The Long Read: A lesson in staying positive, courtesy of the IPC

Amidst its worst ever crisis, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) is doing all it can to switch up the narrative heading into Rio 2016.

The Long Read: A lesson in staying positive, courtesy of the IPC

“Today’s a bit of a crazy day,” says the weary voice at the end of the line. “It looks like an event is starting soon.”

Alexis Schaefer could be forgiven for choosing irony over outright optimism. As commercial and marketing director for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), the German knows as well as anyone that a sense of humour is, in the unpredictable business of staging major sporting events, an effective coping mechanism. 

Just 48 hours out from the start of the Rio 2016 Paralympics, Schaefer and the IPC remain in damage limitation mode, scrambling to deal with the worst crisis in the 56-year history of the Games. Russia’s blanket ban for state-sponsored doping has somewhat soured the narrative around Rio 2016 while the build-up to the event has been dominated by the financial troubles plaguing the local organisers, whose cash reserves have been drained by an ailing Brazilian economy, plugging gaps at last month’s Olympics, and disappointing ticket and sponsorship sales.

As the Olympics drew to a close a fortnight ago, the Rio organisers were forced to make major cuts to their Paralympic budget. Venues, transport, volunteer staff and media facilities would have to be scaled back, it emerged, while a government bailout running into many millions would be required to cover the organisers’ funding shortfall and to pay vital travel grants required by smaller nations to send athletes to the Games. 

"This is the worst situation that we've ever found ourselves in at Paralympic movement," IPC president Sir Philip Craven told The Associated Press recently. "We were aware of difficulties, but we weren't aware it was as critical as this.”

Yet the IPC is, at its core, a glass-half-full type of organisation. This week, the committee has sought to switch up the narrative heading into its flagship event, injecting some much-needed good news into the public domain in a bid to ease concerns. On Monday, it announced record broadcast coverage for the Rio Games and that some 1.5 million tickets have now been sold for an event which, just two weeks ago, had sold barely 300,000. Several finals, it said, are now fully sold-out thanks to the recent surge in sales, and there is even cautious optimism that, despite all the doom and gloom, Rio 2016 could in fact turn out to be an operational, commercial and sporting success after all.

Schaefer, who has served in the IPC’s marketing department since 2002, and held his current role since 2011, is certainly of the opinion that this month’s event can be a boon for the world of para-sport. On the eve of Wednesday’s opening ceremony, he took time out from his “crazy day” on Monday to give SportsPro an update on commercial preparations for the Games and to share his thoughts on where Rio’s struggles leave the otherwise burgeoning Paralympic movement.

This week you announced that a record number of broadcasters will cover Rio 2016, taking the Games to an unprecedented 154 countries. What does that say about the appeal of para-sport globally and how much of that increase is down to the success of London 2012?

I think in terms of the appeal of para-sport in general, we have seen an evolution in the last couple of years, I would say. It comes down to not only London 2012, but also all the work that has been done since then. We’ve been able to secure broadcasting deals that include guarantee commitments in the majority of the biggest markets, that are at least on par on what those broadcasters actually showed during London.

We see actually that a lot of those broadcasters are going above and beyond their contractual requirements. There is a major evolution there, especially in the digital space, where more broadcasters are exploring digital exploitation of the rights that they did not do in London.

We believe, in terms of exposure, this is going to be the most successful Games that we’ve had so far. Now, London was certainly a tipping point for that. I think there is no doubt that it would not pay justice to all the efforts of other organising committees have also put into the Games before, and I think its a natural evolution.

London was a jump, no question, but I think now we’ll see here in Rio another jump. But London had already a very strong foundation, fundamentally, when you look also at the Games in Beijing and the atmosphere and crowds that we had there, as well as the broadcast coverage. It was a very strong foundation. And then I think we were in a position to work together with London 2012 to really benefit from the market in the UK. They organised some fantastic Games and that’s helped us now to make the next step to Rio de Janeiro. 

Many Rio 2016 Olympic broadcasters reported notable increases in their digital viewership. Are you expecting to see similar gains for these Games and what efforts is the IPC making, particularly in the social space, to complement the coverage provided by international broadcasters?

