Americans are crazy about sports. Every day of the year a professional or collegiate sports event is contested. Sports like football, basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, tennis, golf, MMA and NASCAR are followed closely by millions of fans. What do all these sports events have in common? They are all shown live on television. Why? Sports fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
And neither, frankly, would advertisers. Live, televised sporting events represent the last bastion of programming where a captive audience actually watches in real time, eyes glued to the screen, rather than via DVR where ads can be skipped over with the simple push of a button.
Every four years, however, the world’s biggest sporting event takes place and — what happens? Not only do American viewers and advertisers not demand live Olympics coverage, but they come flocking in hoards to an edited, tape-delayed broadcast of the events hours after the medals have been handed out.
Why? Because in the United States, the Olympic Games are not a sporting event. They have become a TV event.
I attribute this to several unflattering generalizations about American TV-viewing and fitness habits, but to get into that would distract me from the point of this article. Suffice it to say that, as a culture, we’re largely ignorant about sports other than the major professional team sports that are highlighted hourly on ESPN. And we’re even more ignorant about the world outside our borders. To translate these unfamiliar worlds into something that can entertain millions, we turn to something we can never seem to get enough of: sensationalized television programming. Because, for American TV viewers, the world’s most elite athletes competing head to head somehow isn’t sensational enough.
In the United States, the Olympics aren’t about the Olympians, most of whom toil in obscurity for years and compete for free at the Games. And they’re not about the recreational athletes and hardcore fans of sports that never really achieve mainstream attention. Nope, in the United States, the Olympics are about the Americans who are willfully corralled in front of the TV at the same time each night to watch handpicked coverage of how great their countrymen are doing in sports they pay attention to once every 206 weeks. Congratulations, American TV audience. The Olympics are about you. Kick your feet back and bask in the glory of that medal count.
What frustrates me about the fact that almost any American Olympic experience must be viewed through this ratings-friendly filter is not that I can’t watch Olympic events live like the rest of the world. In fact, I can and I did. For the first time ever, NBC streamed every event live online. They did a poor job of it, and more times than not it made for a lousy viewing experience, but at least they took a step in the right direction.
My core frustration is with the disparity between what, on the one hand, the Olympics and viewing technology have the potential to offer, and what, on the other hand, we choose to make of that. Instead of investing in video-streaming technology and other innovations that could add value to the Olympics experience, NBC, their audience, and their advertisers have for now settled for the model that least disrupts the status quo, despite the fact that that status quo is a holdover from a TV-only, prime time-focused media landscape.
The real partnership we should train our imaginations on for future Olympics is the one that exists between sports and sponsors. The two have an important symbiotic relationship. Sporting events require money; advertisers require exposure to audiences. If we’re going to treat sport as anything more than entertainment, we have to get to a model where technology and sponsors are working for sport, and not the other way around.
It made sense for the last half century that a single TV network would be the middleman in this sport-sponsor partnership. Television provided a value for viewers and sponsors that other competing media, like newspapers and radio, could not. But now, watching a sporting event on the other side of the world doesn’t require a television network. If the middleman doesn’t add value, it’s time to cut out that middleman.
Perhaps Nike or Coke — or YouTube or Skype or any sponsor smart and imaginative enough to execute this — could bid on the rights to create an Olympic viewing experience that employed the kind of technology that adds value for viewers rather than walls viewers into outdated profit models. Imagine the medal count in 20 years if, instead of showing a 30-second commercial spot, a brand helped communities capitalize on Olympic inspiration by spearheading fundraising for local sports programs.
I have no illusions that my opinion on this will have any more influence on the way NBC covers the Olympics than did my angry tweets at them over the last two weeks. The IOC, however, is very much in a position of power to insist on change, and I’d argue that it is in their best interests to ensure that Americans’ connection to the Olympics is more an attachment to sports than to television. NBC paid $4.3 billion for the right to filter the next four Olympic Games to the American audience. I suspect that "television" will become a less significant package of rights at future negotiations, as the Internet becomes a more mainstream place to view sports. And I hope the next time around the bidding war for the Olympic rights will be won by a company that brings to the table more than just the biggest check.
The point of my criticism of NBC is not to vent, but rather to suggest that we can do better. And not just that we can do better, but that there is value in trying to do better and so we ought to do better.
Do parents encourage their kids to do sports so that they one day might boost some TV network’s ratings? Do athletes — whether elite or recreational — dream of delivering big ratings for the TV network that broadcasts their sport? No. Because the purpose of sport has nothing to do with TV. Sport has bigger, existential human urges to satisfy.
Sports are special. The Olympics are special. They are more than just entertainment. They stand for the kind of progress that says women from Saudi Arabia can compete in sports, progress that proves a double amputee can make an Olympic final, and progress that illustrates that more openly gay athletes are competing and winning medals than ever before. The Olympics make us aware of other cultures, of new sports, and of our own aspirations. They make us want to go outside and play. They inspire us to train for a marathon. They make us healthier and they make the world a smaller place.
The Olympics existed before TV, and they will certainly outlast TV. If we want to continue to lead the medal count, we need to lead in innovations that can unwind the narrow relationship between the Olympics and TV and maximize the value of sports to our culture, not just the profits.
Ryan Quinn is the author of The Fall: A Novel. He was an NCAA Champion and All-American cross-country skier at the University of Utah. He now lives in Los Angeles.