Gordon Campbell on the waning fever for the Olympics

According to the spin merchants and others with an interest in whipping up an audience, these have been our most successful Olympics ever. Huzzah! Yet given that the public spent more money (circa $215 million since the London Olympics) to send our biggest team… you could put those Rio results another way. Namely, that our haul in Rio cost more per medal and fewer were earned per athlete than ever before. What with Sky tying up the broadcast rights for the Olympics, you could also say that fewer New Zealanders were able to watch their investment – in tax dollars and in patriotic emotion – on screen, than ever before. Whoopee.

Counting the mere medal haul is misleading for another reason. Earlier this year, when Sports Minister Jonathan Coleman announced a $4 million Budget boost for High Performance Sport NZ this was his stated rationale:

Success on the world sporting stage is important as it inspires Kiwis to participate in sport, which leads to a more active, healthier population and ultimately better social outcomes,” he said.

“Sport is a key part of our national identity, and success at the top level also helps to promote New Zealand on a wider international stage.”

Really? Success at Rio promotes us on a wider international stage ? That rather optimistically assumes that anyone else offshore is watching our achievements on the global stage. True, some of the successes – in pole vaulting, shot put (mens and women’s) – were in popular events held in the main arena. Women’s golf is also pretty popular. But sailing, kayaking, or even rowing are sports followed and watched by relatively few. Just before the Games began, Nate Silver’s statistical site 538 used ticket sales data from London 2012 and from international sports federations to tabulate the weighted value of medals won in sports that people actually follow and watch – and alas, many of the events to which New Zealand sends large teams ( eg equestrian, sailing) came out at, or near, the bottom of public esteem. In other words, the audience “on the world stage” paid about as much attention to our kayaking and sailing efforts in Rio as New Zealanders here at home paid to who won the golds in taekwondo, wrestling and badminton. Like other nations, we have been cheering in an empty echo chamber. It’s the Olympic spirit, right there.

For that reason – and I know I’m pushing it uphill – surely some hard scrutiny needs to be given to the spending being lavished on High Performance Sport in this country. Let’s not kid ourselves that the Olympics are anything other than an occasion for patting our own backs. Which arguably may be justifiable entirely as a national ‘cheer up’ feel good exercise. If so, the government then also needs to ensure – via anti-siphoning regulations – that pay-TV can’t lock up the public’s investment in Olympic sport as thoroughly as it did this year. Basically, pay TV has penned Olympics coverage in its own harbour, and isn’t willing to share it ‘live’ on reasonable terms. As a result, the public is being forced to pay twice for its Olympic fix: once through taxes, and once through its pay-TV subscription. This will be an interesting gamble to watch, longer term. As with any content that gets put behind a pay wall, the risk is that the public may have learned this year to live without the Olympics, and could do so again next time around. Golden goose, cooked.

If so, that would be entirely in accord with the signs that the Olympics are already on a losing curve, as a spectator sport. That’s not merely because the stands in Rio were half empty, though that’s indicative. The US NBC network has just paid a huge amount for the rights to the Olympics from now until 2032 only to be hit with sharply declining audiences for the Rio coverage this year – and especially so among millennials.

Back in June, NBC Universal CEO Steve Burke had described his nightmare of about the Rio viewing outcome:

“We wake up someday and the ratings are down 20 percent,” the chief executive officer of NBC Universal said at a conference. “If that happens, my prediction would be that millennials had been in a Facebook bubble or a Snapchat bubble and the Olympics have come, and they didn’t know it.”

He has escaped that with the Rio games this year — but not by much. Prime-time broadcast viewership has been down about 17 percent compared to the London games four years ago. And in the 18-to-49-year-old age group coveted by advertisers, it’s been even worse. That audience has been 25 percent smaller, according to Bloomberg…

Basically, millennials have come to conclude that sport is …boring and lame. That’s certainly the thesis of New York magazine, citing the same figures as Bloomberg about viewer decline. It seems that young people have better things to do than watch people throw things and run around a track several times:

One of the defining features of millennials is that they have better opinions than the generations who came before them. More precisely, those born between 1982 and 2000 are uniquely adept at discerning when something that many people believe to be good is actually, objectively, very bad indeed. Studies have consistently shown that millennials are more likely to have the right opinions about such empirically bad things as Donald Trump, Budweiser, marriage, and finance capitalism… In other words, millennials’ mastery of technology has made them disproportionately aware that the Olympics are, in truth, boring and lame….. This is not to suggest that many individuals within older generations haven’t also come to appreciate that the Olympics are a dull spectacle built off the exploited labor of unpaid athletes and impoverished construction workers.


Open Source Conference

The Open Source/Open Government (OS/OS conference kicks off in Wellington today…for two days of talk and illustration of how tech solutions can help to resolve those age old issues of information sharing and social empowerment. You can find the programme for OS/OS here.

….What else do you need ? Well, here’s little Julia Stiles (long before 10 Things I Hate About You ) making the case for open sesame and internet journalism. Work with me, people, work with me…

Frank Ocean, Finally

Like the Olympics, Frank Ocean’s new album has been four years in the making. Yes, its been that long since Channel Orange put him on the map. In fact, he’s released two albums over a matter of just a few days : a ‘visual album’ called Endless, and an old fangled CD called Blond. On a quick listen to both of them, this “Rushes” cut from Endless stands out…

P.S. In the column the other day about Vietnam –era throwbacks, I forgot this great live version of “I’m A Soldier” by the Soul Stirrers. This performance came in the period just after Sam Cooke and Johnnie Taylor were part of the group, and the terrific lead singer on this cut is Jimmy Outler. Its from the early 60s, a time when Vietnam was ramping up and a lot of black soldiers were being recruited and sent half around the world to fight for a ‘freedom’ they didn’t have at home. Even though Jimmy Outler and the gang are singing about a spiritual fight, there’s a layer or three of irony here.

2 Comments on Gordon Campbell on the waning fever for the Olympics

  1. Yes you are pushing it uphill if the hype of the Olympic commentators and the TV news readers is anything to go by but the signs of terminal decline are there. Thank goodness for the Millennials and the generational change that is becoming evident although the mainstream media are either oblivious to it or in denial. Fortunately there are still some media like Werewolf highlighting the issues that the IOC is currently trying so desperately to keep under control and will eventually blow the Olympic movement apart. The failure to deal with the Russian dug doping issue and the ongoing debacle over testing and the three misses rule, the allegations of result rigging by judges and kickbacks to IOC officials. And finally the Caster Semenya controversy and the whole gender issue which is turning into a nightmare for Seb Coe and his mates. I am a lifelong sports fan but I can’t bury my head in the sand and pretend that all’s well with the Olympics and international sport. The next few years are going to be very interesting indeed.

  2. I didn’t watch a minute of the Rio Olympics. I have a lot of time for Brasil, but the need to have Sky to see any of it killed both opportunity and interest on my part. All the athletes must be amateurs…..but global corporations get to cash in. No thanks. It’s over.

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