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How to thrive in uncertainty: Learn from the Olympics and UEFA

Published 15 September 2021 in Leadership • 7 min read

All organizations, no matter how big or successful, must learn to embrace continuous innovation to ride the relentless waves of disruption and changing consumer habits.  

When COVID-19 struck, it brought sport to a halt for the first time since the Second World War. The Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 and the European Football Championship (EURO 2020) were postponed and had to be reimagined for a pandemic-restricted audience.

For most sport organizations, the consequences of the pandemic were unprecedented, with deep financial implications. According to the latest UEFA Benchmarking Report, the football industry alone is forecast to lose between 7 and 8 billion euro in revenue across their 2020 and 2021 financial years.

But, thanks to long-engrained cultures of innovation, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) were able to adapt – and even to use the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate innovation.

How did the IOC and UEFA remain so agile in the face of disruption? And, what lessons can you learn to help your organization succeed in an uncertain world?

Revenue increase UEFA

Develop your innovation muscle

It might come as a surprise that the IOC and UEFA should be so focused on innovation. They are, after all, both giants in their field. Half the world’s population watched coverage of the Olympic Games Rio 2016, with viewers consuming more than twice as much online content as the London 2012 and total revenues growing each cycle to hit $5.7 billion for the 2013-2016 Olympiad.

UEFA, as the governing body of European football, has enjoyed global impact with its hugely popular UEFA Champions League and Europa League brands, as well as the EURO international tournament. In the 2018/19 season, UEFA annual revenues increased to over 3.8 billion euro. There will be further significant increases in the 2020/21 season with the successful delivery of the EURO tournament and UEFA’s club competitions, with the latest competition cycle providing further broadcast and sponsor revenue uplifts. Between the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of April 2021, UEFA organised 195 women matches and 1,432 men matches through its competitions and across 55 different territories – impressive figures that prove the agility of the organization to rapidly adapt to the new context.

Sport might be hugely popular, but it does not operate in a vacuum. The threat of disruption looms large for organizations such as the IOC and UEFA, which can rely on TV rights for more than 80% of their revenues. New consumer behaviors and competitors in the “attention economy” are challenging the relevance of the traditional sports TV rights model and also the monopoly position of sport – and its governing bodies – in the entertainment industry.

Sport might be hugely popular, but it does not operate in a vacuum

Only this year, some of Europe’s top football clubs discussed a breakaway super league that would have competed directly with the UEFA Champions League. The rapid rise of esports has also forced many traditional sports organizations to develop their own esports offerings, while younger audiences are increasingly drawn to more immersive and interactive formats.

Today, individual sports and sports events do not just compete against each other, they must fight for attention against the likes of Fortnite and Netflix. Research firm Newzoo estimates there will be 2.9 billion gamers worldwide with the value of the gaming market likely to surpass $200 billion by 2023. YouTube Gaming enjoyed a record year in 2020, with 100 billion watch time hours.

This means that fan experiences in sport need to evolve too. The IOC and UEFA are leading the charge. For example, the IOC and International Paralympic Committee (IPC) joined forces with official partner Airbnb for “Tokyo Together” – an innovative program in which fans could book once-in-a-lifetime experiences with athletes and local hosts to compensate for spectator-free events. Earlier this year, the IOC also announced a partnership with five international sports federations and games publishers to launch the Olympic Virtual Series – the first-ever, Olympic-licensed event for physical and non-physical virtual sports.

At EURO 2020, UEFA partnered with TikTok to activate content around and in-between games, including a record-breaking concert by Ed Sheeran – creating an engaging and relevant second screen experience for fans.

Think beyond sport and entertainment

Sport plays an important role in society – in bringing people together and encouraging healthier lifestyles. This responsibility and sense of purpose offers an opportunity for further innovation and new ways of engaging with fans.

“Phygital” solutions seek to bridge the physical and digital worlds to create highly immersive experiences. For sporting organizations, this approach can help to drive engagement while also supporting their responsibility to contribute to the wellbeing of society.

For example, UEFA is working with start-up Honer to harness smartphone technology to encourage fans to get outside to play football, practice and improve their skills and share their performance and progress.

Put the crisis to good use

The pandemic might have wreaked havoc with the original plans for the Olympics and UEFA EURO, but it presented a chance to experiment with ideas in areas such as tournament organization and fan experience, which are likely to live on well beyond the pandemic.

For example, UEFA’s VISTA virtual stadium map-centric platform, which was scaled in response to COVID-19, enables all event operations teams to collaborate, cut costs and improve productivity in areas such as remote site visits, event reporting, asset management and monitoring.