I’m not the one taking care of all those digital channels but we’ve just recently done an announcement about the live streaming that we are going to do. In that press release, we also talk about how we’re going to work with all the different social networks. We have live stories on Snapchat; at the moment we are working closely with Twitter on the torch relay and the heat map; we are working with Facebook to do a special cultural moment around the opening ceremony; we are having an Instagram booth in the village; in the past we have organised hangouts with athletes. We also have the Samsung Paralympic Bloggers. As part of that, we not only provide videos that the athletes share with their smartphones, but now we have the capability, they will also do videos in 360.

We try to look into all the different areas of social media and the digital space, and we’re trying to see how we can support the work of our partners, be it the broadcasters or the sponsors, and also to make sure that we engage with people who are interested in the Paralympic Games. I think that’s extremely important.

In today’s world, of course, you need to always find a balance between the interests of the rights holders and the interests of purely getting all the pictures out there. But what we have done is we’ve included the rights holders in the conversation; we have shared with them our strategy for these Games. A couple of months before the Games, we consulted with them on this, made sure that they felt comfortable, and also showed them how we can add value to the work that they are doing and how we can help to promote their coverage.

What you can see, if you find the right balance and you work closely with the rights holders, is that increased engagement on social media and the digital channels, in the end, also raises interest in the Games, creates much more awareness, and therefore takes people into the coverage of the specific rights holders. That is also fundamentally our goal: to make sure that our partners are satisfied and happy with the rights that they have bought here, and that it works for their brand and their audience as well.

You mentioned that many broadcasters have committed to going above and beyond their contractual obligations for Rio. In which regions or countries have you seen the greatest growth in terms of broadcast output and revenues?

It’s difficult. There is always the question about how you assess this because you start from different levels of sophistication. I think we have a very strong foothold in Europe, be it through the European Broadcasting Union and, of course, also Channel 4 [in the UK]. It’s a very important revenue base for us; we’ve been able to increase that revenue base over London. But of course we want to make sure that we enlarge our footprint.

The output we have in North America now, for example - we are in Canada and the US. The Canadian Paralympic Committee has put together a very strong consortium with a lot of output and probably the strongest coverage ever for the Paralympic Games. It’s also an important one and we are working very closely with the Canadian Paralympic Committee to ensure that this project can be financed but at the same time that we also find the right level of rights fee. I think it’s a very good example of a partnership and, in a way, it’s similar to Australia, where it’s the first time that, at this scale, a commercial broadcaster - Seven - came on board and is partnering there with the Australian Paralympic Committee [APC]. The hours that they are going to show and the way they are active with the APC and their partners is phenomenal.

I think that is also going to lead us to… it has only just started, in a way. We think that, as we are moving forward, there is still a lot of room for improvement and to build on that. But to outline a specific region or a specific deal, I would be a little bit hesitant to do this because it doesn't do justice to some of the, let’s say, smaller things that we’ve been doing.

But we are working and we hope that we will be able to announce, before the Games, a major territory that economically is maybe not going to play such a major role in the bigger picture, but in the development of para-sport and the global spread of the Games. We think this is going to have a major impact and is going to be extremely important for the future. So from that perspective, I think every country is a little bit different, every deal hopefully has good aspects, and therefore we are happy with how we are able to extend and strengthen the relationship with broadcasters or find new relationships.

*Editor’s note: The IPC announced on Tuesday that they have signed a 'strategic partnership’ with China’s Sina Sports for Rio 2016. Full details of the deal can be found here.

It was announced on Monday that 1.5 million tickets have now been sold and that the IPC is confident the Games will in fact sell out despite the local organisers’ struggles. If true, that figure represents a remarkable turnaround given that just 12 per cent of tickets were sold as recently as the end of the Olympics. Is it normal for Paralympic ticket sales to surge so drastically immediately after the Olympics or is Rio an exceptional case?

We had a conversation with the director of ticketing here some months ago and he was talking about his experience of the football World Cup. For the football World Cup, they were selling tickets extraordinarily late and he was saying that when the Rolling Stones came to Rio de Janeiro, they only sold out the venue on the night of the concert. I think we are dealing with a market that is totally, totally different.

