2020 Olympic events: Why surfing is more likely than climbing as a new sport

2020 Olympic events nominated: Eight new sports are vying for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympics. What sport will get the nod and why? 

REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Fujio Mitarai, Chair of the Tokyo 2020 Additional Event Programme Panel and Canon Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, speaks during a news conference after the meeting of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games Additional Event Programme Panel in Tokyo June 22, 2015.

Chess and bridge didn't make the cut.

But eight new sports are vying for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan. And the decision is likely to be heavily weighted toward the sport that has the largest market appeal to big international sponsors – giving the surfing the advantage over, say, climbing.

The short list of sports considered for addition to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics includes: Baseball, softball, bowling, roller sports (from speed skating to pairs), sport climbingsquashsurfing and the martial arts of karate and wushu.

On Monday, the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) executive board whittled the list of 26 "new" sports down to eight while also announcing its intentions to boost female participation and youth appeal for both the 2018 PyeongChang and 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo.

The board also introduced a recommended cap of approximately 2,900 athletes that may shrink teams and limit the games to 100 events for the Olympic Winter Games for the sake of continued sustainability, the Tokyo 2020 website states.

The Tokyo 2020 site lists the following criteria for new sports: added value; youth appeal; attractiveness for TV, media and the general public; gender equality; minimum impact on the number of events and/or quotas, infrastructure and operational costs and complexity.

Active Imagination (AI) Sports Marketing in Houston, Texas, works with corporations, helping them to get the biggest bang for their sponsorship bucks, says that while baseball and softball are popular in the United States, the Asian market may lean toward surfing. It's a sport that would also have an advantage over the others by being cross-promotable with snowboarding and skate boarding sponsors. It also will appeal to a larger, more diverse demographic.

“There are a lot of factors that go into what makes a sport attractive to a sponsor,” says Adam Nisanson, vice president of AI. “The sponsors are only going to be drawn to something that’s going to draw an audience and is the sport a fit for sponsors.” 

In other words, can the sponsor's customers also relate to the sport?

Surfing is also an ideal fit for the younger demographic the IOC is courting.

While Olympic surfing may require the construction of an expensive wave-generating stadium, Mr. Nisanson says that it could produce the wow-factor needed to draw fans, TV and media, and big international sponsors.

“I would love watching that,” he says. “For me, if I have a sponsor, surfing has everything: It has nature, good looking guys, good looking girls, waves, swimsuits, you can tie it together with exotic destinations for travel sponsors, health products, summer gear, and of course, the beverage market. There’s just a lot more to tie it too."

For any of the sports up for consideration, Nisanson says “If it’s non-traditional, there’s value to that, too.”

However, from the marketing standpoint he adds, “As a sponsor, really, how is competitive climbing going to translate on TV?”

There is also the notion of how much marketing work would have to go into educating viewers and attendees about any new sport.

“Squash might be something I would watch or wushu, but I already know about baseball, softball, karate and surfing, for example. It’s an easier sale," Nisanson remarked.

Sports psychologist Patrick Cohn, a former athlete and coach, with Peak Performance mental training for athletes, adds: “Some people would say, ‘Well golf isn’t a sport’ just because you’re out there walking and it’s not super vigorous. But to me a sport is any activity that you engage in and have a competitive nature to the sport,” he says.

“So, is chess a sport? You could argue that it’s very competitive and it’s certainly head-to-head so you certainly could consider chess a sport even though we think of it as a game.”

Chess and bridge were among the 26 sports on the initial list for consideration for inclusion in the 2020 games.

“If they’re looking for the entertainment value of the sports, what’s going to engage fans then certainly they’re just thinking about how entertaining it is for the spectator,” says Dr. Cohn. 

The federations of the eight sports will next make presentations in Tokyo on Aug. 7-8, and organizers will make recommendations to the International Olympic Committee by Sept. 30.

The IOC will make a final decision on which sport – or sports – will be added in August 2016, when it meets ahead of the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

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