The NBA Finals, Stanley Cup Final, World Series, College Football Playoff, NCAA Tournament, Triple Crown, Masters, Daytona 500, Indy 500, and every other sport not named the NFL.
None of them averaged 28.1 million viewers on television within the last twelve months.
And yet, almost all of the conversation surrounding NBC’s Olympic ratings this year from Rio (and the quality of their coverage) has been negative. The Peacock has seen ratings slide compared to four years ago in London, which is a bit curious because the timezone is much more favorable. NBC has defended their numbers by arguing that more people are watching on live streams and other platforms, but they still don’t make up the difference. And it’s bad enough for NBC that they’re going to have to do make goods for advertisers because the ratings haven’t been what they promised to sponsors. The reasons why the numbers are down really are a mystery considering the timezone, star power, and storylines are all working in NBC’s favor.
Ok, so that’s the bad news.
The good news for NBC and the Olympics?
They’re averaging 28.1 million viewers.
Often times when writing about sports ratings it’s easy for all of us to get caught up in trends, focusing on what numbers are going up and what’s going down. So maybe it’s time with this negative avalanche of trends in the red facing NBC to point out that these numbers are still absolutely huge and the Olympics haven’t suddenly lost all of their popularity and now have an audience the size of 3 AM bull riding replays.
The Olympics are the only sporting event that can even come close to the NFL’s television dominance, even if they are suffering a puzzling decline this year. Just take a look at their average viewership so far in 2016 compared to other sporting events in the last year:
Olympic average: 28.1 million
NBA Finals average: 20.28 million
College Football Playoff average: 20.12 million
Final Four average: 13.71 million
Masters Final Round: 12.40 million
Daytona 500: 11.36 million
Copa America Final: 9.80 million
Stanley Cup Final average: 3.9 million
Thanks to the great resource that is Sports Media Watch, we can see that the Olympic average audience in primetime would rank extremely high on the list of most watched sporting events so far in 2016. In fact, it would rank 12th in 2016 right now, behind only 10 NFL games and Game 7 of the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Warriors. Tuesday night’s audience of 33.4 million even bested three NFL Playoff games from this past season.
NBC has tried to aggressively spin ratings and viewership to counter some of the negative narratives that are out there, but maybe they just need to point to the numbers that are still pretty darn impressive. Even compared to four years ago, the Olympics are facing an increasing amount of competition for viewers’ eyeballs from cable, satellite, streaming services, and more. Even NBC is competing with themselves with primetime coverage on other platforms going up against primetime.
This isn’t to say NBC should kick their feet up and relax. They certainly don’t want the down year in Rio to become a trend over multiple Olympics. And there are certainly some things about the network’s coverage they can improve, especially this year as there have been high-profile stumbles. The Peacock’s tape delay strategy and insistence on artificially building the drama and turning the Olympics into a miniseries drama as if we’re still consuming media the way we did in 1992 is as frustrating as ever. NBC blatantly says that they’re not televising gymnastics for gymnastics aficionados, although they would probably counter that’s why the ratings are so large. Maybe in time NBC and the Olympics will continue to see the audience continue to erode and some tough decisions will need to be made.
But for now the Olympics are still a massive hit and any sense of panic over viewership figures should be pushed well down the road. Even in a down year for NBC and the Olympics, every other sport not named the NFL would do anything to trade places with them.