We also need to recognise that of course the organising committee had to give the Olympic Games their full attention, and understandably their focus was also, in the lead-up to the Olympics, to look into the success of the Olympic Games and the Olympic ticketing programme. To be quite fair, I think the second half of the Olympics and the mood that was created here in the host nation has certainly had a very positive impact on our ticket sales.

From that perspective, I guess it’s a combination of different elements. But we see now that particularly in some of the sports where Brazil is really strong - like swimming, for example - tickets are very hard to get and the evening sessions are practically sold-out. But then at the same time you have the athletics stadium, which is a massive stadium, so it is a lot of tickets that you need to sell there. We believe that Brazil has a strong team there and our tickets are at an affordable cost. The Paralympic torch relay is going to hit Rio tomorrow, and it is going to create excitement here in the city. Ticket sales will pick up again and when Brazil wins their first couple of medals, it will lead to what is then hopefully a sell-out.

"When the Rolling Stones came to Rio de Janeiro, they only sold out the venue on the night of the concert. I think we are dealing with a market that is totally, totally different."

The Brazilian team is expected to do well in the medal stakes and is hoping to achieve a top-five finish. How has the IPC sought to communicate that to the Brazilian public and to use it to drum up excitement around the Games?

Absolutely. If you look at our social media, if you look at some of the press releases that we’ve put out, we have talked about the medal prospects for Brazil. But at the same time, what we are trying to do is also to generate interest for some of the exceptional international races there are going to be and the international stars. Our communications department, quite some time ago, started to communicate the ones to watch and we have that on our website, where we try to educate people about who are the athletes to look out for.

In the end, it also comes down to the organising committee and the National Paralympic Committee here. The Brazilian Paralympic Committee is doing a fantastic job to promote their team. Right now, when you switch on your television, you see a lot of Globo programmes and a lot of content about the Paralympic Games. I think that is also going to ramp up the excitement towards the opening ceremony on Wednesday. From everything that our chief executive has told me, it’s going to be a spectacular opening ceremony.

Clearly, every Games has its own character and challenges. What is the buzz like there in Rio and how does it compare to previous Games you’ve been involved in?

Every Games has a unique aspect and I think the Brazilians are known for their passion. When Brazil wins a medal - and I hope for the Brazilian team that they win a few because they have put out a pretty ambitious target - I think it’s going to really add to the atmosphere in the venue.

I believe that we are going to have a different crowd in the venues because, as I said, our tickets have different price points. We pride ourselves in being an affordable event. We also want to drive social change in this country and we want our sport to leave a legacy here. Our aspiration is to use para-sport to drive a more inclusive society and for this we want to make sure that we have an inclusive event. For that reason, it is important for us to bring young people to the event, to ensure that families and groups can come to the events together. I think, in the crowds, you will feel that.

In London, we had much more groups and families coming to the Games, and I think here in Brazil it is going to be the same. But, of course, the atmosphere is always dominated also by the sports culture of the country, and I guess the Brazilians are known for being able to throw a great party. I think that’s what we hope to see in the next days in the venues.

Swimmer Daniel Dias, a ten-time Paralympic gold medallist, is one of the stars of the Brazilian team.

Much has been made of the financial issues affecting these Games, with venues, transport services and volunteer staff all set to be scaled back in a bid to cut costs. What impact, if any, will the cuts have on the Paralympics as a broadcast product, or in other commercial areas under your remit?

The broadcast area, meaning the production, was not cut back. It was contractually guaranteed to the rights holders and we will deliver that commitment. Rio has a challenge with the volunteer programme - fundamentally, the number of volunteers that have accepted the role but also the frequency of people not showing up. That is something that Rio is addressing, based on the athlete experience of the Olympic Games, and they are doing everything they can to make it happen.

Obviously, the funding discussion towards the end of the Olympic Games was not helpful in the sense that it created serious uncertainties. But now I think it has been addressed, we feel that the organising committee has gone into operational mode, and we see that also the sponsors are ready to execute their programmes, bringing their clients, running their campaigns or delivering their showcase and so on. Some of the new partners that are coming on board, and also some of the long-time supporters of the Paralympic Movement here in Brazil, can be positive in creating more Paralympic messages here in the market.

