After London 2012, Will Sponsors and Media Finally Embrace the Paralympics?

Long regarded as secondary to the Olympic Games, the Paralympics have reached new levels of esteem at London 2012.

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Even before the men’s 100m final began at the Olympic stadium in London on Thursday night, tens of thousands of sports fans were chanting for the home-crowd favorite, 19-year-old Jonnie Peacock. Less than 11 seconds later, the stadium nearly erupted as the British Paralympian sprinter outpaced champion Oscar Pistorius, crossed the finish line — arms pumping, blade flashing – and won the gold medal. Chants of “Pea-cock! Pea-cock! Pea-cock,” filled the air. It’s a pretty safe bet that a large portion of the six million viewers who tuned into the race on television across Britain were also sharing in the crowd’s exuberance.

Though it’s hardly surprising that scores of Britons were cheering for Peacock’s awe-inspiring performance, it should be a wake up call to broadcasters and corporate sponsors who’ve been notoriously slow to embrace the Paralympics. While the Olympics receive seemingly exhaustive coverage from the global media, much of that focus drops off for the Paralympics, which takes place weeks later. Olympic athletes routinely become household names through brand sponsorships and prolific media coverage, but Paralympians are largely ignored.

(PHOTOS: Highlights from the Paralympics)

At first glance, the Paralympics should be the easiest event in the world to promote: every four years some of the world’s most phenomenal athletes compete against one another in mind-boggling feats of strength and will, after overcoming some of the most devastating, heart-wrenching, worst-case-scenario tragedies imaginable.

Yet in the past, promotion of the Paralympic Games, especially in the U.S., has been dismal or non-existent. This year NBC, who has the rights to the Games, isn’t showing any live coverage at all and will only broadcast four one-hour long segments of the Paralympics in total. Compare this with the hundreds of hours of coverage they devoted to the Olympic Games and it’s hard not to cringe.

The way individual athletes are treated is also noticeably different. Sure, Jonnie Peacock is now a household name in Britain, but he only became so recently. And for much of the world, simply naming a Paralympian — save for Oscar Pistorius, who ran in the Olympic Games as well — would likely be a struggle. But athletes who’ve competed in the Olympic Games, like Team GB’s Jessica Ennis or Victoria Pendleton, became recognizable figures months ago as corporate brands eagerly snatched them up for ad campaigns.

(MORE: Will This Be the First Paralympics to Sell Out?)

But it’s possible that London 2012 could mark a change in the way the Paralympics are marketed both by the media and by sponsors.

In Britain, broadcasting rights to the Paralympics were granted to Channel 4, which seized on the opportunity to promote the event like never before.  “Many UK viewers had not actually seen the Paralympics before, certainly not in mainstream numbers,” says Dan Brooke, the chief marketing and communications officer for Channel 4. “So not only did we have to put the Paralympics on the map, but we had to reposition it.” The public broadcasters launched a mutli-platform campaign that included social media, billboards that cheekily read “Thanks for the warm-up”, newspaper editorials, TV spots, online videos and one simply sublime commercial.

The effort paid off. In addition to the six million viewers the broadcaster pulled in for Peacock’s victory, Channel 4 has also reportedly drawn record numbers of viewers almost every night since the Paralympics began;  the ratings for the event’s opening ceremony were highest they’d been in ten years. “Most importantly,” Brooke adds, “people have been telling us that attitudes to people with impairments have been changing in one really enormous, bounding leap. And that, for a public broadcaster like ourselves, is exactly the kind of thing we were put on earth to do.”

(PHOTOS: Highlights from the 2012 Paralympic Opening Ceremony)

London 2012 has also seen corporate sponsors eager to spearhead the Paralympics promotion. The massive supermarket chain Sainsbury’s bid to be Paralympic-only sponsors, rather than act as sponsors for both sets of Games. Jat Sahota, the company’s head of sponsorship, said that they were keen to jump on board as sponsors of what they predict is a growing event. “If we waited for the Paralympics to become big, that’d be the wrong attitude,” he said. “We wanted to help them become big.”

Alexis Schafer of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) explains that while there’s still a long way to go when it comes to promoting the Paralympics and marketing the Games, accomplishing the task will be a three-way effort between the organizing committees, the corporate sponsors who provide funding and the media. “It’s a constant dialogue,” he says, adding that the IPC is a young organization, created only in 1989, and it’s still continually trying to build the Paralympics. “But I think we have to take it step by step. It’s just sometimes you realize that this progress isn’t as quick as some people would wish.”

But he has high hopes for  Sochi 2014 and Rio 2016, the homes of the next Winter and Summer Games, respectively. If this summer’s Games are any indication, he feels the Paralympics are headed in the right direction. “I think it’s fantastic to see here in London that we really got it right, we really got it going.”

MORE: Tracing the Paralympics’ British Roots