The Downfall of the Winter Olympics
Image source: https://www.cnn.com/
The Olympics have an edge, or so it would seem. Not being on television every year gives the event an aspect that typical sports viewers aren’t used to. It’s refreshing, cool, different, and oftentimes, entertaining. I don’t know what it is about curling, but it grabs my attention like no other Olympic sport can do. For you, that sport may be figure skating, luge, or alpine skiing. The bottom line is, for sports fans, it’s difficult to find something about the Olympics that is not worth watching.
Unfortunately for the typical TV watcher and especially the Olympics, that sentiment is not popular, nor is it shared. For some, the Olympics are just not appealing, and I’m sure some could make a case they’re unwatchable.
Every four years the Olympics reintroduces us to personalities like Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White; it takes over the time slots of our favorite shows. We used to be excited because it was new, and we had something intriguing to latch onto: storylines. With snowboarder Chloe Kim, Red Gerard, and the self-defined “glamazon bitch” Adam Rippon, their storylines are completely made for TV. They are handcrafted for the typical viewer: that person sitting at home on a Thursday night with nothing on the DVR to watch.
It has been a long time coming for the Olympics to decline. According to Sports Media Watch, “the Olympics averaged a combined 22.2 million viewers in primetime, a 6% drop since 2014… [and] the audience on the flagship NBC network is averaging 19.9 million, the smallest viewership since 1992.” It’s undeniable that people will continue to tune into the Olympics, the question is for how much longer? The things keeping viewers engaged are those TV-made storylines, but the component missing and driving people away is the lack of international rivalry.In an article by The Atlantic, written by Krishnadev Calamur, he examines what has made the Olympics begin to fall off the national television pedestal which is typically occupied every four years. The article, headlined “The Olympics Do Not Matter,” recalls the events of previous Olympics, specifically the 1972 basketball debacle where the United States was famously cheated out of a victory, and the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” hockey match in Lake Placid. The thing about these events that captured the attention of viewers everywhere was the somewhat convenient fact that they both happened in the midst of the Cold War, which fueled a fiery rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. This is what made it all the more special. The USSR team had won the gold in five of the six previous winter games, and in the midst of the Cold War, a United States victory over the Soviet Union felt like more of a victory for the nation, not just the hockey team. The rivalry between the nations themselves translated onto the court and the ice, causing some of the greatest matchups in Olympic history. If the tradeoff in getting compelling and captivating hockey is entering a war, the benefits obviously don’t outweigh the cost. If only there was some way to create a new kind of story, one that actually involved the sport and rivalry between opposing nations, rather than the cute snowboarder who tweets mid-competition, the Olympics may see the excitement it once had begin to reemerge.
The summer Olympics have an upper hand on the winter games simply due to a sense of familiarity people have with the players participating, and potentially even the fact that the sports are much more popular. You have athletes like LeBron James and Kevin Durant playing basketball, one of the most popular sports in the world, as well as others like Usain Bolt and Alyson Felix, participating in track and field, a sport that any athlete has known their entire life. To go along with that, these athletes who tend to be matched by others from opposing countries have a higher tendency to create much more exciting competition. For example, the rising number of international players in the NBA has helped create a much greater chance for closer matchups come Olympic time. In the winter games, this used to apply to hockey, until the NHL removed their players from national team consideration. Competitive matchups between countries, in turn, garners more entertaining viewing experiences around the world.
To circle back to the athlete storyline piece, talents like Usain Bolt weren’t created for television, they were built to be an athlete. His story was written through speed and gold medals, not through a charming personality and a teleprompter. These stories are not staged, but they almost feel like they are. The reason for this could simply be the nature of this group of athletes on display for these winter games in Pyeongchang. What I know is that without the possibility of compelling rivalries each night, the Olympics will continue to “not matter.” The combination of the competition and the athlete personalities that the summer games have perfected is what causes them to be a success.
The winter games aren’t prioritized like they used to be. The six percent dip in ratings isn’t killing them. However, 19.9 million nightly viewers still remain the lowest since the 1992 games in Barcelona. For typical programs, these types of numbers would be cause for celebration. The NBA Finals drew 20.4 million throughout last years series, and the 2017 World Series drew in 18.9. These are some of the biggest events year after year in sports, and the Olympics currently sit right between them. However, as an event that is anticipated for four years, 19.9 million just isn’t enough. We will have to see where the viewership sits on Feb. 25 when the games come to a close. If it stands pat, something will have to give come 2022.