Live From Sochi: NBC Loves Non-Sponsor Starbucks a Latte

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There seems to be a coffee conundrum on the grounds of Sochi’s seaside Olympic Park. All caffeine is supposed to be served by McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD), an official Olympics sponsor, but some attendees are still getting their Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX) fix somehow.

The Wall Street Journal reported on the mystery Monday and found that signs of Starbucks life — its ubiquitous green mermaid on white coffee cups — have been spotted on Olympics grounds, despite the nearest Starbucks being 350 miles away. How is it possible? Who is responsible? The Journal has solved the mystery of the hidden java: NBC brought in the troops.

That’s right, the media giant responsible for the exclusive broadcast of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in the United States is undeniably to blame for the contraband caffeine on Sochi grounds. The publication reports that NBC erected a Sochi Starbucks in its cordoned-off area of the Olympic media center at the start of the games, and now a rotating crew of 15 baristas serve the free coffee 24 hours a day to 2,500 people. NBC flies in the crew from Starbucks coffee shops in Russia, arranges their accommodations in Sochi, and also pays their regular wages.

Oh, and the network also isn’t stingy about who it allows its baristas to cater to. John Fritsche, NBC’s senior vice president of Olympic operations, said to the Journal that his company keeps “pretty tight security” around the coffee but conceded that “we don’t mind sharing a bit” with neighboring broadcasters.

Starbucks, the coffee giant that waived its rights to serve coffee at the Olympics because it doesn’t have a hot-beverage business in Russia, is likely more than happy to support NBC’s generosity and fuel its neighboring broadcasters, but another company — an official Olympics sponsor — may not be too thrilled with the idea.

McDonald’s is supposed to have a monopoly on the brewed caffeine that serves the onlookers and athletes at the Olympics, coming straight from its McCafe machines, but it is clear that attendees have still found a way to circumvent those rules. When asked about the presence of a rival, the Wall Street Journal reports that one spokeswoman only said, “McCafé continues to be a popular beverage choice for athletes, media and spectators who want to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee.”

So is NBC’s secret Starbucks operation legal? The International Olympic Committee has long been known to be serious about keeping away brands that haven’t paid for sponsor privileges, going so far as to cover up markings of non-sponsor brands found on Olympic grounds, but the Journal reports that even Rachel Rominger, an IOC representative, says NBC isn’t violating any rules because broadcasters are allowed to bring in “supplementary facilities” as long as they don’t publicize or suggest any association with the Olympics.

So it’s perfectly okay that NBC’s 2,500 crew members are sipping on java out of coveted Starbucks cups while the rest of the roughly 10,000 media also present on the Sochi campus drink the McCafe brew or non-branded joe from vending machines or concession stands. One journalist, Dejan Kovacevic, joked to the Wall Street Journal that the Starbucks coffee cup has become somewhat of a “status symbol” in Sochi.

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