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Boston 2024 organizers carefully sell bid to locals

Analysts seek risk in a blast of ads

Boston 2024 said it has no immediate plans to launch stirring TV spots, laced with patriotism and athletic glory, to sell its plans.Stephan Savoia/Associated Press

Forget the velodrome or finding someone to develop a new neighborhood atop a railyard. The biggest immediate challenge facing Boston 2024 is working to drum up support for a local Olympics without appearing to force the mammoth undertaking on an unwilling public.

While some analysts say the only way to swiftly move public opinion on hosting the 2024 Summer Games is through a barrage of well-crafted television ads, others contend it is the type of high-handed, top-down strategy that could alienate the very skeptics they’re trying to woo.

“The best way to win political campaigns is by outspending your opponent,” said Rob Gray, a Republican political strategist unaffiliated with the bid. “But spending a lot to promote the Olympics in the short term may feed the notion that it’s ultimately a wasteful enterprise that a small group in Boston is trying to foist upon the general population.”


Boston 2024, under pressure to elevate lagging poll numbers by a September deadline to officially enter the International Olympic Committee’s host city competition, insists it has no immediate plans to launch stirring TV spots, laced with patriotism and athletic glory, to sell its plans.

The organization, which was criticized as too dismissive of critics under initial leader John Fish, has adopted an almost comically soft-sell approach under its new chairman, Steve Pagliuca. He insists residents should examine the bid carefully and then decide for themselves whether they want to support it. No pressure.

“All we can do is put a plan we think is viable and increases economic benefits on the table and people can vote on it,” Pagliuca said. “And if the opposition points to legitimate reasons and gets people not to vote for it, then we won’t have any Olympics.”

Mayor Martin J. Walsh, an enthusiastic backer of the bid, said ads should be considered at some point — he noted that Hamburg was advertising to promote its 2024 campaign — but said support cannot be nurtured only through the airwaves.


“I think the people of Boston and the people of Massachusetts have to come to an understanding on their own,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not going to go out on the campaign trail and be knocking on doors and saying, ‘I need you to support the Olympics.’ ”

The US Olympic Committee must decide by September whether to formally nominate Boston as America’s bid city to the International Olympic Committee.

At the USOC’s board meeting last month, chairman Larry Probst effusively praised the recent changes Boston 2024 made to its bid, but said the committee remains concerned about the lack of public support and wants to see poll numbers improve, “the sooner, the better.”

Probst said he would like support to climb to 50 percent “relatively soon” and into the mid-60s before the International Olympic Committee chooses the 2024 host city, in about two years.

The most recent poll, by WBUR in June, showed 39 percent of voters statewide supported the bid, while 49 percent opposed.

Boston 2024’s leaders, who include prominent ad executives and political strategists, have produced inspirational online videos featuring local Olympic medalists Mike Eruzione and Aly Raisman, but said there is no current plan for wider release.

They plan instead to continue holding community meetings, putting placards in store windows, and sending volunteers in Boston 2024 tee-shirts to parades and athletic events.


The goal is to “have open dialogues, collect feedback, and answer questions about bid 2.0 and this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our city,” said Erin Murphy, chief operating officer of Boston 2024.

But some outside analysts said they are not sure that this strategy can turn the tide quickly enough.

“They are in campaign mode, and like any campaign, a combination of grass-roots efforts and a significant . . . media presence — with arguments that the public will find persuasive — is crucial,” said Cheryl Cronin, a veteran Democratic adviser unaffiliated with the Olympic effort. “When a campaign gets off to a rocky start, as this one did in many ways, it’s a much greater challenge to win back voters.”

But some analysts cautioned that ads could backfire on a group made up primarily of powerful business executives that is trying to shed its corporate image.

“In my opinion, TV ads would be construed as a sales job,” said Tom Ahern, a partner at Five Corner Strategies, which helps developers, energy companies, and casinos handle public opposition.

Ahern suggested that Boston 2024 support legislation guaranteeing that public money would not be used for Olympic operations or venues, and hold more small community meetings, rather than large “cattle calls” where residents speak to a panel seated on an auditorium stage.

“I truly believe there is a chunk of the electorate that is still open to hosting the Olympics if there is a true engagement of the citizens,” he said.


Boston 2024 could also face legal questions about whether spending money to promote the bid on TV would require the group to launch a political committee, given the likelihood that the issue would be on the ballot next year.

Cronin noted that the most significant boost could come from an endorsement from Governor Charlie Baker, given his reputation as a fiscal hawk.

Baker has remained neutral on the bid, saying he is waiting until a consulting firm hired by the state completes its analysis of Boston 2024’s financial plan. The report is expected next month.

“Even if he comes on board in some fashion,” Cronin said, “the public may still remain cynical, but his support would be the kind of game changer they need.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@ globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.