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August 17, 2004

The Ultimate Contact Sport

Daniel Drezner reminisces about his days as an Ultimate player and laments about its Olympic prospects. He links to a Wall Street Journal (subs. req.) story by Barry Newman:

Frisbee, meantime, has blossomed from a lazy game of catch on the frat-house lawn into the sport of "ultimate," a high-voltage cross between soccer and American football. It was known early on as ultimate Frisbee, but Wham-O Inc., which owns the Frisbee trademark, wouldn't get behind it. So it's just plain ultimate now.

That causes branding issues: Ultimate? Ultimate what?

Therein lies the dilemma, for how can the brand of Ultimate ever compete for Olympic ratings against the brand of the Ultimate Contact Sport!

First, before I tie this essay into the theme of h-bd,

let's come to terms with the business of sports marketing, television viewership share and demographics that underlie the modern Olympic Games and most importantly the finances involved in putting on such a spectacle:

"The Games have reached a critical size which may put their future success at risk if the size continues to increase," an IOC study commission on the issue reported in 2002.

Rogge, chief coordinator for the Sydney Games before becoming president, hopes cost reduction would allow cities in Latin America and Africa to host the Games.

Every additional athlete is estimated to cost Games organisers $30,000, every additional journalist $15,000.

[ . . . . . ]

In May, the IOC decided not to exclude any sports until 2012 but Rogge has put the 28 Olympic sports on notice that they risk being removed if they cannot prove their worth. A review of the Olympic programme will be conducted soon after the Athens Games.

Softball, modern pentathlon and baseball narrowly avoided being expelled from the Olympic family two years ago and all three are aware they must look their best in Athens this month if they are to survive long-term.

Even officials in core Olympic sports such as fencing, shooting and weightlifting are concerned they could be pushed out of the Olympic family. The last sport to be removed was polo in 1936.

Last December's council meeting of archery's governing body FITA was dominated by worries about the sport's Olympic status. Members were told that "sometime next year we will have to present why we should be at the Games."

[ . . . . . ]

Television appeal is all-important in the 21st century and a "modern" sport such as beach volleyball, with its eye-catching displays of bronzed flesh, wins hands down against more esoteric sports such as archery and shooting.

Shooting is one of several sports to have had its athlete quota reduced for the Athens Games and it will lose two events in 2008. The IOC had originally wanted to cut five events from a shooting programme that encompasses 17 gold medals in Athens.

[ . . . . . ]

An IOC commission recommended in 2002 that baseball be excluded from the 2008 Games because of its patchy popularity worldwide, the high cost of venue construction and the problems of attracting the best professionals from North America.

Modern pentathlon and softball were also deemed not popular enough and too expensive, but they were all reprieved after passionate defences by the sports' officials at an IOC meeting in late 2002.

The IOC has warned three-day eventing it could be excluded from Beijing and has proposed to cut back on synchronised swimming, shooting, rowing, badminton and sailing events.

Rogge is aware that many international federations rely heavily on IOC funding derived from Games profits. Exclusion could deal a financial death blow to sports such as modern pentathlon.

However, the IOC wants to keep the Olympics relevant to the modern world and feels it is anomalous not to include hugely popular sports such as rugby and golf.

"People forget about the millions of athletes whose sports are outside of the Olympic programme," Rogge said in 2002.

"The question is: 'Don't we have sports outside that deserve better to be in the programme?'"

I'll grant that DanceSport has the biggest giggle factor (apart from Chess and Bell Ringing) of all of the new sports that are being considered but when viewed in terms of what the Olympic Games actually are, a sports & entertainment commercial enterprise, rather than what they are believed to be, an international forum for sports, their prospect for inclusion, along with Beach Volleyball starts to make sense. Further, there are perennial events which are yawn inducing for most spectators and are anathema to the advertisers that fund the majority of the sports:

There are times when even those directly involved can no longer defend their sport's presence. It happened in Atlanta in 1996, when archery official Jim Easton acknowledged that bows and arrows were so "boring" to watch that the event should consider having, "archers line up on both sides and the last one standing would be the winner."

Television, of course, would heartily approve: a Survivor spinoff for the Olympic Games.

In the original Games, mule-cart racing was eventually dumped for lack of spectator appeal -- and TV ratings had nothing to do with it.

What Mr. Pound should aim for is a massive purge. It has happened before, right after the 1924 Paris Games, when 16 events were dumped, one of them -- cross-country running -- because it was killing the competitors.

There can be legitimate additions -- triathlon being a good example in Sydney -- but the IOC and Mr. Pound should work far harder to expunge rather than to replace.

Some of the events simply make no sense. The modern pentathlon, which is expected to go soon, is anything but "modern." It is, instead, an old military test to find the soldier best at relaying a message on horseback while fighting the enemy off with pistol and sword, then crossing a river and dashing 4,000 metres through the woods.

It will go, and there will be protests.

But we presume there were loud protests back in 1900, when the live pigeon shoot was dropped as an Olympic sport.

Let's get right to the heart of the matter, ratings. Summer Olympics rarely draw the viewers that Winter Olympics garner:

And despite the abundance of skin, and the advent of beach volleyball, ratings for the Summer Games are typically nowhere near the ratings for their winter counterpart, usually held in February when temperatures outside are chilly and TV sets inside are fired up.