People who I’ve been speaking to, also from our partners here, they are all looking forward. They understand that some of the programmes have been maybe a little bit slower but they are happy to see that things are now coming together. We are optimistic that if we continue working closely together with the organising committee, we will be able to create a good athlete experience - that is the most important part - and also an event here that our partners will feel really good about.

It was also widely reported that the Olympics did not have the correct look and feel due to problems with certain suppliers. Will the Paralympics suffer from similar issues?

80 per cent of the Paralympic Games is built on the Olympic Games, so if the Olympic Games have a challenge, we have a challenge as well. That’s one of the parts that also was addressed by the organising committee. They obviously had some supply issues. In the meantime, they have worked closely with a local supplier here. The venues are being changed over as we speak and as of today, at the moment, I am confident that our venues are going to look good.

I have already personally seen a couple of enhancements that we put in place, that were planned for the Olympics but they didn't have time to put them in place anymore. In certain areas, our event will be a little bit better. There are other areas where, because of the overall budget situation, certain cutbacks were done. But we believe that those were nice-to-have elements and won’t necessarily impact the look and feel in the venues or what you will see on the television. When an athlete comes on the field of play, from what I’ve seen so far, we are going to have an amazing experience and an amazing stage because the look that Rio has produced is a fantastic set of graphics.

"80 per cent of the Paralympic Games is built on the Olympic Games, so if the Olympic Games have a challenge, we have a challenge as well." 

I read a recent opinion piece you wrote on how the Paralympic brand and its values are somewhat removed - or at least distinct from - the Olympics, and should be seen as such. Do you feel that the Paralympics are somehow being smothered or perhaps shortchanged by their close association with the Olympics, which are often cast in a negative light by many in the media?

I think the first thing to understand is that when you are talking about a brand, you also need to look at the lifecycle of that brand. Undoubtedly, we are in a different stage of our lifecycle. But we are also very young and in that sense we still have our future ahead of us.

I think, in the past, people didn't know about the Paralympic Games. Probably the best way of explaining who you are as a Paralympian was to make reference to the Olympics. I think that by now, when you look at our television figures and the corporate support that we are getting, there are a lot of things that everybody in the movement can be extremely proud about. The best way of looking to the future is to be proud about who we are and to continue reinforcing what we are, who we are and what we stand for. That will then also ultimately make us stronger and a more recognisable brand in the world of sport. From that point of view, I think the starting point for us is to stay true to who we are, to be proud of what we have achieved, and to communicate this to the world. 

When you now go on social media and you see how many athletes, for example, put a Facebook frame around their picture saying they are a proud Paralympian - that’s a strong start. Because in the end it starts with our athletes, with them being out there and conveying that message that they are a proud Paralympian. That’s how it all starts and then the rest will follow because ten years ago we may not have had the media clout to then take this message to the world. I think today we have and in the future that clout will only grow.

In terms of the development of the Paralympic brand, do you think that, when all is said and done, these Games in Rio will strengthen the movement and evolve it for the better?

Look, I don’t have a crystal ball. Whatever I can say is going to be built on assumption. I think, from what I’ve seen from the past two weeks here in the media, we are going to have a massive impact on Brazil. Let’s assume for a moment that Team Brazil is going to be as successful as they want to be, then I think there will be extremely strong media coverage in Brazil about that success. I think this is going to take para-sport to the Brazilians like never before.

We have, through our partnership with America Movil, the strongest ever broadcasting presence throughout South America and also more media than ever. This was an area where our NPCs were still, let’s say, catching up, and I think the Games, if they turn out as we all hope, will give a massive boost here in the region for the next steps of development.

In the same way, I think the Games will continue to show to our broadcast partners and sponsors that the Paralympics are a premium sport event that has a reputation for being the number one sport event for driving social change. And therefore, yes, I do think that the Games here are going to have a very strong legacy. We will then go away from Brazil saying this was a tough Games, but also a great Games.

Michael Long (@_MichaelLong) is SportsPro's Americas editor and this is his weekly column.