Olympics ratings show sports’ undeniable draw

Two weeks ago, it was hard to find many people outside of the U.S. Olympic Committee, International Olympic Committee and NBC who thought the Beijing Games would be truly successful. To some, it sounded like bluster when USOC Chairman Peter Ueberroth called the Games “the most important international event of any type that’s ever taken place on the planet.”

Well, there is little doubt that at the time of this writing, the Games were an organizational, athletic and production success, and for us what stood out was how the Games were consumed on television and through new media.

If you asked most in sports media before the Games what NBC would average for its prime-time coverage over the two weeks, the predictions would have fallen into the 13.0 to 15.0 range. Trust us, we asked. People cited various reasons to back their predictions: audience fragmentation, Olympic fatigue even before the Games, interest levels in the Olympic sports and coverage that fell in the middle of August, notoriously a low mark for viewership. Even NBC only guaranteed a 14.5 rating, strong in today’s market but below its 15.0 for Athens.

So, what happened? The numbers beat everyone’s expectations. At press time, NBC had averaged a 17.2 rating over 11 nights, spectacular no matter how you spin it or slice it. This was complemented by the strong numbers of online and video viewers, which never cannibalized the network audience — old media’s greatest fear. The sustainability of NBC’s ratings was a shocker, as the network burst out with a record opening ceremony rating on a Friday and then rode the broad shoulders of Michael Phelps through week one. As viewers got engaged, they became hooked.

The business implications of these ratings can’t be ignored. We’ve argued, like many, that people shouldn’t expect to see the ratings and interest levels of yesteryear because of the new world we live in. But maybe the new world isn’t all that different. These last two weeks prove that sports, and the Olympic Games, can still draw amazingly large audiences — and, in this case, do so over extended periods of time — and it builds on some of the previous strong ratings we’ve seen this year, like Super Bowl XLII. Now that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and broadcasters, operators and programmers should all feel buoyed by these results.

For the IOC and USOC? They are feeling confident, maybe even cocky, leading IOC marketing commission director Gerhard Heiberg to say of NBC’s numbers, “We can capitalize on that in the next negotiations with NBC for the new rights. This is good for us.” Maybe not so fast, Gerhard. Will these Olympics mark a long-term sustainable surge of interest or are they a one-off, where the stars aligned and the world watched? No one knows the answer to that. We do know that these Games came at a time the IOC and USOC needed them the most, with its relevance and its sponsorship/media viability in question. Beijing has proved to be one of the most significant sports business stories of the last few years and put a brisk wind in the sails of the Olympic movement.

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