It's an optimistic season at NBC Sports Network, one of the new 24/7 cable sports networks to launch in recent years. The Olympics have brought record ratings to the nascent network as viewers have arrived in droves to watch world class athletic competitions. In fact, NBCSN has set viewership highs during these games with their live coverage of figure skating, ice hockey, and other gold medal events.
Conventional wisdom would deem that NBCSN should be in for a nice boost with record-level viewership and many of those fans being exposed to the network for the first time.
In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast my friend. The Olympic bounce for TV networks is a myth, and the proof lies in what happened to NBC Sports Network two years ago.
Whether it was women's soccer, basketball, archery, or even rowing, NBC Sports Network saw the largest numbers in its history during the Summer Olympics in 2012. These were the headlines at the time…
NBCSN is seeing similar headlines during these 2014 Winter Olympics. Already, NBCSN has posted its seven highest weekday daytime audiences in network history as well as its most watched event in its history (5.5 million for men's gold medal ski jumping on the opening weekend) and its most watched hockey game (USA-Russia, 4.1 million viewers). These are amazing numbers for NBCSN and better yet, its Olympic coverage from Sochi more than doubled the London audience during the first week – 1.8 million average viewers compared to 776,000.
However, in spite of one gleeful peacock press release after another emanating from Russia, the network should be served with a reality check and a healthy dose of caution. The record ratings that came with the Olympics in 2012 quickly vanished. In fact, after the Olympics were over and NBCSN returned to its regularly scheduled programming, the network hit record lows in August 2012. John Ourand wrote about the "post-Olympic blues" for NBC Sports Network…
To put that in some context, the NBC Sports Network’s viewer average that week was similar to the prime-time audiences for cable channels like ESPNews, Centric (which is the former BET on Jazz) and Discovery Fit & Health."
After the London Olympics, NBC Sports Network's ratings didn't just fall back to normal – they got worse than before. That's hard to do! NBCSN went from averaging 590,000 total day viewers during the Olympics to a minute fraction of it almost instantly. Olympic viewers did not stick around after the London Games for any of NBCSN's original programming and the Olympic bounce became an Olympic bubble that popped.
Will it be different this time around? Probably not. If we've learned anything from the Olympics or the Super Bowl it's that the anticipated bounce from these major events never materializes. Fox Sports 1 got no discernable boost from Super Bowl week in spite of a concerted effort to achieve one with extra promotion and a "second launch" for the network. In fact, FS1's total day viewership was higher before Super Bowl week (95,000) than it was during (87,000) or after (57,000). The same will likely be true with NBC Sports Network. After the flame is extinguished in Sochi, viewership levels will in all likelihood return to normal.
While the Olympic bounce is a myth, NBCSN still has plenty to be encouraged about moving forward as they're in a much better position now than they were 18 months ago. For starters, the Winter Olympics feeds right into their prime months on the calendar with the Stanley Cup Playoffs and stretch run of the EPL season. Perhaps if anyone's going to stick around from the games, it's Olympic hockey and Team USA fans that may discover NBCSN as the network for hockey throughout the season. And the fact that they've more than doubled the audience from London to Sochi is an impressive sign of growth for the network and a validation of showing live Olympic events on cable. Such a dramatic increase in viewership means more people are aware of the network and more are able to find it.
The game remains the same for NBCSN, Fox Sports 1, or any other cable sports network, though. Live events trumps all. As long as NBCSN keeps their live sports offerings growing with the likes of the Olympics, NASCAR, the EPL, and NHL then they'll continue to see higher viewership numbers. Shows like The Crossover, SportsDash, Pro Football Talk, Costas Tonight and others will come and go, but those shows will not be able to succeed solely on the backs of the Olympics. The same audience that tuned in for Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski isn't coming back for five days a week of Mike Florio. It's not an Olympic bounce, it's a live sports bounce.