Boston 2024 just released their revised plan in an attempt to win support among Massachusetts taxpayers and politicians. While the new plan will be more honest than the 1.0 version, it is likely too late. The odds of the IOC picking Boston to host the 2024 Olympics are slim to none. In fact, most in the know think that the USOC may dump Boston for L.A. to meet the September deadline to file an application for an American city to host the games.
How did this go so bad, so fast? Why is public support below 40% and opposition approaching 50% in recent polls? Insiders say that the IOC looks for 70% public support in the host city. Before discussing where they went wrong, the question still remains: Why did a group from Boston even bid in the first place? Recent hosts are large world capitals and 2024 competition will likely come from Paris and Rome. During the last two Olympic cycles, America’s largest and third-largest cities (N.Y. and Chicago, respectively) came up short. According to the 2010 census, Boston is the 10th ranked MSA in the U.S. Why is the USOC putting #10 up against some clear front runners?
One theory is that the business leaders who drove the bid wanted to prove Boston was “world class” – a theme that was heard quite often this winter, ironically around the same time a series of snowstorms all but shut down the aging transportation system. Perhaps they were tired of being big fish in a small pond and wanted to prove they were the equals of their peers in New York, L.A., D.C. and Chicago. They, too, come from industries (construction, banking, advertising, media, finance) that would do quite well with $4 billion in spending to pull off the games. However, in an effort to prove worthy, they committed enough unforced errors to fill a bloopers reel.
Here is a non-comprehensive summary of where they went wrong and what could serve as a future blueprint of what not to do when rolling out a several billion-dollar initiative.
Transparency – The initial bid and details were created in virtual secrecy in a top-down manner. There was no grass roots swell or community buy-in across the state. The details leaked out slowly, so every couple of days a new outrage would be created and the organizing committee was permanently playing defense. The leaders claimed no public funding would be needed and the games would be funded privately through sponsors, media rights and ticket sales. This is technically known as a lie and when some local media outlets got the bid book through the FOIA, all hell broke loose. The Boston and Massachusetts taxpayer would be expected to foot the bill for a good bit of the building and infrastructure. They also pitched it as a “walkable” Olympics without even informing the current owners of the sites they were planning to use. The new plan, which has leaked out, has facilities and sites all over the state – mostly in far-flung places that are hard for tourists to get to under normal circumstances. The spreading out of events is an effort to raise the poll numbers statewide for IOC approval. Small, economically challenged cities around the Bay State (handball in Worcester, fencing in Lowell, shooting in Billerica) are more enthusiastic about holding an obscure event than Bostonians for having the entirety of the games in the city. Although once you see downtown Billerica, Paris seems like a let-down.
Old Media Approach – The men and women who put the bid together come from the old media world where the compliant, insider Boston Globe would do their bidding and they could control the message and timing. If there were any problems, throwing money at connected PR firms would do the trick. Great strategy if it was 1993, but the world has changed. There are no secrets on the Internet and viral movements grow within minutes on social media. The opposition has been visible, loud and organized. They are using the web, mobile, social and video to tell the story and rally the troops. The establishment Globe has been a bit of a cheerleader for the effort and its lively reader comment section is running about 90-10 against the idea.
Not Understanding the Audience – This was the biggest mistake of all and a classic marketing misstep. I have spent most of my adult life in the Boston area and can tell you Boston has a highly educated population with no lack of self-esteem about their place in the world. The collective population does not need the games to feel validated like Atlanta did in 1996. Massachusetts may be one the most socially liberal states in the country, but not so much when it comes to public spending. They didn’t start the Boston Tea Party for nothing, and there is a strain of anti-tax rebellion and caution when it comes to spending public money. A history of corruption (three Massachusetts House Speakers were recently convicted and the Big Dig was rife with sketchy overruns) and graft has created a cynical public when it comes to the public coffer. There is a reason why this deep-blue state has had Republican governors for most of the past 25 years, including now. Newly elected Gov. Charlie Baker is about the last guy in America to give the IOC a blank check, especially considering there is little chance he will be in office for the 2024 glory. Bostonians are generous when it comes to education, healthcare, programs for the poor, the environment and other endeavors for the common good. But, a two-week party for the global elite? Better chance of seeing the famous statute of the Revolutionary War hero Minuteman in Lexington wearing a New York Yankees jersey.