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Thursday, February 16, 2006

Why People Aren't Watching the Winter Olympics

Instead of writing a narrative, I'll give you a Letterman-like Top 10 list (I'll concede that I might not be as funny as Dave).

10. Most of the civilized world doesn't participate in the sports that are featured in the Winter Olympics. It's hard to relate to half-pipe or whatever it's called if you can't do it in a schoolyard or in someone's backyard.

9. There is no suspense. Why watch a hockey game when you know the result unless a) you follow certainly players with an almost religious-like fanatacism or b) you're related to someone involved with the team. We watched USC-Texas and we watch the NCAA hoops title games (men's and women's) with a nice turnout nationwide because we haven't seen the result hours before.

8. There are so many choices on television. After all, if there is no suspense, why give up "CSI", "24", "Lost" or any other shows to which the American public has become attached. I, for one, haven't become attached to those, but I wouldn't pass on St. Joe's-UConn or the Spurs, Mavs or Pistons to watch skeleton or curling. Apparently, most Americans wouldn't either.

7. The big names have not fared well so far. I remember years ago the networks hyped the "Dan" and "Dave" show for the decathlon before the Summer Olympics, only to have one or both fail to qualify for the U.S. team. Talk about a bad ad campaign. Michele Kwan was controversial to begin with, and Bode Miller didn't exactly make himself likeable with his pre-Games interviews. You want to root for the underdog, the Bill Koch, the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team, the Dave Wottle of the '72 summer games. Not selfish people who either don't know when to yield or when to keep quiet.

6. In most of the events, you can't see the full heads of the participants. Somehow, the NFL transcends this, as does NASCAR, probably because the action is so compelling to their fans that the players and drivers get tons of endorsements that plaster their otherwise helmeted faces all over the U.S. Still, we like baseball and basketball because we can see the full profiles of the players. In most Olympic sports, you can't, and that's problematic when most of the participants aren't household names to begin with. How can you identify with someone whose name you didn't know in the first place whose head you can't see? Unfortunately, to most viewers these athletes are relatively anonymous.

5. Figure skating is not as popular as it used to be, in my opinion. There have been too many controversies about judging, and the Kwan affair left a bad taste in the mouth of many casual fans. The U.S. skating body whiffed big-time in letting Kwan on the team at the expense of Emily Hughes, who now must be weary having had the snow storm of '06 delay her travel to Torino. I have written a lot about judged sports, which, in my opinion, aren't sports at all precisely because of the judging. The one thing you have to respect about downhill skiing is that the fastest people win, and the judges aren't involved much unless a participant misses a gate.

4. As a corollary to #10, the Winter Olympics just aren't a major event any more, at least for most people. If you doubt this contention, watch how many people go gaga over World Cup 2006. Many more millions than either flocked to Torino or watched the games on TV. Think they're watching luge in Uruguay? Speed skating in Sao Paolo? Not a chance.

3. It's not "American Idol", is it? I suppose the attraction to picking the best unknown singer is that people come from out of nowhere, while many Olympic athletes train full time. I recall when ABC covered the Olympics in the 1970's, they made the stories so compelling, including one about a Belgian librarian who was a weightlifter in the heavyweight class. Jim McKay was classic in his role, and, without the internet, the world was a bigger place and those stories were more compelling. It's hard to spring stories like that anymore -- we know about them before the Olympics if we at all care about the competition.

Okay, so I've run out of contentions at this point, but I think you get my point. There are many interesting items that comprise the Winter Olympics, but the average American would rather watch "Desperate Housewives," if for no other reason than they don't know how a new episode will end and because they can relate more to the downhill lives that the residents of Wisteria Lane are leading than to the downhill racing that people who aren't named Picabo anymore are doing in Italy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reason # 1

If an American wins, we aren't supposed to be happy about it, rather ashamed. I expect the announcement of any American triumphs to be immediately followed in the media by mention of our illegal war for oil & a picture of Abu Ghraib instead of the athelete.

Hyperbole - yes. Accurate - that too.

5:57 PM  
Blogger bains said...

I do find the winter olympics compelling - well, most of the events, but then those things do happen in my back yard. Kinda hard to dribble a basketball with 4 feet of snow on the ground. Further, with the advent of ESPN, your bigtime sports have degenerated to a 'can I do something to get on SC?' I love basketball, yet refuse to watch the NBA. The value of a Bill Walton outlet pass has been relegated to
"oldschool." Much of the Olympics (barring Hockey, basketball, etc, which poaches pro atheletes) is still about people who subject themselves to torture just for the possibility that they can represent their country for 15 minutes. And yeah, I am in the minority.

8:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the Winter Olympics.

Most of the events have "relatable" attributes of balance, skill, grace, mixed with power and speed and endurance. Much of the skill and grace in US sports has fled. The NBA which used to be the most balletic of sports, with guys like Magic and Jordan and Kareem now is a thug-dunka-thon. Whoopin and hollerin and finger pointing with no thought of defense.

