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Collapse: Olympics TV ratings down 42% on 2016

Fascinating. The decline in traditional television has been going on for years, but one of the reasons that sport commands such huge royalty payments, in general, is that it has largely been the exception to the trend. The Olympic Games this year, though, suffered a massive collapse in viewers. Why? These are US figures, not Irish, but there’s little reason to expect a big difference in the trend here at home:

The Summer Games drew an average of 15.5 million prime-time TV viewers over their 17-day run, the company said, the lowest audience for the Summer Games since NBC started broadcasting them in 1988 and a 42% decline from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016.

Occam’s Razor postulates that the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and, therefore, you would have to look to the simple matter of geography. The Olympics were in Japan, in a timezone particularly unsuited to western viewers. Many events were on at unreasonable hours – early in the morning, or late in the evening. Many of us, for example, may have missed Kellie Harrington’s triumph simply because we did not wake up.

The problem with that theory, though, is that the Olympics were held in Beijing in 2008, and Sydney in 2002, and viewership was pretty high for both. The timezone may have been a factor, but it clearly was not the only factor.

So was it… atmosphere? The absence of big crowds watching has been a problem for live sport since the pandemic began, to the extent that broadcasters took to piping in fake crowd noise over their coverage of football matches. Psychologically, it seems, things do not have the “feel” of a big event if there is not a big crowd. The exception to this rule, of course, has been motorsport – Car and Bike racing has not been affected, because you never hear the crowd when you are watching them anyway, just the noise of the engines.

Or is it a change in our priorities? Maybe, for some meaningful section of the population, the pandemic has changed things in a way that makes sports less important. Don’t look to me to explain that one to you, since sport was one of the few things that kept me sane during the pandemic, but it certainly seems, anecdotally, that some people feel that way.

The other explanation might simply be drawing power: It is hard to think of an Athlete in these Olympics, outside of, maybe, Simone Biles, who was a global household name entering the games. In games past, there was the star power of athletes like Michael Johnson, or Usain Bolt, or Michael Phelps to drive viewership. This time? It really did not feel like a superstar event. These Olympics saw 20 world records broken. That is nearly 30% down on the number of world records broken in Rio, five years before, and 40% down on the number of world records broken in London, nine years ago. Did this Olympics just feel less “elite” than those that have gone before?

Perhaps it was a combination of all of the above. Either way, it is a stunning collapse in viewership, and it follows an equally stunning collapse in viewership for other events this year – the Oscars, for example. It might not seem like a big story, but it is – because if it is not unique to the Olympics, and live viewership for sporting events is on the decline around the world, then that will have huge implications for sport as we know it. Paris St. Germain’s decision to pay Lionel Messi €35m per year, for example, will look a lot worse if people just are not as interested as they used to be.

And for broadcasters, who increasingly depend on sports to pay the bills, eyeballs switching off from big events is an extinction level event, in the medium term. One to keep an eye on, if you are interested in our society, and the media, and where we are heading.

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