David Owen

Is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in danger of losing all of its current Japan-based worldwide sponsors at the same time?

Three of the present 14 members of the IOC's flagship The Olympic Partner (TOP) programme are based in the country that hosted the last Summer Olympics and Paralympics in 2021.

I have already written about Panasonic, a member of the first TOP programme in 1988, which was the first worldwide partner to renew through to 2024 when its latest extension, in the audio-visual equipment category, was announced in Sochi back in 2014. 

That company’s recent pivot to focus more on electric car batteries may, as I wrote, raise questions about its future sports sponsorship strategy, including as a member of TOP.

But the current TOP agreements of both tyre-maker Bridgestone and car-maker Toyota also expire after the next Summer Games in Paris next year.

This duo signed up to the TOP club relatively recently - Bridgestone in 2014, Toyota a year later, although it did not actually join the TOP programme until 2017.

The Toyota deal, in particular, has been viewed as a significant landmark for the IOC, both because the vehicle category had not previously been included in TOP and because of the sum reportedly involved - perhaps "in the vicinity of ¥100 billion (£550 million/$670 million/€634 million)", according to the Kyodo News Agency.

Confirmation of the deal in March 2015 was described by Thomas Bach, IOC President, as "a very symbolic day".

Toyota was the first vehicle category to included in TOP programme ©Getty Images
Toyota was the first vehicle category to included in TOP programme ©Getty Images

The two companies duly signed up in quick succession in August 2016 to be Founding Partners of the Olympic Channel, a hugely important initiative for Bach’s IOC.

What is certain is that Toyota's arrival has coincided with a huge jump in the overall value of TOP.

Having edged up from $950 million (£778 million/€897 million) over the 2009-2012 Olympic cycle to just over $1 billion (£820 million/€945 million) for 2013-2016, the programme’s headline value then soared to almost $2.3 billion (£1.9 billion/€2.17 billion) during the most recent completed quadrennium, covering the Pyeongchang 2018 and Tokyo 2020 Games.

Bach, moreover, has indicated that another sizeable jump to around $3 billion (£2.45 billion/€2.8 billion) could be in prospect for the present cycle culminating with Paris 2024.

The IOC's 2022 accounts show that TOP yielded $706.9 million (£579 million/€667 million) in that year alone.  

Though much of this income takes the form of value-in-kind rather than cash, the rapid recent progress of TOP has been of considerable importance to the IOC at a time when the growth of its other major income source - broadcasting rights fees - has slowed markedly compared with the impressive pace set earlier in the millennium.

After the joy of winning the right to stage the 2020 Summer Games a decade ago in Buenos Aires, more recent developments in Japan’s over a century-long Olympic story have tended to trigger distinctly more downbeat emotions.

COVID, of course, had a profound impact on these Games, first forcing their postponement, and then obliging events to be staged largely behind closed doors.

A corruption scandal has seen a number of companies and officials officially charged over alleged bid rigging for contracts linked to test events prior to the re-arranged Games. 

Sapporo's ambitions to stage a second Winter Olympic and Paralympics in 2030 have been put on hold seemingly partly because of the bid-rigging allegations.

Chairman of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani, left, and wife Nita Ambani, who is an IOC member, could push to become TOP sponsor when India hosts the Session in Mumbai next month ©Getty Images
Chairman of Reliance Industries Mukesh Ambani, left, and wife Nita Ambani, who is an IOC member, could push to become TOP sponsor when India hosts the Session in Mumbai next month ©Getty Images

I did put out feelers to the IOC, asking whether it still hoped to sign up any or all of its current Japanese partners beyond Paris 2024.

I was told that "we will not comment on any ongoing discussions about the TOP programme".

The IOC was, however, "working closely together" with Japanese partners in preparation for Paris and looking forward to "bringing these plans to life".

If Toyota especially does not renew beyond 2024, one wonders whether the $3 billion or so suggested for 2021-2024 might not turn out to be a high water-mark for the programme, at least for a certain period; it would definitely suggest that the burst of explosive TOP growth was over.

It is not that I would expect the IOC to encounter problems in unearthing a potential replacement: mobility is a competitive sector and there are plenty of car-makers keen to trumpet their "green" credentials.

But how much would they be willing to pay for the privilege of TOP membership?

With TOP programme contributions used to support Olympic Organising Committees and National Olympic Committees as well as the IOC itself, there are plenty of people within the far-flung Olympic ecosystem who stand to be affected if TOP growth decelerates markedly or disappears altogether.

Equally, since it presides over a genuinely global movement, the IOC should have plenty of options if it needs to find replacement partners.

For example, the timing might be propitious for the emergence of an Indian TOP sponsor in one category or another.

Olympic marketing was a discussion-point the last time an IOC Session was held in India, all the way back in 1983.

It might be again, offstage, when IOC members gather next month in booming Mumbai.