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Sunday, February 5, 2012

Musings on the Summer Olympics

Back in December, I was putting out feelers to members of my panel and a number of others regarding 2012. Depending on what markets they worked out of or what media they focused on, responses varied a bit. One thing, however, struck me. For the first time in 40 years, no one made more than a passing reference to the Summer Olympic Games that will be held in London this year from late July to early August. Hence this post. What has gone wrong with the Summer games to the point where they have become almost an afterthought to broadcast and cable salespeople, agency media executives, and some fairly high powered advertisers?

I went back to a few dozen people and probed. Was it the lack of competition with Soviet Russia, the presence of professionals in virtually every sport, TV fragmentation, the pulse of modern life or anything else they could dream up?

First, I quote a friend from my Boston College days. He does not work in broadcast or advertising but is in communications. His comments on sports, which he follows avidly, are always astute:

The Summer Olympic games have certainly lost their allure. Some factors:

1) The fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc.
Competition with them was a morality play: the good and free vs. the slave states, which were also excellent in athletics, because, we were assured, they cheated.
2) The drug scandals. People immediately question exceptional performances, even though the Olympics now probably have the most stringent anti-drug testing and standards of any sporting event.
3) Parity of competition-Track & Field is the symbol and centerpiece of the Olympics. Scientists say that the greatest reason for the lowering of world records is that many more people now compete and have access to modern training methods and equipment. Many, that is, very, very many of these people are from distant continents. Interest in individual competion necessitates the familiarity of the spectator with the main competitors. The PGA Tour suffers when Tiger is not a factor. People want to see Tiger vs. Phil; recently they have been getting some major wins by some fine young players who then fade back into the pack in later tournaments. (Remember how the press would criticize Tom Kite for making millions but not winning tournaments?) It is the same for Olympic Track & Field. Well-known American and British Empire runners would go into the Olympics with great public anticipation. Now, a casual glance at the list of men's record holders of non-hurdling races shows only one American, retired Michael Johnson. Most are from Africa. I couldn't name them, could you?
4) There are many more sports on TV now, with many more outlets, starting with ESPN and other cable outlets. Local news is more likely to lead with the score of a mid-season Red Sox game than with Olympic results.

Next, here are some comments from someone who has sold broadcast and cable for years, remains a knowledgeable fan, and always has his feet on the ground. To him, a big problem is what he dubs the “Dream Team effect.”

Dream Team effect:
When the NBA players participated for the first time in 1992 with the original “Dream Team,” it was fun to see these guys playing for our country but is did not seem so much like the Olympics as it was a basketball exhibition. Knowing that the U.S. and other countries are sending “professionals” in different sports seemed to lessen the perceived genuine competition of Faster, Higher, and Stronger – for those who were not getting paid. Baseball and Tennis players competing is somewhat strange to me as well.
24/7 today:
Now with full coverage on multimedia outlets, plenty on cable, of events, athletes and all different sports it reminds of the NBC Baseball Game of the Week impact. I truly enjoyed watching the sole Saturday telecast as appointment viewing and now the proliferation and availability makes it great to enjoy any game, any time but somehow it does not seem as special. There may be too much for even an ardent sports fan like me to catch all the action.

One of the smartest people that I know who has sold sports from time to time over the years weighed in this way:

To your “not being brought up” point…I’m hearing it lumped more with political, as the most common reason why some are staying away. First that it will be on the front end of political spends, but also…Political spending has become like the Super Bowl in that advertisers fear they can’t be on television. The only TV rates neophytes might hear is how much a :30 cost in the Super Bowl. So too…we spend so much time talking about Obama’s Billion that it scares some away from spending in September/October. Reality is the Late News doesn’t cost what it used too, and zoned cable options are available even more efficiently.

Some people have told you that it is “not worth the trouble”…this one I get. It’s a huge logistical nightmare on the front end, which only intensifies when they arrive. Live sports of any sort is always tricky, so compounding that tenfold only makes for more stress. Add in middle-of-the-night events, time zone peculiarities, language barriers, whether issues…it’s a wonder we can harness it well enough to sell. Have to package/sell the Olympic ideal, because the individual sporting aspects are too fluid to define. In the end…the Olympics are not about the competition, but much more so the personal narratives of those involved.

Others told you that the summer games are “losing their glow” which is an interesting take. On some level I agree, but it’s easy to say that in January. Come August I’ll be wrapped in it like many people, and it’s also one of a handful of programs you can watch with the family.

There is merit though to a lost glow …I blame first, the overall proliferation of sports available. In the 70’s we’d tune by Wide World of Sports for our only chance to watch Russian Vasily Alekseyev lift amazing weights over his head, and a year later remember the portly strongman in the next Olympiad. Were he around today, he might be a UFC fighter which means I could have watched all 37 of his matches on TV, while also being able to follow his eating, training and dating habits via the internet. Somewhere along the way he’d get a Nike deal and a Subway commercial. And eventually we’d learn through his reality show, that he and Vasily Jr. work as a Swamp Loggers during the day. We all have our saturation points.

A few people in their 20’s stunned me by saying that they will start watching the summer games when American football becomes an Olympic sport. One fellow said he was concerned that Olympic coverage could interrupt pre-season NFL and another said he will stick to MLB if his beloved home town team is in a pennant race.

Golf will appear in 2016 in Brazil and last week Jack Nicklaus, Annika Sorenstam, Gary Player, and Greg Norman among other luminaries all presented designs for an Olympic course that will break ground this fall near Rio de Janeiro. The addition of golf may add some new viewers for 2016.

What is my take? Viewing will be pretty good on a cumulative basis. In the heart of summer reruns, we will likely break the record of the Beijing games of over 200 million viewers during the two week run. NBC paid a lot for the rights so the profit picture is problematic. Times, however, have clearly changed.

When someone mentions the summer Olympics to me I think of one man—Al Oerter. He won the gold medal in the discus in 1956, 1960, 1964, and 1968. Al was a true amateur. He worked as an early professional in computers and arranged his training and meets around the Olympics. In 1964, he fell on a rainy day in the rink in Tokyo and was injured badly breaking some ribs. The US doctors urged him to drop out. He refused and won with his first toss. In 1968, as a college student, I was returning to my dorm late one morning when a guy poked his head out of the TV lounge and announced “Oerter is tossing.” Some 20 of us piled into the room to watch. One fool said “what is the big deal? He barely made the team this year.” After we all give him a dirty look, Big Al unleashed a mighty toss that put him in the lead. I had to leave and was stunned to hear on the radio a few hours later that he had his fourth consecutive gold medal and set his fourth consecutive Olympic record. Over the next nearly 40 years whenever I saw him interviewed he was modest, upbeat, and always positive. To me, he was the greatest competitor that I have ever seen. No one epitomized the Olympic spirit as much as Al Oerter did.

Will I watch some? Of course. But, like many things, the landscape has changed and, in this case, I am not sure for the better.

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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