Thanks for the Money, NBC

You'd hardly know it from NBC's rah-rah coverage of American victories in these Olympics, but China has begun to lap us in the gold-medal count. It could even win the overall medal tally by the time the Beijing Games conclude next Sunday. This has already inspired some hand-wringing on this side of the Pacific and will likely inspire more once the cold medal reality sets in.

Can we possibly compete against China's state-planned, state-subsidized athletic juggernaut?

The answer, of course, is of course. In fact, we'd better, if only for the long-term financial health of the Olympics.

Oddly enough, the single most important element in American athletes continued competitiveness is NBC. I'd argue that it's also among the most important factors in the success of the Olympics, too.

NBC, after all, supplies the two things American athletes and the Olympics themselves can't live without: Money and American television exposure.

About 60 percent of the International Olympic Committee's entire global TV income comes from the U.S., specifically from NBC. The network paid $894 million for the rights to the Beijing Games, and an astounding $2.3 billion for the rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2012 Summer Games in London. The IOC needs NBC every bit as much as NBC needs the IOC.

NBC also just happens to be the biggest single underwriter of American Olympians, at least indirectly. Under terms of its contract with the IOC, the network sends a big chunk of change -- somewhere around $300 million -- to the U.S. Olympic Committee. That's a huge windfall for America's Team, and doesn't even count the lucrative sponsorship deals that the various committees pull in ("Official Waterpik of the U.S. Olympic Skeet-Shooting Team," etc.). The USOC redirects this money to all the sub-federations (track, swimming, judo, whatever) that bankroll training, travel, facilities and research for our would-be medal winners.

This money blizzard wouldn't be possible if Americans were doing as poorly as, say, India (one medal so far) at the Olympics. The system only works as long as we keep piling up medals.

Why? Simply because Americans don't like watching losers. American victories in swimming, gymnastics and track -- the three biggest Summer Olympic events in the U.S., judging by TV ratings -- are critical to NBC's ratings success, which means they're also critical to the Olympics' financial well being. Fewer American medal winners mean fewer American TV viewers. Fewer American viewers mean fewer American advertisers. Fewer advertisers and NBC isn't handing $2.3 billion checks to the IOC.

Conversely, when Michael Phelps, Nastia Liukin, et al, win, everyone wins -- viewers, advertisers, NBC, the IOC.

NBC makes another valuable contribution to America's medal count, although one that's a bit harder to quantify. By promoting, packaging, and airing the Olympics in primetime every night, NBC creates enormous interest in the Games among young Americans. This all but ensures the flow of future Phelpses and Liukins.

How many little kids will take up the butterfly or jump on a balance beam now because they want to be just like Mike or Nastia? Remember that the U.S. was a second-rate gymnastics power when Olga Korbut and Nadia Comaneci wowed the world (and sent ABC's Olympic ratings into the stratosphere) in the 1970s. Inspired by those Soviet bloc pixies, American kids flocked to the gym. American gymnastics teams now regularly contend for medals.

All of which is why I don't think we have to worry too much about the Chinese coming to eat our lunch. U.S. Olympic development programs now have more money than ever before. Our athletes also have plenty of incentives -- money, fame, glory -- to do as well as the Chinese. You can't guarantee gold medals, but our decentralized, private-sector approach to developing champions seems perfectly capable of keeping up with anyone in the world.

So, bring on the new Big Red Machine. We'll very likely respond as we always have -- by figuring out how to run and swim faster or jump higher.

The only thing the USOC and the IOC really have to fear is that Americans will stop watching the Olympics.

Please, Mr. Nielsen, don't fail us now.

By Paul Farhi  |  August 18, 2008; 2:05 AM ET
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A poorly written, One-Eyed, American central view.

Posted by: WhatNot | August 18, 2008 4:19 AM

Paul, you know what's the real good point of Chinese sports system? It's reforming itself with a very practical view of point. It's already trying out "decentralized, private-sector approach" in some sports fields. Some of them work pretty well, for example, in basketball; some don't, for example, in soccer. These lessons are all learned and more reforms are spreading into other sectors.

China is so complicated, so is its sports system. It's just sad to see how you jump on the conclusion without real investigation or knowledge. So where are your objectivess and jounalism?

Posted by: Chinese Translator | August 18, 2008 4:59 AM

And will one day CCTV of China, or al-Jazeera, or an Indian TV channel, pay as much as NBC, or even more money, to IOC? Is it really nightmares for US or IOC? By then, will US government use tax-payer money to directly invest on olympics sports teams?

