Tuesday, February 19, 2013

IOC Grappling with Irate Customer, Membership Base

What B2B marketers can learn from the Olympic Committee’s hasty decision to drop wrestling and USA Wrestling’s lighting response

To borrow a phrase from the irascible tennis star and TV commentator, John McEnroe: “You CANNOT be serious!” 

That’s generally been the reaction of the worldwide wrestling community that was blindsided last week by the International Olympic Committee’s secret decision to drop wrestling from the Olympic Games. Not skeet-shooting, rhythmic gymnastics, yachting, or pentathlon—wrestling. In response, A Who’s Who of wrestling supporters have publicly denounced the IOC’s covert decision, including former Secretary of State, Donald Rumseld, best-selling novelist John Irving, NFL all-star receiver, Roddy White and  tidal wave of athletes, fans, coaches and Olympic enthusiasts on social media.
It’s not easy to get the U.S., Russia and Iran aligned against you on anything, but that’s a rare feat that the IOC has accomplished from its cozy headquarters in Lausanne Switzerland, one of the few locales in the world in which wrestling does not have a stronghold. Maybe the IOC geniuses will drop T'aekwondo too and get nuclear-aspiring North Korea into their hate circle as well. 

It's been over a week since the IOC announcement and things haven't simmered down. Yesterday, 10-time world champion, 
Valentin Yordanov, who won gold for Bulgaria at the 1996 Games, returned his medal in protest of the IOC decision.  

As novelist John Irving noted last week in a New York Times editorial, “Just two of the [IOCs] board’s members come from countries where wrestling is an actively promoted sport. Yet 180 countries wrestle, and only 53 engage in the modern pentathlon. Wrestlers from 71 countries went to London last summer; before they could compete, they had to win some of the toughest qualifying tournaments in the world.”

Demise of the modern Olympic movement?

Around 400 A.D., the original Olympics had become so corrupt it had to be abolished. It took almost 1,500 years for the “modern” Olympics to return, but we may be on the cusp of its second great hiatus.

Ironically, the IOC’s decision to disqualify wrestling was made on the birthday of Abraham Lincoln (a great wrestler in his own day) and during a time of year when youth, high school and college championships are being hotly contested in the U.S.
Sports Illustrated notes that Lincoln was not our only wrestling president. Other grapplers who made it to the White House include George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Chester A. Arthur, Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft, who supposedly "mastered a wicked move called the Flying Marc that savagely flipped an opponent to the ground." Ouch.

Lessons for B2B marketers

So, even if you don’t know a headlock from a half nelson, there are some valuable lessons for B2B marketers in this sad tale of public deceit and brand erosion.

We’re not going to deconstruct the less mainstream sports that wrestling lost out to—they each have their own merits, with dedicated athletes and pockets of loyal followers. But wrestling has been around since Day One of the recorded history of athletic competition. Whether or not you like (or understand) the sport, it has ubiquitous global participation and has fought the IOC’s attempts to change its rules for the X-games style TV audience. Dropping wrestling from the Summer Games makes about as much sense as dropping skiing or skating from the Winter Games.

The lesson for B2B marketers is that you’ve got to do your homework before making any bold product portfolio additions (or deletions) and you’ve got to understand your product’s core attributes and why they appeal to your customer base. Here are just a few:

1. Know what you’re up against. "
This is a process of renewing and renovating the program for the Olympics,” beleaguered IOC Spokesman Mark Adams said. “In the view of the executive board, this was the best program for the Olympic Games in 2020. It’s not a case of what’s wrong with wrestling; it is what’s right with the 25 core sports.” Actually Marc, it’s not about what’s right—it’s about who’s kissing your butt the most. Not something most wrestlers are fond of doing.

2. Overcoming adversity.
Wrestling is one of the toughest mainstream sports you can do, mentally, physically and emotionally. Wrestlers live for pain, sacrifice and discipline. Last week, Olympic gold medalists Rulan Gardner and Jordan Burroughs publicly thanked wrestling for pulling them out of poverty and for helping them overcome life-threatening injuries. Taking on elitist bureaucrats from Western Europe will be nothing.

