Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Olympic sports and athletes aren't going away

-- by Josh Suchon

The end of the Olympics, traditionally, was the end of seeing those Olympic athletes in our lives. Some would re-appear four years later at the next games. Some would appear on a Wheaties box. Most were never heard from again.

That could be changing for a couple reasons:

* The staggering increase in sports networks requires programmers to find more content, and not just from the traditional Big Three of team sports (football, baseball, basketball).

* The explosion of social media allows athletes to connect directly with their fans, and allows them to direct those fans to their games in person or on television.

Despite annoying fans everywhere with tape-delayed coverage, NBC Universal set records with massive ratings in the 2012 London Games. It didn’t seem to matter that the audience knew the results. They watched, watched in groups, sat through commercials, and sat through sports they previously neglected.

It proved a strong market exists for these so-called niche sports. What the next three years and 49 weeks will prove is whether that market exists year-around, or just once every four years.

There should be plenty of opportunities for fans of Olympic sports to keep watching their new favorite athletes, or learn more about these less popular sports.

NBC Universal put far more resources into airing Olympic sports in the months leading up to London. They wanted to introduce the athletes and teams early, hoping that covering preliminary events would lead to more viewers. Whether by coincidence or not, it did.

It’s likely many networks, not just the Olympic-central NBC, will look to capitalize on these athletes’ notoriety in the upcoming months.

We’ve already heard that Michael Phelps will appear on the Golf Channel’s “The Haney Project” to try lowering his handicap. Hank Haney, who was Tiger Woods’ swing coach for six years, has previously worked with Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine and former NBA star Charles Barkley on their swings.

NBC Sports Network announced it will televise a couple exhibition matches of beach volleyball teams from China and the United States that will take place on Waikiki Beach in Hawaii.

ESPN has jumped deep into the sport of soccer, televising matches live from all corners of the globe. The World Cup was a huge success for ESPN, and the interest has spread to the UEFA European Championships, English Premiere matches, and MLS games domestically.

ESPNU continues to add more live coverage of college sports beyond football and basketball, and the ESPN family of networks routinely shows the semi-finals and finals of just about every collegiate national championship.  

The Pac-12 network launches tomorrow, promising 850 live events in its first year. The network will have 35 football games and 143 men’s basketball games. That leaves 672 live events of women’s basketball, soccer, volleyball, softball, baseball, water polo, and other sports usually neglected except during the Olympics. And these will be regular season games, not just the title matches.

The Big 12 televises some of these sports, but not with the frequency the Pac-12 is promising, and it wouldn’t be surprising if that conference was guilted into more Olympic sport programing. Surely, the upcoming SEC Network is taking note of the Pac-12’s plans.

Even beyond college conference’s own networks, NBC Sports Network is expanding. They don’t have any of the Big Three professionally. It’s likely they will end up with rights to the Big East Conference. But there are a lot of available programming hours in the spring and summer to be filled.

Here in Los Angeles, Time Warner Cable is launching a new channel centered around the LA Lakers. Beyond those 81 regular season games, what else will TWC televise? So far, it’s obtained the rights for the MLS’ LA Galaxy, the WNBA’s LA Sparks, and the high school championships. Some college football and basketball is likely, and more Olympic sports are possible too.

All that live TV will increase the profile of Olympic sports. While it’s doubtful they will ever overtake the U.S.’s Big Three, the Olympic sports should continue to grow.

There’s been chatter about beach volleyball and women’s soccer re-launching professional leagues. The key to any professional league surviving is a TV contract. The increase in regional and national cable channels showcasing sports provides more opportunities for those much-needed TV contracts.

Savvy athletes would be wise to continue marketing themselves to advertisers and fans.

It would appear the interest is stronger than ever to see the world championships in track and field, swimming, diving, and gymnastics in prime time every summer – not just every four years.

Then again, a couple weeks from now, we might be completely over the Olympics until 2016. Just like in the past.

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