The good news: Viewers are setting streaming records, though not enough to offset traditional viewership losses. The U.S. has an enduring affection for the games— 65% of Americans self-describe as fans of the Olympics, according to recent Harris Poll research – but the audience diminution reflects an unyielding broader trend: Traditional mass-viewership events, such as the Super Bowl and awards shows are drawing fewer viewers, as new media balkanizes the public.
What to do? Here are three ways the games can innovate to maintain brand vibrancy.
Expand the Olympic calendar
In the information age, four years represent an eon. Even two years—between summer and winter games—seems generational. Nearly three-quarters of Americans (74%) say that Olympic athletes should have more opportunities to compete during the year and one-third (33%) say that more-frequent Olympic events would prompt them to watch more often—figures which increase to 85% and 45% among self-identified fans of the games. The IOC has an opportunity to engage its fans on a larger and more frequent scale—but it can’t simply pump out content.
The Olympics enjoy a special prestige that the IOC should be careful not to fritter away. But if the National Football League can draw 15 million viewers to watch its draft, surely the IOC can make actual athletic competition enticing to a hungry audience.
One key: Pluralities of Americans say they would watch more if the games more often featured their favorite events (45%) or athletes (44%). Those numbers increase by 12-15 percentage points among Olympics fans, and by double digits on average among demographics especially enthusiastic about the Olympics, such as those making more than $100,000, African-Americans and parents with young children.
Lean into streaming
Streaming is not only the future, it’s the present. More than 50 million Americans have cut the cord. The record number of people streaming the games shows this group’s enthusiasm. So does our recent polling. More than one-third of Americans (35%) say they would pay for an Olympics-focused service—and that number rises among self-described fans of the games (46%). And the idea achieves majority support among Olympic enthusiasts such as parents with young children (53%) and African-Americans (53%). Even millennials love the idea (57%).
Admittedly, NBC’s foray into Olympic streaming, Peacock, has underwhelmed. One media critic called it an “annoying mess,” confusing, limited and full of pre-recorded content. The problem isn’t concept but execution. Better and extended streaming options would dovetail nicely with a push for more frequent events. Rather than be discouraged by the Peacock experience, in other words, NBC and the IOC should learn from it and double down.
Get where sports are going
While broad-based, Olympic viewership tilts gray: The Silent Generation and Baby Boomers are more likely to have watched events in the last 10 years than younger cohorts. The games need to get on the right side of that generational drift.
The IOC is already going in the right direction by including more events with strong youth appeal. A half-dozen new sports joined the Tokyo lineup, including karate and surfing, and the 2024 Games in Paris will feature four others, including breakdancing. The IOC wants to “set a new standard for inclusive, gender-balanced and youth-centered games,” the Paris 2024 website says. The committee is on the right track, to be sure, but it has even more room to grow and should keep adding to the list. ESports, mixed martial arts, roller sports, bowling and dodgeball all enjoy majority or plurality support with Gen Z, millennials or both.
The Paris 2024 site also touts the new events as easy for participants to “form communities that are very active on social media.” This is a good strategy but the IOC needs to execute it. It must find more ways to engage younger fans online. It has already relaxed its Draconian standards about what, when and how its athletes can post. A number of Tokyo participants have become TikTok sensations. These glimpses behinds the scenes and into athletes’ personalities will help enlist the next generation of Olympics fans and should be augmented.
There’s also a branding opportunity: Majorities of Olympic fans and the enthusiast subgroups would buy products endorsed by Games participants. While the IOC in November loosened its rules about how athletes and brands interact—competitors may now cut deals directly with Olympic sponsors—restrictions remain. It should understand that as athletes elevate their brands, it contributes to the games’ benefit. The smart move would be for the IOC to scale back the restrictions it still has so Olympians can capitalize on these opportunities.
Keep the Olympics modern
The bottom line is that while the Olympics are ancient, they have kept up with the times. The first modern games, in 1896, had 43 events; Tokyo has 339. The Winter Olympics debuted in 1924. The games have added, revised and dropped contests to maintain interest (ballooning was once an Olympic sport). The IOC needs to honor that tradition by continuing to evolve, bringing the ageless contest into the 21st century.
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