Dave NobsDave Nobs

While watching the 2022 Winter Olympics, I’ve been thinking a lot about the state of the Games today. Having worked on six of them for clients such ranging from AT&T and Coca-Cola to Turner Broadcasting and Reebok, I can’t help but think they’re not what they used to be in terms of prestige, popularity and marketability and the resulting public relations challenge it presents.

Inspired by David Sable in his recent Imagine newsletter on LinkedIn, he asked: “Are the Olympics becoming irrelevant?” Or is the current sports and entertainment landscape too cluttered and fragmented for the Olympics to maintain the worldwide appeal they once enjoyed.

While there have been some highs (Cloe Kim in snowboarding, Nathan Chen in figure skating), lows (Michaela Shiffrin in downhill skiing, lack of NHL stars playing hockey) and drama (Russian figure skating doping scandal) thus far, it’s become increasingly difficult to compete against the Super Bowl and other sports, entertainment and gaming options.

Full disclosure, David and worked together at Cohn & Wolfe, before he became CEO of Y&R and now author and global influencer. So, not surprisingly, we share similar—although not entirely congruent—views on the state of the “rings” today.

NBC’s Winter Olympics ratings are heading toward a historic low

This recent Bloomberg headline packs a punch. It also presents the International Olympic Committee, U.S. Olympic Committee, national governing bodies of Olympic sports, broadcasters and sponsors with a brand image problem to overcome.

“As the Winter Olympics near the halfway point, NBC’s viewership is nearly half of what it was four years ago and is on pace to be the lowest in the event’s history,” wrote Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith. An average of 12.3 million nightly viewers per day have watched the Winter Olympics on Comcast Corp.’s NBCUniversal TV and streaming channels through Feb. 8. That compares with about 23 million viewers at the same point for the 2018 games in PyeongChang, South Korea, according to an NBC spokesman.

“Every Olympics present their own set of unique challenges from climate and the readiness of the venues by the Opening Ceremonies to security from potential terrorist attacks and cost overruns. These Beijing Games present several serious issues,” noted Brad Adgate, a contributing writer for Forbes. “Two years after the onset of a global pandemic, COVID is still spreading, putting the health and wellbeing of athletes and Olympic officials at risk. Also, China’s domestic policies about human rights have come under intense global scrutiny with activists pressuring Olympic sponsors and NBC to criticize the host nation or even boycott the Games. Furthermore, the TV ratings of the 2016 and 2018 Olympics rank among the lowest in decades.”

In the face of political and pandemic-related challenges, brands sponsoring the Olympics have chosen to focus on the athletes or stay silent, according to a recent Ad Age article. “Sponsors are dealing with a range of challenges, from geopolitical issues to a complicated marketing calendar. So, several big brands are opting to sit out the games altogether, while others are only now ramping up marketing for an event that typically draws ad activity many weeks in advance” wrote Jade Yan.

Going back in time

At the turn of the last century, baseball, boxing and horse racing were the most popular American sports. While baseball still holds a spot among the top tier, boxing and horse racing have become more niche, appealing to a much narrower audience of true enthusiasts. Did those sports become irrelevant or were they victims of the growing interest and appeal of others, namely: football, basketball, hockey and, more recently, mixed martial arts?

Today, pro football dominates the sports landscape. According to Sportszion, the NFL has grown tremendously in terms of its viewership. Surveys show that 73 percent of American men and 55 percent of women enjoy a football game on a regular basis. According to a recent ESPN report, almost half of American citizens consider themselves NFL fans.

A case in point: more than 117 million people watched the Los Angeles Rams beat the Cincinnati Bengals to win the Lombardi trophy in front of a sellout crowd of more than 70,000 at SoFi Stadium, where some people reportedly paid much as $50,000 for their ticket.

Other challenges include Millennials not watching traditional media, an industry being weighed down by outmoded and inflexible contracts and the growing trend for sports events to be broadcast on over the top media such as Twitch and YouTube Live (not to mention endless entertainment viewing available on Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV and Paramount+).

All this makes me wonder if the Olympics can possibly regain the worldwide appeal it once held or if they have truly become irrelevant?

“My bet? The games are just no longer relevant … they have been getting less so for many years and will continue to slide down a pole that is dangerously greased by an out-of-touch leadership and organization,” Sable concluded.


Dave Nobs is Managing Director and Chief Growth Officer at LAVIDGE, a full-service advertising, digital and public relations agency in Phoenix, and adjunct professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communication.