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The Olympics Are On. Who Cares?

By Betsy Hnath

For more than a century, athletes representing countries big and small have dedicated countless hours of their lives in pursuit of one dream: competing in the Olympic Games.

Now, thanks to multimedia broadcasts, audiences can applaud their countrymen and women as they vie for medals in everything from swimming to ski jumping, regardless of time zone.

The pageantry of the opening and closing ceremonies also appeals to non-athletes.

But dips in viewership mixed with a shortening attention span have taken their toll.

Combine all of that with a dwindling number of cities willing to assume the financial risks that come with serving as host to the games, and you might conclude that the luster of Olympic gold may be wearing off.

Old Dominion University's Lamar Reams, assistant professor in human movement sciences, argues that, while consumers may digest news about the games differently, the Olympics are no less relevant than they were decades earlier.

According to Nielsen, exclusive-rights broadcaster NBC has experienced a ratings decline during this year's Winter Games.

About 23 million Americans are watching every night on NBC, NBCSN and via streaming. That's about 8 percent lower than for Sochi 2014 at this point in the Olympic competition.

But Reams warns that audience numbers aren't the only indication of interest or investment in this year's Olympics.

"In terms of viewership, ratings for these Winter Games have been down. However, this isn't particularly alarming, as ratings across much of television have decreased, including those for the almighty Super Bowl," Reams said. "Given the landscape of sport and mediated viewership options today, I wouldn't say the Olympics are any less significant, or carry less weight. They're simply different for viewers. Everyone can stay up-to-date without watching the games on television."

Modern Olympic competition began in Athens, Greece, in 1896. The games weren't televised in the United States until CBS's coverage of the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California.

Over subsequent decades, what began as simple event reporting became what we see and expect today: stories of heroes and underdogs, advantage and sacrifice, honor and scandal. All set to the backdrop of compelling competition and striking scenery.

Prior to 1992, all games were held the same year, but in 1994, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) began alternating Summer and Winter Olympics every two years, ensuring a biennial stream of competition.

And it was around 1992 that 24-hour television became the norm, pushing NBC to experiment with multiple channels of real-time vs. tape-delay coverage for a fee.

Consumers were unwilling to pay for programming that they could see for free later in the day, and its "Triplecast" pay-per-view experiment in partnership with Cablevision was ultimately a failure.

Ironic given today's immediacy-driven culture, and why, Reams said, there may be a misperception that the Olympics is becoming outdated or irrelevant.

"Take Netflix for example: A person could be watching his or her favorite series while also periodically checking their cell phone to get immediate updates on the games in South Korea. A quick gander at a Twitter timeline or Facebook, and a person would learn that Red Gerard won the gold medal and watch a clip of his winning slopestyle run," he said. "Using traditional viewership metrics, this person would not be counted; however, the games are still being consumed and are meaningful enough for the person to learn the results and watch the highlights."

In addition to the persistent drop in audience numbers, reports on the financial toll of hosting the Olympic Games have made the prospect less appealing. As a result, fewer cities are stepping up to take on the responsibility in the future.

Boston, Hamburg, Rome and Budapest all withdrew 2024 Olympic bids after reviewing the budget overruns and empty facilities that continue to plague host cities long after the games are over.

Reams says the IOC could modify benchmarks used in picking a location to help alleviate some of the fiscal burden.

"The economic data in most cases does not support the hosting of the games, and it's safe to say that fewer countries are willing to take the risk," Reams said. "However, 2024 (Paris) and 2028 (Los Angeles) were selected as host cities, in part, because of their willingness to use a record number of existing facilities. This could indicate a shift in terms of the criteria utilized to select host cities for future games."

Even with all of necessary changes and downsides, Reams "can't envision in any scenario that the Olympics would be any less meaningful" for those who sacrifice the most to attend them: the athletes.

"The games are the pinnacle of their athletic careers and hold no less weight in this generation than in previous ones," he said.

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