Saturday, July 28, 2012

Passing the torch

I mentioned in a blog two years ago an issue about the Olympics that I should cover at some point down the road. We've reached that point, now that the Games of London are underway as proclaimed by the skydiving monarch of the United Kingdom.

I understand the interest in the Olympics as a concept. It's downright romantic. The entire world's best athletes gather together in one place every four years for peaceful sporting competition. The storylines are usually remarkable. Everyone once in a while, someone from your hometown makes it to the national team, adding to the drama. The flag, the oath, the torch, the flame.

And we watch them. The television ratings are truly huge, especially when applied to a global scale.

Here's the question, then: Where is the carryover effect for Olympic sports? Why don't we care much unless there are Olympic rings involved?

You want examples? I've got a bunch of high-profile ones.

Michael Phelps is by any definition a great, great athlete. He certainly is one of the best swimmers ever, if not the best. Winning eight gold medals in one Olympics in 2008 was remarkable, squared.

Did anyone pay much attention to what he's been doing in the last four years? (Note: This doesn't not include out-of-the-water activities.) Seen much swimming on television lately? Didn't think so.

Usain Bolt is a marketer's dream. He's as dynamic a performer as we've had in track and field in a long time, a sprinter you'd pay to see. Throw in the fact that he's a big kid at heart with a great personality, and a name that's just made for his sport, and we should be drowning in him in person or on television.

Nope. You've got to look hard to just find track on TV or staged at a high level in this country.

I would think gymnastics probably fits into the same class. We've been paying attention to women's gymnastics since Olga Korbut in 1972. A few break through into the public eye for a while after the game, but not many. If the Americans do well, they make some money right after the Games on a tour at an arena near you, and then we spectators get ready for the next NFL game.

Swimming, track and gymnastics -- those are three of the biggest attractions in the summer games. There's not much carryover in attention.

Some sports that use professional stars do well in the Olympics, but it's the stars that are driving the attention. LeBron James, Roger Federer and Serena Williams were superstars before they got to London this week. They will leave the same way, no matter what happens. (Tangent: The NHL's best players are in the same class for hockey, but the Olympics have become a world championship for all concerned, drawing attention to the game. The NHL still can't figure out a way to make this work out for it.)

Admittedly, NBC is trying to change that a bit. Now that is has its own sports network in NBCSN, it has some space on the electromagnetic spectrum to promote some of Olympic events. Track and swimming popped up quite a bit earlier this year when the Trials were held. It's a natural first step.

But changing habits in the sporting world by viewers and spectators isn't easy. It's a crowded schedule, and we're well trained to think that the Olympics, and only the Olympics, belong on the personal calendar for watching some sports. Keep an eye out for breakthroughs in the next 16 days, but don't hold your breath.

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