympic brand, and can at times seem obsessive. Michael Payne, author of the great sports marketing book, Olympic Turnaround, wrote about how McDonalds, a TOP Olympic sponsor, perhaps somewhat intentionally, snuck their logo into the eyesight of thousands, if not millions, during the Opening Ceremonies of the 1996 Atlanta Summer Games. Payne, who was a member of the IOC’s marketing team, got a phone call just as the ceremonies were under way.

“Have you seen the broadcast image of the athletes coming over the ramp?” screamed the brand protection manager. “What are we supposed to do about the McDonald’s sign?”

I ran around the stadium to see the problem myself. There, as the athletes marched over the ramp, in the distance was a large elevated McDonald’s neon sign. It provided a perfect backdrop for each nation as they came into the stadium. The sign might have been in the distance, located by the temporary McDonald’s restaurant at the Olympic Park, but on television it looked like it was attached to the main stadium. The sign had to be switched off – and fast.

The McDonald’s restaurant was near the Olympic sponsor hospitality village. I called the IOC manager at the village, and told her to get over to the McDonald’s restaurant and find someone to turn off the lights. She got to the restaurant, by the time the athlete parade had reached the letter c, and Cambodia was stumbling down the ramp. She found it closed and locked up. Understandably, all members of staff were in the stadium watching the ceremonies.

“Then break in,” I yelled to the IOC manager – by now we were up to Denmark in the athletes’ parade, and there was no way for the television cameras to avoid the neon advertising sign. “They will arrest me”, she pleaded.

“They will arrest all of us if we do not get that sign switched off now.” so an IOC manager proceeded to break into a partner’s restaurant to get their sign switched off.”

There was a break in, the logo went dark, and the IOC apologized to McDonald’s for the break in, although it’s unclear how the lights of the logo were left on.

Now, I’m sure this happened. But I have looked closely at the video of the 1996 opening ceremonies in Atlanta, and I just don’t see the McDonald’s sign. Admittedly, this youtube is not a high resolution video.

Fortunately, i was saved by a reader who provided me with a photo of the shining Mickey D logo. Thank you tylerkochman!

McDonalds at 1996 Atlanta Games
Click on photo to go to source, and see photo 45 in the gallery.