Image: David Phillip/AP
In case you have been living under a rock, the Olympic Trials marathons for both men and women were held yesterday. For what appears like the first time ever, there were more very good performances than there were spots available. The entire affair was quite compelling.
As Olympic broadcast rights holder, NBC also holds the rights to USOC events such as the Olympic Trials. The Peacock followed its standard procedure and tape-delayed the race broadcast until 3:00 in the afternoon.
Four years ago, NBC did the same for the Trials races (which were held separately, as was always the case until this year). But in 2008, they offered live webcasts of the races, whereas this year they did not.
Predictably, a ruckus ensued. The running community (and track fan community) complained long and loud. The usual statement was that the Olympic Trials deserved better, the marathon deserved better, the athletes deserved better, NBC needed to get into the 21st century, and so on. I agree with all of these, but I think NBC screwed up worse than that.
NBC simply made a bad business decision by not offering up some kind of live coverage, be it televised or online.
This should come as no surprise. If there’s one thing NBC is good at, it’s making bad business decisions. From significantly overpaying for the rights to the next four Olympic Games, to the 2010 Jay Leno Show/Conan firing debacle, to the midseason benching of Community…you can go on and on. It’s a long history. NBC’s ratings are bad, bad, bad, mired in last place forever. NBC is successful at making television that people don’t want to watch.
Why was this a bad decision?
1. They misjudged the popularity of the Trials.
The only way to keep track of the two Trials races as they happened was via the internet, and various indicators imply that the number of people doing so was massive. “Ryan Hall” trended to #5 worldwide on Twitter. The webpage offering live split data was overwhelmed by traffic almost immediately after the first race started and crashed — and that page was set up by Flash Results, the most forward-thinking and tech-savvy results company on the planet, so even they were taken by surprise.
Why were so many people interested in these races? One reason could be that both were being held simultaneously, which intensified media coverage. More likely is that popular interest in long-distance road racing has returned to levels exceeded only in the early 80s, if ever. Growth in participation is shocking, nearly 10% a year, and the rate of growth is not slowing down but increasing every year. While the vast majority of participants have no knowledge of or interest in the elite pro level, even a small portion of America’s road runners is a lot of people. Throw in the word “Olympic” and you’ve significant interest.
NBC lost out on a lot of that interest. I recorded the marathon show but haven’t watched it yet. I suspect there are a lot of people who did the same. While the taped shows undoubtedly had decent ratings, given the large number of people who followed the races’ progress online, I think NBC missed a great opportunity.
2. They misjudged the internet.
LetsRun.com cofounder Weldon Johnson said the indications are that since NBC didn’t get many takers at $4.99 a pop for the last Olympic Trials webcasts, they didn’t see the need to do it this time around. This is an amazing admission of knuckleheadedness.
You don’t judge today’s internet by what happened on the internet four years ago.
Webcasts were, relatively speaking, in their infancy in 2007. They were cranky in 2007, but now you can watch entire games on a mobile phone. Expecting the interest level in a January 2012 webcast to be similar to what it was in November 2011 and April 2012 is quite revealing about leadership’s (lack of) thinking. Any company that makes those kinds of assumptions will not be in business for long. And let’s be honest: if NBC disappeared tomorrow (and other networks snapped up its sports broadcasting rights), would anyone notice?
3. They misjudged the power of live sports.
Networks like live sports because it’s the only thing people will watch as it happens (and sit through commercials) instead of recording to watch later (and skipping over commercials). A Saturday morning is wide open for a live TV broadcast. While early-morning ratings might not have been as good as afternoon ones, the advertisers would likely have been happier.
4. They missed out on beta-testing.
NBC will offer live webcasts of all Olympic action this summer, and then tape-delay (what they think they will be) the most popular stuff for prime time. Despite the large interest in yesterday’s races, it was significantly less than the interest in the Summer Olympics will be. The Olympic Trials marathons would have been a great opportunity to work out any kinks in the system before the real deal comes around in July. One example: mobile phones. Given the nature of the internet beast these days, NBC would do itself a disservice if it didn’t offer a mobile phone platform for those webcasts. Yesterday would have been a good time to roll it out and try it.
5. They missed opportunity for promotion of the Summer Olympics.
NBC decision-makers obviously made cost-benefit decisions about the Olympic Trials marathons coverage, but they also seemed to have looked at the races as a self-contained unit. If they did so, they have learned nothing from ABC/ESPN’s relentless self-promotion machine. The Olympic Trials in every sport are advertising for the real deal, the Summer Olympics. If you take a loss in Houston in January, but bring more people into the fold for London in July, then it’s a profit in the big picture.
NBC’s thought is that US interest in the Summer Olympics is driven by individuals and their stories. Consider how yesterday’s races unfolded. You have a 36-year-old former medal winner with years of ups and downs, whose parents risked death to bring their children to America. You have a California golden boy who marches to the beat of his own drummer. You have another immigrant who made his fourth Olympic team. You have another (beautiful) former Olympic medalist who is almost genetically engineered to be America’s greatest runner. You have a feisty new face who who seemingly came out of nowhere last year to represent the hard-working re-emergence of America’s most maligned city. You have a 33-year-old mother who pulled up stakes and moved to a totally new place just to try to make the team. These are the Olympians we’ll be following in July, and some (maybe all) will be in contention.
And then you have the veteran who came up oh so short of making the team, his heart as broken as his feet and legs once were. He’s got another chance at the track trials, and if he makes it onto the team in Eugene it will be an amazing story of redemption.
In light of all this, the Trials races are not an event. They’re advertising. Everyone watching the Trials race will find one or more of those six (maybe seven) athletes so compelling that they’ll want to see them again in the Olympics, and maybe even some events leading up to the Games. If you make a quality product, people will like it, but only if they get first-hand experience of that quality product.
But then again, be it Olympics, sports in general, or anything else, NBC doesn’t know about creating a quality product or building a viewership base. Mired in last place in the ratings, the Peacock has consistently proven this for a decade.