Throughout the Olympics, the team introduced new concepts to help fans experience all the action in ever-more innovative and engaging ways, including 3D tracking technology for sprint athletes, biometric data in archery, 360° footage of basketball, fan selfie video matrixes and cheer maps displayed in the stadium, and “Athlete Moment” stations that connected athletes to family and friends back home.

This forced reset also elevated the importance of working with a diverse range of stakeholders. Being able to adapt at speed means facilitating and encouraging open-minded collaboration, such as UEFA’s Return to Play plan, which was the result of a culture of knowledge sharing with other sports organizations including Formula 1, the DFL (German football league), as well as cooperation with the World Health Organization.

The IOC works with a wide range of collaborators and partners, such as Samsung, Alibaba and Intel, to offer a continuously-enhanced experience for fans and athletes.

Future-proof your organization

The experiences of UEFA and the IOC offer valuable lessons for all organizations.

Make innovation integral to strategy

Innovation does not happen by magic. It is 99% about process. That means putting in place the right team, governance and structures to create a culture of innovation that has support from the top and enough resources to succeed.

To support the delivery of its 2109-2024 strategy, UEFA set up its “Innovation Hub” to cultivate creativity, and connect with, and curate, an ecosystem of diverse partners. This has already had a tangible impact, ranging from a rethink of its match command centre to tackling unconscious bias in the recruitment and promotion process.

Grow and empower ecosystems

Are you fostering relationships with actors beyond the walls of your firm to stimulate your appetite and capacity to innovate? UEFA and IOC both have extensive networks, from member associations and commercial partners to fans and athletes, to draw ideas from – and they have created specific processes to tap into those spheres and to enable them to contribute new ideas and solutions. UEFA’s Innovation Hub facilitates open challenges, strategic partnerships and clusters, such as the Reimagine Football initiative with football organizations in the Netherlands.

The crisis of COVID-19 created much financial stress for sports organizations around the world. In response, the IOC called on the entire Olympic family to brainstorm solutions that would help to find cost efficiencies, with 180 measures to save money being identified.

As the Tokyo Olympics neared this year, and faced with the prospect of spectator-free events, the organization also convened a special working group to come up with new ways to bring the outside world into the stadium and to broadcast the emotion of the competition to global audiences.

Try, fail and learn

From BMX and transforming the linear organizational journey at the Olympics to embracing new technology in sporting rules and UEFA’s “return to play” protocol, a willingness to support experimentation and creativity without fear is vital. Not all ideas will work out. In fact, most don’t – but giving people the confidence to try and fail will bear fruit.

The IOC’s Youth Olympic Games is a perfect platform for testing new ideas. This event, with less scrutiny, provides a safer space to experiment and tweak solutions for future Olympic events.

In its efforts to grow the women’s game, UEFA is experimenting with a different model to connect with audiences through a partnership with new brand partner DAZN and YouTube for the UEFA Women’s Champions League, with the aim to provide content that is available at any time on any device via a global tech giant and to grow the fanbase for women’s football.

All organizations, no matter how dominant or profitable, must learn to become more agile and resilient through innovation. The pandemic has offered a chance to reset and catch up, accelerated by learning lessons from agile organizations, such as the IOC and UEFA.

IMD, the IOC and UEFA have partnered to create a new education program – Innovation in action: master innovation through real-world application


Cyril Bouquet - IMD Professor

Cyril Bouquet

Professor of Innovation and Strategy at IMD

Cyril Bouquet is Director of the Innovation in Action program. As an IMD professor, his research has gained significant recognition in the field. He helps organizations reinvent themselves by letting their top executives explore the future they want to create together.

Christophe Dubi

Olympic Games Executive Director, International Olympic Committee

Christophe Dubi oversees the management of all aspects of the Olympic and Youth Olympic Games. He works in collaboration with partners across the Olympic Movement with a mission to ensure the Games remain among the world’s premier sporting events and leave a lasting and meaningful legacy. He has written and lectured extensively about sports management and his vision of the Olympic Games and their unique contribution to sport, the economy and culture.

Andrea Traverso

Financial Sustainability and Research Director, UEFA

Andrea was appointed as UEFA’s Financial Sustainability & Research Director in 2019. Among his new responsibilities, he led the creation of an intelligence center, the development of the recently-approved corporate strategy for 2019-2024, and the set-up of a new innovation unit. 

Previously, Andrea led the development and implementation of the UEFA Club Licensing system across all 55 member associations. Andrea also led the development of UEFA’s financial fair play rules to encourage responsible club spending, while promoting investment in youth education and infrastructure, and to protect the long-term sustainability of European club football.  

In addition to his role at UEFA, Andrea has lectured on various sports masters programmes. 


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