Wait, They Still Think Olympics Is About Sports?!

Greg Wyshynski of Yahoo Sports Puck Daddy blog reports:

Argentina Field Hockey Hottie

(Slap ice skates on ‘em and it might be different)

The U.S. vs. Canada men’s preliminary-round showdown Feb. 21 won’t be shown on NBC, but on cable’s MSNBC at 7 p.m. EST. Instead, the Peacock will bring fans an exhilarating night of ice dancing, women’s speedskating, men’s freestyle skiing and men’s giant slalom – rather than what amounts to an NHL all-star game on an international stage.

For most, NBC’s decision represents a mindless, millisecond thumb-twitch on the remote. But for the NHL, there could be no bigger insult. (Damn amazing considering the public embarrassment suffered by the league and Commissioner Gary Bettman over the years.)

Allan Walsh outraged by NHL demoted in Olympics coverage on NBC

(Walsh is prominent NHL player agent with Octagon)

If you don’t know why NBC’s JV-ing hockey is an outrage to its fans, well … you probably don’t care.

Work with me, kiddo:

1) NBC is the NHL’s network broadcast partner. Actually, “partner” might be stretching it as the league gave NBC broadcast rights to its games for free.

2) The NHL excised three weeks from its regular season, including canceling its all-star game, to commit players to the Olympics. That decision caused much consternation among NHL owners, coaches, players and their cable television partners. If the NHL knew that its players in their biggest game were going to be relegated  to lightly-watched MSNBC, do you think it would’ve made the Olympic commit?

So with those two points as a backdrop, why on earth did NBC decide to dump USA vs. Canada hockey for Ice Dancing?

John Ourand
of SPORTSBUSINESS JOURNAL gave us some foreshadowing last week when pitting the ratings of ESPN bowling coverage against an NHL game:

Bowling does triple the ratings of the NHL

That doesn’t take into account Versus’ lack of carriage, but you get the point.

Wyshynski also has this from NBC on why it made the call:

So we reached out to NBC for comment and context, and found out who gets the blame for this malarkey: American women.

Ice dancing, like figure skating, is a demographic draw; it’s the hook for a night of coverage that appeals to a broader audience than hockey does.

In essence, committing to a hockey game is committing to a three-hour programming block that can’t be interrupted. Imagine the outrage if NBC cut away during the second period of USA/Canada because someone was taking a historic bobsled run. Ice dancing allows for drop-ins at other events, which is another reason NBC believes it’s the best option in East Coast prime time.

Okay, can I now confirm there isn’t a single, respirating soul on the planet who still believes that the Olympics are about sports?

The entire endeavor, at least in my lifetime, always has been and will forever be an exercise in masterful (sports) marketing akin to what you see ESPN doing with the X Games.

Once upon a time, ESPN execs saw a large, money-spending demographic of people who were engaging in action sports that had yet to be formally organized in a substantial way. So for the sole reason of grabbing that demo’s discretionary income, ESPN organized those “sports” into a money-printing apparatus known as the X Games. Brilliant, it is.

The sports of the Olympics are similarly immaterial. Widespread interest in The Games is solely based on the broadcast choreography employed by NBC. The offerings presented on NBC itself are a reflection of what the network thinks is most attractive to the largest audience. (See: tail wags dog.)

For instance, if the USA hockey team’s best player was also the son of Barack Obama, you could damn well guarantee that its games would be primetime affairs on NBC. The only thing that matters in how a sport and/or game gets covered by the network is how compelling the context is.

Scratch that.

The only thing that matters in how a sport and/or game gets covered by the network is how compelling the context is in the opinion of NBC.

The best way to quantify how NBC and other Olympic broadcasters manufacture interest out of thin air is to consider how many humans will care one wit about Ice Dancing after Vancouver is over - compared to ice hockey. Again, the popularity or legitimacy of a sports is irrelevant to NBC’s coverage of The Games.

What I’ve given you is an American perspective on how the Olympics work. Canadians, because their culture revolves around winter sports, certainly have a different perspective - along with hardcore NHL fans around the world.

Unfortunately for our neighbors to the north, the only opinion that matters for these Games resides on the 15th floor at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10020.