One rule has stopped most brands from working with athletes during The Olympics. That just changed.

Everything you need to know about Rule 40.
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U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee

· 5 min read

Even if they can’t afford NBC’s television inventory, companies still want to be part of The Olympics.

This year, it will be easier for them to get involved: During the 20202021 Summer Olympics, for the first time, athletes are allowed to work with brands that aren’t official sponsors of the event. You know, during those few weeks when archery is actually popular.

Explain: In 2019, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) updated its “marketing guidance”—officially known as Rule 40—which dates back to the early 90s.

  • Previously, under Rule 40, Olympic athletes were largely forbidden from working with their sponsors during a blackout period that coincided with the Games, when many of these athletes are at the peak of their popularity.
  • In 2015, the rule was tweaked to allow athletes to work with their sponsors during The Olympics, as long as the creative campaign was submitted to Games regulators four months beforehand. That’s before many would even know if they’d made an Olympic team, helping the Shaun Whites of the world, but few others.
  • Michael Phelps got caught in hot water in 2012 when photos of a Louis Vuitton shoot leaked during the blackout period—but he didn’t lose his medals because neither he nor the brand leaked them intentionally.
  • USOPC’s decision wasn’t a change of heart. In 2019, German antitrust officials deemed the rule "too far-reaching" and lifted restrictions for its own athletes. The International Olympic Committee loosened guidelines soon after.

“It affords these athletes more of an opportunity to deliver value to sponsors, if they have any,” Peter Carlisle, head of Olympics marketing for sports agency Octagon, and who represents gold medalists Simone Biles and Michael Phelps, told Marketing Brew. “Whether that will materialize for a majority of athletes? That’s questionable.”

Despite the updated guidance, there are still a slew of restrictions that athletes and their “personal sponsors,” aka companies not affiliated with the Olympics, need to watch out for between July 13 and August 10.

For instance:

  • Brands and athletes can’t use the Olympic rings and/or he Games’s logos in marketing messaging. Basically, all Olympic IP is off limits.
  • Athletes are allowed to thank sponsors on social media (but only seven times) + receive one “congratulatory” message per sponsor. While those messages can allude to The Olympics with hashtags like “#silver,” they can’t directly mention The Games.

Athletes can appear in “generic” advertisements—like in a magazine or on Twitter—during the duration of the event. But when we say generic, we mean generic.

One rule states that in advertising copy, “Made For Champions” should be used instead of “Made For An Olympian.” If an athlete tweets at a sponsor to thank them, they can only mention the sponsor once in the tweet, but not in an image, which should remain “generic” and “unbranded.”

  • An athlete can’t even post a photo for a sponsor *within an Olympic venue,* or mention an Olympic-specific reference, like “You made my Olympic dreams come true.”
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And although they don’t need to detail the creative, sponsors and athletes still need to apply for permission from the International Olympic Committee and agree to specific terms and conditions.

This red tape could hinder brands from wanting to jump into the sponsorship area, depressing an athlete’s value. The new process “creates a new level of commercial control that the USOPC has over athletes' marketing opportunities and the relationships they have with their sponsorships,” Carlisle told us. “In the past, if an athlete had a sponsorship, it’s none of the USOPC’s business…with the caveat that they can't be active during the games.”

Generic marketing > ambush marketing

Rule 40 was first created to protect official sponsors of The Olympics, like Coca-Cola, from letting other brands get a piece of that sweet Olympic limelight. It sought to prevent “ambush marketing,” where a brand might try to distract from the official sponsors of the games.

“They [Olympics organizers] don’t want a major athletic sponsor that paid all that money to be undercut because someone paid out every single athlete directly,” said Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, an influencer marketing platform, told Marketing Brew.

  • Basically, Coca-Cola doesn’t want PepsiCo giving every sprinter $1,000 to promote its soda if it spent millions to be an official sponsor.

To what extent athletes will benefit from the updates at this year’s event remains to be seen. Jason Bergman, CEO of MarketPryce, an influencer platform for athletes, told Marketing Brew that an athlete with about 50,000 followers can make $500 for a short campaign made up of just one tweet, one Instagram post, and one TikTok. While those figures may pale in comparison to $$ brands spend on official Olympics sponsorships, it’s better than nothing.

Still, the restrictions make it difficult for athletes to really reach their true value as Olympic stars. “Let's say you work with the Team USA boxer Richard Torrez. He is so much more valuable as Richard Torrez, Team USA Olympian boxer, than just Richard Torrez wearing a T-shirt,” Bergman said.

Not so fast

Just weeks ago, the NCAA said college athletes can profit off their name, image, and likeness (otherwise known as NIL) from brand partnerships and the like, which was previously off limits.

But college athletes have lengthy seasons and off-seasons to capitalize on their NIL and to work with sponsorships, a considerably longer window than most Olympic athletes have.

“There’s one chance in a lifetime to do this; they’re not going to pull themselves away from what they need to deliver at the games,” Sam Kilgore Huston, VP of insights and strategic services at MVPindex, a company that tracks sports sponsorships, told Marketing Brew. “They want to capitalize on their moment in the sun, but they’re not going to distract themselves.”

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