SBJ/March 4 - 10, 2002/Opinion

Keep winter sports on TV after Games

Two-thirds of all Americans watched the Salt Lake Winter Olympics over their 17-day run. More than $180 million was spent on tickets. And yet now that the Games are over, most of the sports that formed the Games will rarely be competed on American soil and almost never be seen on television in this country.

That defies common sense. If NBC can average an 18 prime-time rating and if people will pay the $100 to $180 face value for a ski jumping ticket during the Games, then there has to be some way to find an American market for international winter sports competition during the rest of the quadrennial.

The good news is that I'm not the only one who believes this. I asked Randy Falco, president of the NBC Television Network, if the success of the Games has made NBC consider adding some of these sports to its regular schedule next year. He said it has.

"I've started to talk to our programming people about putting on a slate of some of these programs," he said. When asked what sports have the most potential for U.S. television, he said, "clearly, snowboarding." Skiing and short-track speed skating have also sparked the network's interest.

Now that the Games are over, something called the Utah Athletic Foundation will take over operation of three Olympic venues: the speed skating oval, the Olympic Park (which has the ski jumps and the bobsled run) and the cross-country ski complex Soldier Hollow. Mark Lewis, who is stepping down president of Olympic Properties of the United States this month, will serve as president of the foundation. He has several ideas on how to make best use of the facilities.

One is to team with earlier Winter Games host cities Lake Placid and Calgary to create a North American leg of the World Cup tour for the sports that would compete at those venues.

True, three bobsledding events in the United States and Canada are not going to lead "SportsCenter." But there is no doubt in my mind that, marketed correctly, any international sports event on U.S. soil can attract both live paying customers and a respectable television audience.

Bobsledding, like NASCAR, is fast, dangerous and appealing to television audiences.

Let me tell you that people attending Olympic events were blown away by the sheer visual spectacle. Bobsledding, as just one example, is akin to watching a NASCAR race. It's big, it's loud and the danger is just feet away. Ski jumping and aerials are unforgettable in person. It's watching human beings fly.

Tickets for these events were in high demand in Salt Lake not just because they are part of the Olympics, but because they're fun to watch. Sure, people pay 10 times the price of a ticket because it's part of the Games. But the bottom line is that these events are a much better viewing experience that many realize until they experience it for themselves.

Snowboarding and alpine skiing, which have deeper roots in the United States, have even more potential.

And while none of these events could expect double-digit ratings outside of the Olympics, the fact that Olympic television audiences are so large proves that these sports are entertaining. Otherwise, people wouldn't be watching.

To keep the Olympic momentum going, Utah needs not only to bring in events but work with the resorts to package skiing with tickets for live competition. The ski mountains were dead during the Olympics for the most part, as people haven't mixed watching winter sports with participating in them. That made sense last month, because the Olympics are once in a lifetime and the resorts are there all the time.

But for the future, the two must be commingled. Add a World Cup event to a ski trip, and you have the ultimate, unforgettable family vacation. The resorts have to take the lead on convincing people of that.

For the networks, the task is even more challenging, but the opportunity for NBC in particular is enormous.

Needing hours of programming to fill the void left by the NBA, the Peacock Network has a chance to reinvent both itself and how international sports are presented on U.S. television. ABC built its sports division around "Wide World of Sports" but had to back off when ratings slumped. It's up to NBC to update its presentation aiming at the next generation of viewers, the ones who reject professional leagues but relate to action sports.

With both the Olympics and the Gravity Games, the network has the platforms to build on.

The key to their success will be the level of commitment. When winter sports are shown on television, it's typically tape-delayed by several weeks. And no one network has been a clear leader. U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association events are being shown on all three of the original networks this winter, in nothing resembling a regular time slot.

That's not going to fly. If NBC wants to expand its coverage of winter sports, the network will have to do all the things that made its Olympic coverage work. That means continuity. It means building up heroes and marquee events. It means trying to appeal to both young viewers and the traditional older sports fans.

Most important, for winter sports to find an audience in the United States, it must be authentic. And that's where the networks often miss the mark.

The temptation is to create "made for television" events draped in sponsor logos, starring the top-name Americans even if they're not the best in the sport. Audiences don't connect with that. Just look at the Goodwill Games, which was relatively tasteful but never gained a true foothold in the international sports landscape.

Because some of these sports are so new, events like the Gravity Games can establish themselves as legitimate. But if the networks and the facilities want to find events that will be viable in the United States, they'll also have to look toward the existing World Cup circuits. There is no substitute for authenticity and tradition.

The Olympics prove this. Why else would Germans flying off a mountain on nothing but skis be watched in 20 million homes? Capture just a little piece of that, and you have the killer content that every network or sports venue seeks.

SportsBusiness Journal staff writer Andy Bernstein can be reached at abernstein@amcity.com.

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