Commentary

Olympics: Excited Athletes, Angry Hosts, Disengaged Viewers?

The pandemic has created disruptions for everything and everyone, and despite positive signs, we’re not out of the woods yet. 

You would not know that if you’ve traveled over the last few weeks. I’ve flown north and west and vice versa, and planes have been full and lines long. That was especially true for the lines at those few concessions that were even open (thank you, Denver Airport Hudson News, for my $10 ham and Swiss cheese roll -- including wilted lettuce -- that served as breakfast). 

During the pandemic I have felt very sorry for Olympic athletes, as many Olympic sports only attract a mass audience and hence a few potential sponsorship dollars every four years. And even then, the ROI on athlete commitment in time and energy versus financial benefit is decidedly negative for most athletes. The vast majority train as hard and frequent as Simone Biles but never see a payday like she does. And still they endure their nine-hour training days. 

Because of the pandemic, they’ve obviously had to invest a whole extra year of effort with little to no income because everything was cancelled. Now that requires true determination and commitment. 

And now those poor athletes are at long last going to Tokyo, but -- per the latest guidance -- without their family members and fans. It remains to be seen if there will be any local audiences in the stands at all. One report even mentioned that the free condoms in the Olympic Village have been replaced with disinfectant wipes!

It's certain that host country Japan is decidedly negative about hosting. In any host nation in a “normal” Olympic year, negative sentiment tends to override positive sentiment in the run up to the games. But typically, by the time the torch relay gets underway, positive sentiment tends to grow, and when the games are in full swing everyone enjoys the magic of the event, with all concerns over cost and security  forgotten.

That may not be the case if there's no one at this year’s event to experience that magic except for athletes and officials. And it will be very different as a TV event as well, since here will be severe limitations on all human interactions. So no chummy hanging out for reporters with Katie Ledecky, no wild medal celebration parties at the Holland Heineken House or the Coca-Cola medal plaza, etc.

Add to that a U.S. population celebrating their first “free” summer since 2019. All these factors could mean that this year’s Olympics is not going to be a ratings or viewers bonanza for NBC.

And that, in turn, can result in a negative for the earnings potential for the more obscure athletes and sports. How about those freestyle climbers? Race walkers? Synchronized swimmers? Damaged income potential is probably true for all sports, but especially those that get little to no airtime outside of the Olympics.

I hope I’m wrong, because I really want the athletes to experience the Olympics as I know them. I want Olympians to finally earn something after the extra challenges they’ve faced to even make it to Tokyo, even if it is just the cheer from a stadium with fans. But I have my doubts.

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