Monday, February 27, 2006


I didn't get to see too much of the Olympics this year. I enjoyed what I saw (for the most part) and watched with great interest the men's biathlon 12.5 km pursuit. What a cool concept! Cross-country ski for a couple kilometers, then with your heart pounding at 180 bpm+, shoot at five small targets. For every target you miss, you have to take a penalty lap! The lead changed quite a bit because of that!

Overall, the TV ratings for the Olympics were down this year. I was stunned to find this article in a USA Today last weekend with suggestions for how to improve the ratings. I still can't decide if it's satire or if it's honest. Here are parts of it with my comments included:

To many Americans — particularly younger people — the Olympics aren't relevant. Put simply, they aren't cool. "I hear no buzz about the Olympics any more," says Irma Zandl, a trends forecaster. "The Olympics has lost its soul."

Alright. What is THAT about? The Olympics has lost it's soul? Have the Olympics changed that much over the years? Are there not gold, silver, and bronze medals awarded for each event? What has changed here? The Olympics or the surrounding culture?

Fixing the Games' image won't be easy. Or cheap. Or without risk. But it can be done, say sports marketing gurus, image experts and event planners contacted by USA TODAY to brainstorm 10 ways to revive Olympic "cool."

Because "cool" is what it's all about.

1. Put more 'reality' in Olympic TV.

In a world of risqué reality TV shows, people crave nitty-gritty details and down-and-dirty competition.

"They should have athlete confessional rooms" where Olympians privately vent their innermost thoughts to the camera, says David Adler, founder of BiZbash Media, which produces an events trade website and magazine.

Yes, and we know from past "reality" TV programs that everything we the viewer sees is real. What is the deal? This is about the games, right? The conflict is on the ice/snow. Do we need to create artificial conflict so that somehow the athletic competition becomes more interesting, or we're somehow more attuned to the event?

Yet another way to offer more reality TV would be to reinvent the Olympic Village. With its global appeal and throngs of young, hormonally charged athletes, the Olympic Village is ripe for an uber-cool transformation — and maybe a few gimmicks.

Yes--intramural sports meets Mardi Gras. And stop using the word "Über" without the umlaut!

2. Let viewers have a say.

Viewer voting on televised competitions such as American Idol has given rise to new phenomena: official judges might get the last word, but they're no longer the only voice.

This is briliant. Allow the public to have a say in sports they can't even spell, let alone know the rules. The voting would be based on nothing more than superficial qulities of the athletes.

3. Tap more tech.

Rather than banking on the younger set watching TV, Olympic organizers need to move faster in distributing content through other media. Think more podcasting, streaming video, text messaging, even ring tones that have Olympians saying cool phrases...while this might cut prime-time viewing, he says NBC could make up lost revenue with the right fee structure. It could sell an Olympic package for "a couple hundred dollars" or sell viewing rights for individual events, sports or athletes.

You've got to be kidding. People aren't watching the Olympics now when it's brought to them for FREE, so this guy now thinks it would be a great idea to sell subscriptions just because it can appear on alternate media?

4. Spotlight big rivalries.

Any sporting event without rivalry is boring — especially the Olympic Games, says Michael Lynch, senior vice president of marketing for Olympic sponsor Visa USA.

"We could do a much better job building up the rivalries," he says.

Yeah, since the demise of the Sovient Union, the US has lost a real "bad guy" to go after. Who's left? China? Canada?

5. Decide more medals head-to-head.

Gold, silver and bronze medals in timed events could be decided by a single race pitting the three finalists with the best times, says Lynch. "The less done by the clock the better."

Wow--so now the arbiter of the highest standard is completely removed from the equasion. Can you imagine three or four people on the the same time?

6. Offer more and hipper music, less and hipper talk

Olympic events need to move to the beat of diverse genres of current music, suggests Carol Moog, a consumer psychologist and blues harmonica player. "It should look more like a music video," she says.

For events such as snowboarding, she says, lose the TV commentary altogether in favor of a Gen Y-favored music mix.

When commentary is called for, NBC should find more young, hip voices, says Katie Paine of KDPaine & Partners, which consults on business reputations. No self-respecting teen wants someone like their father describing snowboarding, she says. "Instead of someone translating snowboard-ese into English, you need someone who actually speaks snowboard-ese."

This is a great point. As long as we're doing it to sport, let's go ahead and reduce music, language, and commentary to the lowest common denominator--so the kids can understand it.

7. Go back to the 4-year wait.

Sponsor pressure nudged organizers to reschedule the Olympic Games from every four years to separating the Winter Games and Summer Games two years apart beginning in 1994 with the Lillehammer Winter Games. "It's created Olympic fatigue," says management consultant Pam Murtaugh. "It was a pinnacle experience that has been diluted by its frequency."

Dude--whether the summer and winter games are combined or not, the wait IS STILL FOUR YEARS! So "Olympic Fatigue" would be reduced if we had both portions in the same year as opposed to one portion seperated out by two years?

8. Be less predictable.

"Unpredictability and surprises really can work to your advantage," says Don Mischer, producer of the Atlanta and Salt Lake City Olympics opening and closing ceremonies, as well as the 2006 Super Bowl half-time show. For the Atlanta Games, Mischer and a handful of people kept the last torch carrier a secret — and awed the crowd when Muhammad Ali came out.

I'm sorry--I think surprisingly few people watch the Olympics for the opening and closing ceremonies. The Olympics, after all are about the games, not the fireworks. And what's the deal with Avril Lavigne?

9. Be more extreme.

Olympic organizers could rip a page from ESPN's extremely lucrative X Games — adding a slate of grittier, heart-pumping events. For the Winter Olympics, organizers should consider adding a snowboarding competition that includes a terrain park with jumps and sliding rails, says Ron Semiao, creator of ESPN's X Games. For the Summer Olympics, he suggests adding skateboarding, bicycle motocross and motorized sports.

I can't put my finger on it, but something seems very diluted and impure about that suggestion. Maybe the motorized portion. The "snowmobiling" race? Could happen.

10. Rethink the Olympic mission.

"Is it about athletic competition at the highest level, or is it about generating revenue?" asks David Carter of Sports Business Group, a consulting firm. Like other big-time sports, the Olympics has become "addicted to the corporate dollar," he says. As a result, more critical decisions are being made by the network and sponsors, not athletes or organizers.

That this is even a question amazes me. This is continuing evidence of how big money has infiltrated all of sports--especially in the US. The ability of the team, the individual contributing unselfishly to the whole, the players/athletes team play is secondary to the money the teams make, the TV revenue generated, the big contracts the players get, etc., etc.

One more thought that may be an unfair generalization of age group who was primarily represented in the Olympics. Could it be that "the kids these days" don't have as much interest in the games because they can't relate to the hard work and dedication it took for these Olympians to achieve all that they have? Could it be that a kid's ability to do virtual snowboarding with cooler tricks that defy virtual reality leaves him uninterested in the true nature of the sport?

Could it be that a large part of overall disinterest in these games by most Americans is that we really don't know anything about the games? What are the rules? What is good form? How are they judged? How is a winner decided?

What about the time zone issue? Are we so used to seeing "instant" results, "live" as it happens that the tape delay just makes it seem less real to us?

I can't wait for the next round of Olympics.