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The countdown has officially begun. The Olympic flame has once again been lit, marking the opening of the Games on 23rd July this year. 

With no international fans allowed and a host of restrictions already in place, athletes, organizers, and sponsors are all bracing for an event like no other before. 

Here we use data from GWI Zeitgeist, as well as our new GWI Sports dataset, to assess the appetite for the event and give you 4 insights that can help guide your Olympic campaigns to a gold medal.

1. Millennials are buzzing about this year’s Olympics.

Back in March last year we asked consumers whether the Tokyo Olympics should go ahead, and only 5% across 13 markets said they should, regardless of the situation. Public opinion was overwhelmingly toward postponement (36%) or cancelation (12%). 

Fast forward to 2021, and our research in the UK and U.S. shows that 44% of internet users support the Olympics taking place this year, with 17% supporting this fully. 

According to our GWI Sports dataset, those typically following or watching the Summer Olympics in the U.S. and UK skew older. In fact, boomers are usually the biggest fans with 7 in 10 of them expressing an interest in the Games, compared to 6 in 10 of millennials.

But our Zeitgeist research reveals we might see somewhat of a shift in the typical demographic watching this year’s Games. 

chart showing millennials are a key demographic for this year's Games

Millennials are the most likely age group to be looking forward to the Olympics, with a whopping 51% planning to watch live on TV.

The fact they’re as likely as boomers to say this means the Olympics audience this year still skews older, but millennials are flocking to it like never before. They’ll also be tuning in across multiple channels. 

Meanwhile, their younger counterparts, Gen Z, are the least enthusiastic. 

This is consistent with our broader sports research where around half of this age group are Summer Olympics fans. 

It could be down to the fact that some of the Olympic sports aren’t as popular among younger fans – like rowing or fencing which are only followed by 7% and 8% of Gen Zs, respectively.

So, what’s got millennials so excited this year? 

The truth is, they’re the most passionate about sports in general; 6 in 10 of them classify as sports fans (those who are extremely or very interested in sports and watch sports at least once a week), compared to only 35% of boomers, for example.

With sports largely put on hold in the last year:

The appetite among this age group for sports of any kind is at an all-time high.

The fact this is the first global event since the pandemic is certainly a factor as well. In the eyes of millennials, the Olympics is more than just a sports event; it’s a return to some kind of normality, which they’ve been particularly impatient about. 

2. No overseas fans? No problem.

Following the organizing committee’s decision to ban overseas spectators attending the Games this year, uncertainty around how this decision will affect sponsorships and engagement is growing. 

But when it comes to fans, our data suggests a ban on international spectators isn’t really an issue.

With half in the UK and 6 in 10 in the U.S. supporting the Olympics going ahead without fans from their country, it’s unlikely this decision will hurt viewership rates. 

This is because appetite for the event is high (45% are looking forward to it), but the general demand for live attendance isn’t. 

When we asked sports fans how they feel about live events post-COVID, 43% in the U.S. and UK said they’re less likely to want to attend them, suggesting that fans are still wary of public gatherings.

Given the unprecedented nature of the Games, there’s a lot of pressure on brands to get it right.

The impact of fan attendance for an event of such scale shouldn’t be underestimated, but with three-quarters of the UK and U.S. online population planning to follow the Games this year, the opportunities for engagement stretch well beyond the action. 

To put this into perspective, the 2016 Summer Olympics reached an audience of over 3 billion people and sold around 6 million tickets. 

This year’s Olympics, for example, is launching its first ever Virtual Series in an effort to reach new and younger audiences beyond the TV and the pitch. 

This’s not only a strong validation of virtual events in sports, but it also shows the lines between traditional sports and esports are becoming ever more blurred.

3. TV is still king, but multiple channels will be needed. 

Although consumers have picked up on digital channels more during the pandemic, broadcast TV continues to reign supreme for overall time spent. 

And our data shows that engagement with the Olympics won’t deviate too much from this broader media consumption trend. 

For Olympics fans, linear TV remains the dominant means of following the Games (60%), with those specifically interested in water sports, like diving and swimming, most likely to be watching live on TV. 

Given the event is global and covers so many different time zones, highlights will be an especially important touchpoint, with half of fans planning to catch up on the day’s action on their TV.

Chart showing a multi-channel approach is needed

Although at first it appears fans are torn between channels, brands need to remember they won’t be following the event exclusively on one channel. The reality is, there are significant overlaps. 

A quarter of those watching TV highlights will also be streaming them, meaning channels aren’t competing as much as they’re complementing each other.

And although social media isn’t considered a sports channel per se, the recent strides made by TikTok in this space prove its potential. 

With 3 in 10 UK and U.S. millennials planning to follow athletes or network accounts on social to keep up with the Games, these platforms should definitely be part of every brand’s strategy during the event.

Brands need to be present at every step of the fan journey – from when viewers are actively engaged, through to when they’re catching up with bite-sized content, or when scrolling through their social media feeds for news. 

4. Millennials are most likely to act on the back of sponsorship.

We not only expect millennials to be the primary audience of this year’s Games, but our new GWI Sports dataset also shows they’re the most likely to convert into customers as well. 

Compared to their counterparts from other age groups, millennials are much more likely to engage with a brand if it sponsors their favorite team (36%) and to go on to purchase its products after (46%).

chart showing sponsorship goes a long way with millennials

This isn’t to say that sponsorship won’t land with other generations – they’ll just engage with it in a different way. 

For those looking to increase brand awareness and boost their image, for example, targeting Gen Z will be their best bet.

They’re the most likely age group to think about a brand more positively if it sponsors their favorite team (53%) and to spread the word to family and friends (44%). 

Regardless of the age group you’ll be looking to reach during this year’s Olympics, the messaging you employ will be key.

For example, our data shows that positioning your brand as innovative will really stand out to a Gen Z Olympics fan (66% want brands to be innovative), while reliability will make millennials tick more (64%). 

Key takeaways

  • The demand and anticipation for the Olympics is there even when the cheer won’t be. 
  • The lack of international fans is unlikely to hurt overall engagement.
  • Traditional TV reigns supreme, but streaming and social will play a big role complementing it.
  • Targeting the entertainment-hungry millennials will likely prove fruitful.
  • Sponsorship works best with younger groups, but a one-size-fits-all approach isn’t going to cut it. 
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