3. Proud History: As Rumsfeld points out in his article, wrestling's Olympic legacy is unmatched. It is one of the oldest contact sports and was an important part of the first Olympic Games, which historians date to 776 BC. The first modern Olympics, in 1896, included wrestling as a marquee event. The sport has missed only one Olympics since then, in 1900. For those counting, that is 26 straight Games over a span of 112 years.

4. Global appeal: Wrestling is a universal sport. More than 170 nations from all over the globe have competed. In London, over 70 countries competed and 29 won medals. It’s not like the sport is dominated by two or three rich countries. Athletes from a great number of nations have won medals -- countries as diverse as Iran, South Korea, Sweden, Cuba and Hungary. More countries have been represented on the winners' podium for wrestling than for nearly any other sport. Globally, the TV audience for wrestling averages 23 million viewers, noted Irving. The modern pentathlon—one sport deemed more Olympic worthy-- averages 12.5 million.

5. Accessibility: To compete, all that is needed is an opponent and a flat surface. Anyone can participate, regardless of geography, weather, race, gender, culture or economic background. It doesn't require a golf course, a swimming pool or a horse.

6. Brand tie in.
“Wrestling uniquely encapsulates the Olympic spirit, even though it harkens back to older and more martial virtues, rather than the arts festival and Kumbaya session that some may prefer the modern Games to be,” argued Rumsfeld. Few other sports are so directly aggressive: It is you vs. one other person, he said. “There is nothing to hide behind; there are no time-outs. It is all up to you. Yet, precisely because of those conditions, few other sports create such remarkable camaraderie among their participants.”

7. Social Networking Muscle:
In response to the Olympic committee's decision, members of the international wrestling community have been reaching out to one another. They are finding common purpose to create a compelling argument for readmission. Within seven hours of the announcement the Facebook pages Keep Wrestling in the Olympics and Save Olympic Wrestling had more than 65,000 likes (and that number doubled to 130,000 by the next morning) and thousands tweeted using the #SaveOlympicWrestling hashtag.

As blogger Jim Licko asked the day after the decision; “Did the IOC solicit any feedback or conduct any kind of formal audience research before making their decision? If so, they may have done a poor job.
Meanwhile, five hours after the announcement, USA Wrestling had developed message points and posted them publicly via Twitter, “Here is a list of talking points for everyone when you are discussing the matter of the IOC vote. RT & stand united.”

8. Sportsmanship: Wrestling does not have a true professional circuit and its athletes have rarely been tainted by use of performance enhancing drugs, contract holdouts when they’re already making millions, crass commercialism or violent, criminal acts in their private lives. Said Rumsfeld, “My firsthand experience gives me a greater appreciation for the sport. Wrestling had a positive impact on my teammates, my opponents and me." Rumsfeld also credits wrestling with developing his self-reliance, discipline, perseverance and strategic thinking. That said, he also credits the sport for encouraginh civility, integrity and self-restraint. "These qualities certainly reflect the proud tradition of the Olympic Games, which is why I fervently hope the committee will reconsider its unfortunate decision," Rumsfeld added. 


To exclude wrestling from the Olympics would be devastating for the sport, for the athletes and for the Games. Over thousands of years, wrestling has spread to every continent. It is practiced in hundreds of countries and done through many different styles in many different cultures. The sport has endured war, depression, social changes and globalization. "But the Olympic panel didn't see fit to include it in the 2020 Games," said Rumsfeld. "Something is wrong with that picture."

“I feel most sad for Eastern European and Eurasian countries where wrestling is their national pastime,’’ one of my son's wrestling coaches lamented last week. “It must be devastating to their national psyche to see their heroes and countries rendered irrelevant and obsolete."

DISCLOSURE: The author is a youth wrestling coach and former high school and collegiate wrestler


TAGS: Save Olympic Wrestling, Donald Rumsfeld, John Irving, Roddy White, Rulan Gardner, Jordan Borroughs, Abraham Lincoln, Jim Licko, Keep Wrestling in the Olympics,

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