It’s only 287 days until the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, but nearly 100 of the U.S. team’s top athletes have come together this week, from gold-medalist skier Lindsey Vonn to ice-skating phenom Ashley Wagner to snowboarding legend Shaun White.
But they’re not at the site of the 2018 Games, Pyeongchang, South Korea; they’ve assembled at a Los Angeles production facility. And though it’s a sunny spring day, they are surrounded indoors by snow, albeit the kind of faux flakes made of paper that are pumped into the air in order to evoke the winter wonderland in which they’ll assemble again less than 10 months from now.
Though this is not the actual Olympics, think of what NBCUniversal and the U.S. Olympic Committee have assembled here as a decathlon of a different kind: a gauntlet of 20 different promotional shoots primarily intended to service the vast array of programs and platforms where these athletes will be featured long before the torch is lit in order to light a fire under consumers to tune in next year.
This massive “content capture” operation is known at NBCU simply as “WeHo,” a nod to the West Hollywood neighborhood where it is being held for the sixth time in the past 10 years.
NBCU traditionally kept WeHo a secret, requesting the athletes not even post on social media about it. But since the 2016 Games, they’ve loosened the reins a bit in recognition there’s no time of year when Olympics marketing doesn’t matter, and the collective social footprint of the many participating athletes is too considerable not to leverage. “There is so much content we have, there is no reason to hold back,” said Jennifer Storms, CMO of NBC Sports Group.
Attending athletes are marched from one stage to the next for 20 minutes each, where they pose, mug or chat depending on which NBCU outlet they are talking to, including “Today,” “NBC Nightly News,” “Access Hollywood,” the TV-station group or Buzzfeed, which the conglomerate has a sizable investment. Much of the footage obtained will also be put in the proverbial can for usage when the Olympics blanket NBCU’s networks and streams for a few weeks next February.
Then there is the stunning visuals that appear in interstitials throughout the Olympic telecasts. To give viewers a sense that the athletes they are shooting in balmy California are actually in the South Korean winter, one soundstage recreates the vista of a Pyeongchang mountain range across a 5,280-square-foot space. When moguls skier Morgan Schild is photographed in her jumpsuit and ski boots (see photo above), they spew enough fake snow and condensation her way to make you forget it’s actually 70 degrees outside.
But the great outdoors can’t entirely be replicated; there are additional shoots at various snow-and-ice-capped locations from nearby Mammoth Mountain to Lake Placid.
The star power isn’t limited to the athletes. Mike Tirico, who is taking over for Bob Costas as lead anchor for the Olympics, is here already in preparation mode for Pyeongchang. “Access Hollywood” co-host Natalie Morales is also conducting interviews that will be on NBC as February approaches. Even NBCU Olympics chief Jim Bell pops in for a visit, as do some Summer Games stars like the multi-medaled gymnast Laurie Hernandez.
It’s never too early to get the Olympic marketing machine humming at parent company Comcast, which has spent over $12 billion on U.S. TV rights through 2032 but saw troubling signs of ratings fatigue for the previous Summer Games in 2016. All together, promotional efforts are expected to reach 90% of Americans at least 30 times between now and the 2018 Games, according to Storms. “It speaks to the power of this company, its assets and the strategy we have in place,” she said.
Newer, lesser-known entities within the conglomerate’s vast reach are also feeding at this trough, from “Heart of a Champion,” an athlete-focused series for kids that began running last October in a Saturday morning programming block on NBC to the growing trove of Olympics-related events that air on channels like NBCSN, including U.S. Figure Skating Championship. NBCU is also teaming with the IOC and USOC for an all-Olympics cable channel launching this summer.
To get a sense of how broad an audience NBCU is seeking to attract, consider the wide range of photos and video being collected. On one stage, Elmo and Cookie Monster puppets are available to pose with athletes, intended to appeal to young parents. Outside, a menagerie of adorable puppies, kittens and even a baby goat are on hand; animals are proven click drivers on social channels.
Execs are also considering how these cute creatures could come in handy should they need to creative for the upcoming Blu-Ray release of Universal Pictures’ “The Secret Life of Pets.” Other synergistic steps are being taken for even more integrated approaches with various broadcast and cable series across the NBCU portfolio including NBC hit “The Voice.”
The USOC also gets time with the athletes for its own Team USA-branded outlets. “We never get the chance to get these athletes in one place,” said Brian Gordon, senior VP and managing director of marketing and media at USOC.
This week in April is one of the rare down periods on the schedules of many winter sports. NBCU can’t win them all though; no one from the world of curling, for instance, is present because the sport is still busy this time of year.
But U.S. luge team member Chris Mazdzer wouldn’t have missed WeHo for the world. “I come from a small sport that not a lot of people have heard about,” he said as he changed clothes between photo sessions. “Any possibility to get media attention is huge.”
There are still hundreds more Winter Games athletes who don’t take part in WeHo but not because they opted out; NBCU and USOC have the difficult task of guesstimating which athletes they think will end up not just participating Olympians, but notable ones that will resonate with viewers.
“Ten years ago, there was a lot of arm-twisting and pleading with agents,” said Lindsay Hogan, senior director of marketing communications at USOC. “Now it’s the opposite, they lobby us. Nobody says no.”