In contrast the skiing, skating, sled, etc. events are pretty evocative of the grace and skill and balance that sports used to evoke. Yeah men's ice skating is the contest to find the world's twirliest guy, and curling is just plain silly. But heck even with Americans like Kwan out there's plenty of graceful, skilled, and pretty women on the ice. The toughness of the speed skaters mixed with balance and skill. The grace even in the full-bore downhill events. Not to mention enormous amounts of courage.

Well worth your while.

9:31 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for your comments. Commentator #1 probably came to the blog from the TigerHawk link -- no, we shouldn't be ashamed about winning. As for Bains, well, you can hoop in your backyard at some point during the year. Most of us, though, can't curl, half-pipe or speed skate. As for the skill, I didn't argue that it wasn't there, only that most people don't identify with it.

As for me personally, I think the fact that it's on tape-delay and that there are many other things to do causes me not to watch the games. Way back when, there wasn't any internet and there were only 7 TV channels, so the Olympics were huge. Today, rightly or wrongly, the Winter Games are not.

9:53 PM  
Blogger bains said...

FWIW, I'd agree that the ease of aquiring real time results make watching tape delayed events... well boring, particularly if they fall within the obscure category. In my mind this falls within a larger problem that the US networks (excepting OLN and thier Tour de France coverage) refuse to address. Namely the refusal to show events live, regardless of the time. Case in point - if NBC had shown the mens Super G live (6:45 am MST) I would have watched. And with Tivo, I suspect many folks would set their machine, turn off, or tune out the news during the day, and instead of putting on NBC in primetime, would watch the "live" broadcast from MSNBC, CNBC, USA, or the flagship NBC.

My own opinion is that the major networks are trapped in the past, still believing that sensible americans wait with baited breath for the networks to tell them what significant events transpired, and why it was important. I dont think they can comprehend a universe where they dont control the narative.

6:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy the events, even if I know who won, but most of the coverage is divided between NBC commentary and commercials. Our family started out watchjing faithfully the first weekend. But we were soon bored with all the meaningless mush that we had to wade through before we could see the athletes performing. It is just so boring. And who ever convinced NBC that Bob Costas is a sportscaster. Talk about losers.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Justin said...

I'm a big Olympics fan, so please don't feel like I'm being harsh here, but I need to defend my favorite sporting event.

10. would be true if Western Europe wasn't part of the civilized world (which is debatable, of course.)

9. is a great point (and why I think the ratings are down)--it just doesn't apply to hockey, the only sport that has been completely live so far.

8. I don't get, but that's just me. I'm always astonished that people watch other sports during the Olympics or the World Cup.

7. is true. Nike's Bode campaign has only made me hate Bode. Why didn't anyone give Joey Cheek a fat contract?

6. is neither here nor there. Not being able to see someone's face doesn't seem to be a dealbreaker for any sport (though I can't imagine liking curling if they made them wear masks. Cassie Johnson has the cutest way of biting her lip when something goes wrong, so you can imagine all the lip biting that's been going on this year.)

5.--I mean, figure skating hasn't even been on yet in the form Americans prefer (the ladies competition)--which is another reason ratings are down. And please--boxing is a judged sport. Baseball is essentially a judged sport (some plays being determined by whether a middle-aged man thinks a ball has passed within some section of an imaginary box, for example). Figure skating is a sport.

4. is true--the Winter Games are just enjoyed more by the winter nations, which are outnumbered by the summer nations. Though Americans still probably care more about the Winter games at this point than the World Cup.

3.--well, I find American Idol unwatchable, but I am in the minority obviously. I will point out that has crushed in hits, which bolsters the whole tape delay argument, which I think is the main reason for the ratings downturn.

1:01 PM  
Blogger corbusier said...

I agree with some of the posts above. I like the Winter Olympics particularly for its display human potential and its aesthetic power. I write more about this in my blog.

1:55 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks for all of your comments and welcome to the blog. One columnist wrote this morning that the Olympics haven't had their share of drama since the Communist world fell apart. I suppose that without the red "CCCP" jerseys and uniforms present, he has a point.

What these posts demonstrate is that we all have our preferences. I'll also confess that I watched some bobsledding yesterday.

8:20 PM  
Anonymous Darkmage said...

The radio yesterday morning had what I considered to be a pretty compelling argument as to why there is less interest in the Olympics these days.

It used to be the olympians were people obsessed with their particular competition, training and competing in their spare time outside of their day jobs. Now it's all pro athletes who are taking two weeks off of their day jobs to go compete in a different venue.

This may be more applicable to basketball and hockey, but I think it is applying to some of the more traditional winter events as well. What does Michelle Kwan do when she's not competing? She's training. When she's not training? She's competing. That is, to the best of my knowledge, her job. Figure skating.

The newer events, such as the skeleton and the snowcross or whatever its called, still have interesting characters and stories because nobody will pay these folks enough for them to quit their day jobs.

2:00 PM  
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Anonymous Buy Cialis said...

It is a shame because this winter games are awesome, there are some great talents doing some crazy things.

2:56 PM  

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