The Salt Lake Scramble: Online Coverage of the Olympic Games

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In the final leg of the torch relay at the 1956 Cortina Games, the last torch carrier tripped over a television cable, dropped the torch, and extinguished the flame. It was then quickly relit, but the mishap prompted Avery Brundage, then-president of the International Olympic Committee, to state, "We in the IOC have done well without TV for 60 years, and will do so certainly for the next 60 years too."

Fortune disagreed. Then, as now, a new medium was evolving which helped shape not only the presentation of the Games to a worldwide audience, but created entirely new avenues for marketing and sponsorship which changed the entire economic relevance of the Games. The medium then was television, and the medium now, of course, is the Internet. Not since 1956 has Olympic coverage been so impacted by the onset of new technology as the current Olympiad has been. But now the IOC finds itself in another set of circumstances not altogether different from 1956.

False Starts
The Salt Lake Organizing Committee's (SLOC) effort to secure a partner for its Internet coverage of the Salt Lake Games has been an event in itself, with as many twists and turns as a bobsled run. Originally, through a joint venture formed with NBC, production and hosting rights were assigned to Quokka Sports, the sports portal company that had produced the Sydney Games coverage for NBCOlympics.com. Quokka, in a classic example of early digital deal-making, had exchanged millions of dollars in equity and fronted all production costs for the rights to produce the official Web sites of the Sydney and Salt Lake Games.

To provide the back-end services, NBC/ Quokka and SLOC announced a partnership with Logictier, a two-year-old San Mateo-based Web site management firm founded by former Webmasters from @Home, Netscape, Discovery Channel Online, ABC News, and ESPN.com. Logictier was named as the official Internet operations sponsor and supplier for the 2002 Olympic Games, replacing IBM, which had provided back-end support for the Sydney Games. Under the deal, Logictier had said it would work with the committee to launch the hardware, software, security, facilities, bandwidth, and technical support necessary for the operation of the official sites. Instead of being paid for its efforts, Logictier would be granted the status of an official sponsor.

Quokka's design for NBCOlympics. com received high praise for content and usability during the Sydney Games. But unfortunately, the Sydney Games failed to provide Quokka the financial kick it was hoping for, and not long after the Olympics window closed, Quokka was forced into bankruptcy. Meanwhile, by May 2001, Logictier was suffering through a cash flow crunch of its own, and backed out of its contract with SLOC, citing an intention to reassess its business model.

Like a relay runner left without a teammate to hand the baton, SLOC began a furious search for a technology partner to replace both Quokka and Logictier as the clock continued to count down. After holding preliminary talks with Yahoo!, CBS SportsLine, and Ignite Media (the Web site producer for the National Football League), viable options were beginning to dwindle. Finally, in June, just seven months before the games were to begin, SLOC struck a deal with Microsoft/ MSNBC to host and produce the official sites for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games on SaltLake2002.com, Olympics.com, and NBCOlympics.com.

Microsoft, with the benefit of size and hindsight—and the leverage of timing—won't be paying SLOC in licensing fees or equity for the rights, though it will absorb an estimated $10 million in hosting and production fees. Utilizing its network of MSN and related sites, Microsoft will drive traffic to the three official domains and sell an allotment of advertising inventory.

Specific content will include event results and standings, athlete biographies, reporting on the opening and closing ceremonies and the torch relay, reports from NBC commentators and analysts, Salt Lake City visitor information for transportation, and accommodations. And, of course, there will be a shopping cart for those visitors inclined to load up on official Olympics merchandise. Furthermore, SLOC has embraced the medium as a means to facilitate, for the first time, the administrative aspects of recruiting more than 26,000 volunteers (98% of whom signed up online) and ticket sales (through partnerships with Tickets.com and eBay).

Yet for all the demand and promise of new technologies, online content and coverage of the Salt Lake Games, aside from some nifty administrative improvements, will not be noticeably different from Sydney. The reason for this is simple.

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