Today in Inviting Unintended Consequences:
ESPN recently obtained a letter from the United States Olympic Committee ostensibly threatening to sue anyone who isn’t an official sponsor from tweeting about the Games.
The letter, written by USOC marketing chief Lisa Baird, was sent to companies that sponsor athletes competing at the Olympics but are not, themselves, official sponsors. In the letter. Baird warned companies that even talking about the Games on social media would be tantamount to trademark infringement.
“Commercial entities may not post about the Trials or Games on their corporate social media accounts. This restriction includes the use of USOC’s trademarks in hashtags such as #Rio2016 or #TeamUSA.”
The letter goes on to say that companies whose primary business is not in the media can’t make reference to the Olympics or results from individual competitions, share or repost anything from the official Olympic social media accounts, or even share photos taken at or near the Games.
There has been a long-running tension between companies like Under Armour and New Balance, who pay good money to have elite athletes wear their products while competing at the highest levels of their respective sports with potentially millions of eyeballs trained on them, and the USOC and IOC, who enforce strict rules that give their preferred corporate partners a wide berth in branding and activation surrounding the games.
The Olympics aren’t the only sporting entity to guard their brand so zealously. The NFL is infamous for sending cease-and-desist letters to any company, big or small, who uses the words “Super Bowl” in their advertizing unless they’re official sponsors.
Even so, threatening people— or at least #brands— if they so much as tweet about the Games is beyond the pale. Worse, there’s nothing to really stop them from expanding that reach further. Could we see it applied to media outlets that aren’t preferred partners or broadcasters? What about fans? The implications are truly frightening.
And if you’re a soccer fan, you should be especially worried.
Because if you’ve followed this sport for any length of time, you know how low FIFA will stoop to enrich itself and its corporate partners. Same with UEFA. Even US Soccer has yet to find a branding opportunity it didn’t like. This chilling overreach from Olympics officials will just give FIFA and other football organizing bodies all sorts of bad ideas.
Will we see similar embargoes implemented during the World Cup? Will tweeting about the Champions League be restricted to Heineken and Gazprom? Will you need to be a card-carrying member of the American Outlaws in order to chant “I Believe That We Will Win?”
These are not purely hypothetical questions. The USOC sent those letters out to non-sponsors and laid out those dubiously-enforceable rules because they think they can get away with it. If they do, they’ll explore what else they can get away with in the next Olympic cycle. And maybe they’ll pick up some new ideas from FIFA.
And then there’s the big wildcard: what role would Twitter have in enforcing any of these rules? Again, not hypothetical.
In any event, the USWNT’s Olympic campaign begins on August 3rd (two days before the Games officially begin) when they take on New Zealand in Belo Horizonte. It’ll be carried by NBCSN, but you should be able to get updates from other media outlets. For now.