Why Can’t I Get Excited About the Olympics?

In his August posting, SLRG President Jon Last ruminates on the reasons why U.S. fans are less than fully enamored with The Olympic games.

We are in the midst of what some bill as the greatest spectacle in all of sports. And if you are like me, it’s likely that you’ve paid little attention to it. And it’s not just me. Gallup research asserted a sharp drop in U.S. interest in the 2016 Summer games. Sports and research are both my vocation and avocation. Why, then, don’t I care about the Olympics? As a professional market researcher, I’ll never rely on just my own biases.  So, while absent our firm’s usual methodological rigor, I did a little qualitative research with colleagues and here’s what I heard.

“’Sport’ for Non Sports Fans”:  Our research shows sports’ unique ability to connect fans to each other around a common investment in teams or athletes. These are deep and time tested relationships, akin to family. Our sports heroes make us proud or embarrass us, but they are always there.  he Olympics, as a two week, every four year affair, is too fleeting. Attempts at creating these emotional bonds seem forced or reeking of bandwagon superficiality. The pride of long-term commitment to a team is an earned badge of honor. Thus the core sports fan doesn’t feel the same shared struggle to triumph, when an Olympian rises from obscurity to the medal ceremony over a couple of nights. When my Tennessee Titans finally get me a Super Bowl (Please?!) after a lifetime of futility, I will celebrate with total strangers that wear my colors. I can’t do that for the modern pentathlon, regardless of how cool the event sounds.

Pageantry Supercedes, Rather than Complements, the Competition:  I’ve always embraced the ancillary pageantry that elevate our most coveted sporting rituals into events. This is one of the most compelling aspects of live college sports. But the Olympics seems to have the dynamics reversed in that the sizzle is placed on a higher platform than the steak, and that detracts from its authenticity….a key engagement driver among fans. Again, the fleeting and non-enduring nature of the Olympics contributes here. But it strikes several that I spoke with, that the Olympics overemphasizes the opening ceremonies and its political undertones in a way that seems forced, too removed from the competition and elevated in self importance so as to become patronizing. The athletic events need to speak for themselves, rather than be clouded in what many construe to be more heavy handed coverage.

Lack of Transparency and Little Continuity of Exposure:  The obscurity of so many of the Olympics’ sports and personalities do not play well in our world of 24-7, insider access.  As fans, we are first asked to understand and appreciate games we know little about. Several are determined by the nuance of judges’ evaluations, rather than the clarity of direct competition. Next we are given little time to understand that nuance. In contrast, our professional leagues and TOURs utilize a proliferation of touch points to compel us year-round. The typical fan does not comprehend or experience the real time journey in which Olympic athletes qualify and ultimately perform. In the rare occurrence where those stories can be told well, the spotlight shines on a particular athlete ever so briefly, and then it is gone, often forever.

Not Invented Here and the Haziness of Amateurs vs Professionals:  Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all somewhat true to the stereotype of the ugly American. It’s tougher to passionately grab onto something that is both fleeting and unfamiliar. An extreme example is that while World Cup soccer has made great strides here, it is still not at the level of fandom enjoyed by our traditional big team sports, and our fan omnibus studies continue to bear that out. Yet, there’s also the nebulous reality that the Olympics are still caught between its origins as a showcase for amateur athletes, and the varying standards by which the current mix of competitors enter the mix. This, along with rampant stories of site selection corruption, throw into question the purity of the competition. Look at men’s golf’s return to this year’s games, where only eight of the top 20 players opted to participate. Golf Olympic gold pales in comparison to a victory in a major championship. Similarly, while Steph Curry sits at home, do we really revel in other NBA stars beating up on amateurs from countries most of us can’t identify on a map?