LONDON, Sept 6 (Reuters) - With top athletes competing in front of sold-out stadiums and global television audiences in the millions, the Paralympic Games are starting to look a lot like their able-bodied equivalents - and big business is right behind.
Although the money for TV rights, ticket sales and athletes’ earnings is not on a par with the Olympics, the rapidly growing profile of the Paralympics has made them a commercial opportunity in their own right.
And while it took the Olympics the best part of 90 years to evolve into the business they have become, the transformation of the Paralympics is much more swift.
“The media coverage has increased exponentially over the last 12 years,” said Greg Hartung, Vice President of the International Paralympic Committee, which organises the Games. “These Games seem to be breaking all records.”
Tickets have sold out for most events at the 14th Paralympics, held in London weeks after the Olympics, and organisers hope the sale of more than 2.7 million tickets will bring in close to 45 million pounds ($55 million).
While most of the tickets were available for 10 pounds or less compared to the hundreds of pounds charged for many seats at the Olympics, tickets were often given away in the past - if seats could be filled at all.
A cumulative total of more than 4 billion people are expected to watch the London Games on television, compared to 3.8 billion for the 2008 Beijing games and 1.9 billion for Athens in 2004, the Paralympic committee said.
U.S. network NBC is only covering highlights, but the criticism it has faced for limiting coverage itself points to the growing importance of the event.
The higher profile can also be seen in athletes’ earnings.
‘Blade Runner’ Oscar Pistorius, the South African face of the Games, can expect $2 million a year in endorsements from sponsors including Nike and BT, according to research from IMR sports marketing & sponsorship intelligence.
That’s a lot less than the $20 million or so estimated for Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest man, but it’s more than many able-bodied athletes will get.
Businesses sponsoring both the Olympics and Paralympics see some additional benefits in sponsoring the latter - and more than just from being able to put up their logos alongside running tracks and swimming pools.
“The Paralympics can bring an additional emotional connection, even over and above the incredible emotional connection that the Olympics delivers,” Mike Sharrock, of oil giant BP’s London 2012 partnership said.
“It’s not about selling more fuel. It’s a deeper, more values-based partnership.”
That could certainly serve the objectives of BP, still trying to rebuild its image and show a softer side two years after its Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
And the interest in the Paralympics is a far cry from the past. In Atlanta in 1996, workmen began dismantling the Olympic village as the Paralympians were still competing.
Much of the demand from companies seeking to associate themselves with the Paralympics came after the success of the London Olympics, said Martin Sorrell, chief executive of the world’s largest advertising group WPP.
For the first time, the Paralympics also have their own major sponsor. British supermarket Sainsbury paid 20 million pounds for the right, local media said. It did not sponsor the Olympics.
“What we’re seeing is a significant degree of warmth towards Sainsbury’s as the Paralympic sponsor, in particular from families,” Jat Sahota, Sainsbury’s head of sponsorship, said.
It is hard to break down exactly how much sponsorship the Paralympics gets because the organising committee does not give figures. The Locog local organisers signed around 700 million pounds in sponsorship for both the Olympics or Paralympics.
No figures were available for global sponsorship paid to the International Olympic Committee and its counterpart for the two events, but businesses said they would not have considered sponsoring the Olympics and then ignoring the Paralympics.
“We don’t have an Olympics and a Paralympics plan,” project director Nathan Homer of Procter & Gamble, said. “We have one plan.”
Long term however, the growing commercialisation has raised concerns among some followers that it could go too far - a complaint often made of the Olympics itself.
Among the worries is that it could endanger the more relaxed family feel to the Games that many spectators have praised.
One person who has noticed the changing atmosphere is Allison Graham, a consultant physician at the Stoke Mandeville hospital which hosted a competition for disabled people in 1948 and the 1984 Paralympic Games.
“In 1984 you could just walk into the beer tent, but it’s not like that now,” she told Reuters. “It’s gone a bit commercial and posh.”
The other big question is whether the commercial success of the Paralympics can be sustained when they move to Rio in 2016.
In Britain, perceptions of disability have progressed to the extent that not featuring Paralympic athletes in advertising campaigns would now be a dangerous strategy, according to Pippa Collett, managing director at Sponsorship Consulting.
But attitudes are changing globally too.
“The appeal of the Games has grown alongside the public appeal and acceptance of Paralympic sport as a high performance sport,” the IPC’s Hartung said.
Among countries where broadcasting rights for the Paralympics have been sold for the first time are Iran, Singapore, Malaysia and Pakistan, the local organisers said. They did not say how much TV rights made in total.
In Brazil itself, there is every sign that interest will be as great as it has been in Britain.
Brazilian Paralympic athletes are having to spend hours talking to their media after each event and their country has risen to eighth on the medals table, well above countries including France and Italy.
With Brazilian Alan Oliveira as the only man to beat Pistorius in the London games, the prospects look bright.