Columnists, Sports

Between the Lines: Maybe it’s time for the Olympics to adopt a new sport

Snowboarding made its Olympic Games debut in 1998 at Nagano. PHOTO COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

When the Olympic Games started in Olympia, Greece over 2,000 years ago, people traveled from all across Greece to watch the spectacle. The athletes played for glory, and when they won, statues were built in their honor. The Olympians were idolized like gods — larger than life figures — much like athletes today.

But in the modern Olympic Games, there lies a big, looming problem.

The median age of Olympic viewers in the United States continues to rise. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it was 47 years old. In the 2012 London Games, it was 48 years old, and in the 2014 Sochi Games, it was 55 years old.

While some people can argue that this is the age demographic the Olympics wants to have, they would be ignoring the evident rise in age as the years go on. This not only means that the audience is getting older, but it also means that the Olympics are not attracting a new audience.

The same late 40-somethings that tuned in for the games in 2012 are the same early 50-somethings that watched in 2016, and if the Olympics don’t do anything to bring in a younger audience, the trend will continue.

But that is easier said than done.

Young people no longer have to come home and watch the Olympics because it’s what their family watches during dinner for two weeks while everyone else they know is doing the same and rooting for their home country. Now there is unlimited content on — whenever you want, wherever you want — just waiting to be consumed.

While broadcast television is still the biggest outlet for the Olympics, millennials and generation Z just don’t consume their media through TV as their parents and grandparents do.

They prefer streaming, Snapchat stories or just scrolling through the conversation on Twitter rather than sitting in front of a television for hours watching sports we only care about every four years anyway.

But between deals over networking rights (NBC has $12 billion of rights fees in the Olympics until 2032), sponsors and advertisements, the Olympics isn’t in a position to go crazy with innovation to attract millennial and generation Z interest.

Just like other media outlets such as ESPN, they are struggling to figure out a sustainable method to monetize clicks and views online the same way they do with TV ratings and viewership.

So while the Olympics and NBC are doing their best with coverage of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on social media, the mode of delivery can’t be the only evolution. Namely, the Olympics need to look at accepting new games into its lineup.

In the 1998 Nagano Games, the Olympic committee controversially added a sport that was on the fringes — a sport rejected by the mainstream and only accepted by a subculture. And while many fought to keep it out of the games, the undeniable fact of the matter was that its audience was young people. That sport was snowboarding.

Many thought of snowboarding as a weird pseudo-sport, and snowboarders as rebellious, pot-smoking kids. Some lengths were even taken to ban snowboarders from ski resorts before the 1990s.

Now 20 years since its Olympic debut, snowboarding is perhaps the most watched and most beloved Olympic winter sport. This kind of bold acceptance of a non-traditional sport could again save interest in the Games.

And as many would hate to admit, the 2018 equivalent of snowboarding in the ‘90s is esports.

There is a good chance I lost most of you at esports, and that is because of the perception video games carry in our culture.

Like the snowboarders before them, professional gamers have been viewed in a negative light. Like the rebellious, pot-smoking snowboarders, gamers are seen as lazy weirdos that live in their mothers’ basements.

I’m not trying to convince you of the legitimacy of professional gamers’ excellent hand-eye coordination, speed, precision and work ethic; I want to point out the obvious fact that it would be better for everyone if the Olympics added esports.

The esports industry is massive and is projected to surpass $1.1 billion in revenue by 2019. That growth will continue as more and more money and media attention come its way, especially if it was to be put on the world stage at the Olympics.

Brands have already bought in too. Coca-Cola, Geico and Red Bull are just a few of the major sponsors who have bought into the legitimacy of esports. And that legitimacy can only be measured by one metric: fan interest.

Millions of young people stream casual and competitive gaming on websites like Twitch and YouTube Gaming already so the audience is there for the taking.

The largest esports event of 2017, the Intel Extreme Masters, which included Counter Strike: Global Offensive, League of Legends and Starcraft II, was the most watched esports event ever, with 46 million unique viewers. That is compared to Sunday night’s prime-time Olympic coverage, which drew 18.2 million viewers.

So, until the Olympic committee decides to give young people what they want to see, they will have to endure the increasing age of their loyal viewers and their falling ratings.

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