The second Olympics of the pandemic are set to start, and they’re already looking like a disaster
It’s Olympics season, again.
Just six months after the delayed Summer Olympics were held in Tokyo, another round of the international sporting event will begin. The 2022 Winter Games will commence in Beijing in one week—and people aren’t into it.
NBCUniversal has slashed its TV ratings expectations for the Winter Olympics by as much as half, according to a report from Insider. Ad agencies are being told to expect significantly lower audience guarantees than the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, realized.
The Winter Games typically perform worse in ratings than their summer counterpart—and that’s usually with two years breathing room between them. This time around, a number of other factors also threaten to render the games irrelevant to U.S. viewers.
China is notoriously strict in its COVID-19 restrictions and isolation protocols, and the fear of sports broadcasters spending long periods in quarantine prompted NBC to make all commentary remote. All of NBC’s Olympic announcers will be calling events from broadcast facilities in Stamford, Conn., instead of Beijing. “People have grown to loathe remote anything,” Jon Lewis, a sports analyst and the founder of Sports Media Watch, told Fortune, “and remote sports broadcasting just doesn’t work.”
A lack of well-known athletes also presents problems.
The Tokyo Summer Games were the first since 2000 without record-setting swimmer Michael Phelps and the first since 2004 without the equally historic sprinter Usain Bolt. The day that another famous gold medalist, gymnast Simone Biles, dropped out of last summer’s events, ratings tanked. Ratings recovered midway through the games when Biles returned, but not all the way.
The Summer Games ultimately had the lowest audience since NBC started broadcasting the event in 1988, averaging 15.5 million prime-time viewers over their nearly three-week run, a 42% decline from the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro.
Big stars usually bring in eyeballs, and U.S. teams, especially in the Winter Games, lack star quality. “The Winter Olympics have been bereft of stars for years and years. There used to be these tremendous names in figure skating like Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. There’s nobody who fits that bill now,” said Lewis. The biggest star power, he said, is in the booth with figure skaters Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir hosting the event’s broadcast, again from Connecticut.
Location is also an essential component of Olympics ratings, said Lewis. Rising tensions between China and the U.S. could create apathy around this winter’s events. President Joe Biden has called for an official boycott of these Olympics by U.S. officials because of a breakdown in relations between the two countries, while American attitudes on human rights abuses carried out by China have shifted significantly since the Olympics were last held in Beijing in 2008.
Still, NBC profited off of the lackluster Summer Games broadcast, which provided $1.8 billion in revenue and made up the majority of the broadcaster’s revenue increase year over year. But it has paid dearly for the franchise. Comcast, NBC’s parent company, paid $7.75 billion to air the games from 2021 to 2032, or about $1.3 billion a year on average.
Still, Lewis sees a possible end to the lull in Olympics malaise, just not this winter. The 2028 Summer Games are set to be hosted by Los Angeles, and six years will be enough time to rebuild the U.S. swimming, gymnastics, and track and field teams with new stars, he said. “There’s a potential for resurgence, if we can get some big new American faces in America, it could be a ratings bonanza,” he said.
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