The first three days of NBC's coverage of the 2002 Winter Games, held in Salt Lake City, averaged 35.1 million viewers, compared to 23.7 million for the first three days of warm-weather festivities from Athens.

Still, NBC, which paid $793 million for the pleasure of broadcasting ping-pong games of global import, should come out ahead, thanks to $1 billion in ads sold. Some of that revenue could be returned to sponsors such as McDonald's and Visa if ratings don't meet NBC's projections, but so far the network says ratings are meeting, and exceeding, estimates.

It's hard to argue against the appeal of scantily clad athletes but Beach Volleyball alone can't reverse the trends of declining viewership, nor can sports like Ultimate, which have an appeal to a very narrow, young, and trendsetting audience who aren't big Olympic viewers. The introduction of Skeleton, Snowboarding and Freestyle Skiing were efforts to broaden the appeal of the Winter Olympics in order to capture that elusive 18 to 34 year-old demographic but their audience, best measured by the appeal of the Winter X Games, paled in comparison to the scope of the older demographic which is drawn to the spectacle of figure skating and ice dancing.

Who watches figure skating?

70% of women consider themselves figure skating fans

54% of the total population 12+ is interested in figure skating

68% are women age 2554

65% 1+ years in college

63% are in $50M+ income households

Figure skating fans are educated and affluent

Figure skating is the highest-ranked sport among the U.S. population 12+ in fan base

Women sports fans prefer to watch figure skating over college basketball, college football, tennis and the NHL

Figure skating is the most popular spectator sport among American women and their teenage daughters

I believe that the International Olympic Committee is grappling with the fundamental market appeal of the individual sports which comprise the Olympic stable and the popularity of figure skaing in the Winter Olympics is not lost on them, especially when compared to the meager gains garnered from the inclusion of more extreme sports in the Winter Olympics. Clearly, a comparable appeal to the "figure skating" demographic is lacking in the Summer Games, and while bikini-clad athletes do appeal to male viewers, those viewers are already in the fold.

DanceSport made it's Olympic demonstration debut at the Sydney Games but judging from the derision it attracted from the the NBC commentators it looks like there is a massive disconnect between, on the one hand, the American sports-commentating professionals, & diehard sports fans, and on the other, large segments of non-traditional Olympic audiences:

Ballroom dancing is a multi-billion dollar industry that's especially popular in Europe and Asia, where it's a well-established spectator sport. Japan alone has over 15 million ballroom dancing enthusiasts. In the United States, there are over 30,000 registered amateur ballroom dancers. PBS's annual telecast of Championship Ballroom Dancing attracts more than 10 million viewers.

Note that televised championships on PBS attract 10 million viewers which compares quite favorably to US Figure Skating rating of 3-16 million households.

Interestingly, the Anglo perspective on DanceSport doesn't seem to be held the world over, so the Olympic Committee will also have to account for varying international perspectives in addition to gender perspectives:

Amanda Smith: Well with that television coverage in other parts of the world, is it being presented as a sport by the TV sports department? I mean we've seen some ballroom dancing on the telly in Australia before, but it's been presented more as, I suppose, light entertainment than sport.

Tony Tilenni: I think you'll find it depends on the country. Some countries, a lot of the European countries, don't have a problem with dancesport at all being on the sports side, nothing at all. I suppose you'd argue that probably countries such as England, believe it or not, and America and Australia, are the ones who've got the biggest problem with dancesport, but we don't have the same problem with the majority of the European countries.

[ . . . . . ]

And I think I could safely say that, I think it was now about ten years ago, we had the University of Freiburg in Germany, do a study, and they compared our athletes to the world champion 400-metre runner. And they did all the usual tests in terms of sports medicine. They came to the conclusion that the dancers were at least as fit as the 400-metre world champion runner. They did this test over two minutes, and the runner was there for two minutes. Now the dancers do five dances of, say, a minute-and-a-half to two minutes each dance, one after another. They might do five or six rounds in a day. Now compare that to, say, Carl Lewis, who goes out for ten seconds on one day and then has a two day break. Now OK, the dynamism of that ten seconds is fantastic, but our couples, in terms of stamina, performance, athleticism, put in a hell of a lot more than probably quite a few other sports.

Of all of the candidate sports vying for Olympic recognition, DanceSport seems to be making the greatest inroads. In April, the Japanese DanceSport Federation received recognition from Japanese Olympic Committee and there is a comprehensive International Governing Body, the International DanceSport Federation, that is fully on-board with Olympic mandates (anti-doping) and 53 member countries are recognized by their domestic Olympic Committees.

Now, you may be asking what the heck all of this has to do with the topics on this blog. Well, other than serving as an excuse to post some pictures, I tend to look on the DanceSport Olympic ambitions as a fairly good proxy on the h-bd debate. There are a number of compelling reasons to include DanceSport in the Olympics, and while most DanceSport participants are strong advocates of such a position, and there is a wide spread appeal to a broad audience (silent consensus), those who most fervently support the Olympic Vision, the sports fans and especially the commentators, are most aghast at the suggestion that DanceSport is a sport to be included in the Olympics. Anyone else see any parallels?

Posted by TangoMan at 11:58 PM