Posted by: Chinese Translator | August 18, 2008 5:06 AM

If you take a close look at the "rush" of Red for gold, you will see most of the Chinese gold medals come from the..."judgement" sports...diving, gymnastics...TRAMPOLINE! It's not that they have better programming in China, because they don't run, swim, cycle faster...they know how to dominate the sports where a panel of judges makes the final decision.

Posted by: Paul | August 18, 2008 6:06 AM

Interesting take on the 'economics' of the Olympics. Statistically, if it was a level playing field, one would expect China to do well, but as you allude to other populous countries like India there needs to be financial support backing up these olympians.
The irony of course of this is that Americans are watching more TV than most and increasingly participating less in sports, partly becuase of the 'economics' of running an educational system. The restricted funding to the secondary educational system in the US over the last two decades has adversely affected the health of the nation ( read Fast Food Nation as an eye opener on government policy). In some countries participation is sport is seen as a way out of poverty. As long as the US college system remains strong the US as a nation won't slip down that slippery slope.

Posted by: md | August 18, 2008 6:17 AM

If, as you said a few columns ago, women are the target audience of primetime coverage, then can you explain the utter lack of coverage of the women's basketball team? They are shown (I suppose it's live) in the mornings and not even mentioned in the prime time coverage. I know they are blowing everyone out, but do Sylvia and Candace have to dunk to get some attention?

Posted by: dynagirl | August 18, 2008 6:56 AM

Sorry. I didnt fully understand the logic that - since NBC bought the TV rights of Olympics for as much as it is, it is doing a great favour to the american sports in general!!! If they didnt, someone else would have. Its not as if they paid it for charity!!

Posted by: Joe | August 18, 2008 6:56 AM

Don't forget, as host nation, China has the right to qualify a team for every sport. Let's wait to see if their gold haul continues when the Olympics moves off China's soil.

Posted by: JL | August 18, 2008 7:41 AM

Is it fair to say that this has been a disastrous Olympics for the US? If you take the Phelps golds out the US are down to 3rd place, behind Great Britain. And what about the events that the US usually own, the 100m? Soundly beaten in both men's and women's.

Posted by: JC | August 18, 2008 7:47 AM

True that if American don't do well, not many Americans will watch, but there are still many other people in the world that will watch beside Americans even though they know they won't be on the top of medal table.

You just expose how fragile America's ego is if they cannot be on top in either Gold or Total Medals.

Posted by: Peter | August 18, 2008 8:57 AM

Joe: NBC's hardly looking to do any favors for anyone other than NBC. It is, of course, self-interested, as ANY American television network would be/has been in bidding for Olympic TV rights. But the fact remains that NBC/GE's money ultimately supports the development of American Olympians. It's at the heart of our system, for better or worse. And on the face of it, I'd say it's for the better.

Posted by: Paul Farhi | August 18, 2008 9:04 AM

Many have missed the most important purpose of the Olympics - building bridges between countries, not winning metals or money.

When we understand each other better, we will reduce conflicts and have a better world. I applaud the Chinese on how they welcome the rest of the world.

In addition, I cheer for smaller countries to get their first gold like Mongolia.

Posted by: TonyP4 | August 18, 2008 9:45 AM


Posted by: sdfsdfdf | August 18, 2008 9:51 AM

I don't think you give us Americans quite enough credit when you state that we "don't like watching losers". Presumably, you mean that we don't like watching Americans lose, yet you quickly point to the inspiration of so many future young athletes by Nadia Comaneci and Olga Korbut. Last I checked, neither were American, yet we watched them and countless other foreign athletes in droves.

By and large, I think the vast majority of Americans, and everyone else in the world, enjoy watching, and are inspired by, talent. Talent regardless of the uniform it's wearing. That's why "the system" is successful and will continue to work.

By and large, the only place we will find anyone bemoaning the lack of American medals will be here, in the media.

Posted by: Dave | August 18, 2008 10:07 AM

shameful, one-sided, and plain useless article. You start off complaining about China's state-planned, state-funded athletic juggernaut, and then detail how the U.S. is the same. American sports have always been political buddy, this article really makes no sense.

Posted by: nameless | August 18, 2008 10:39 AM

Of course, no one likes to see "their team" lose. But many of these athletes have lost with such good grace and humility (did Dara Torres and the US coaches put in a protest when she lost by .01 second? No. Did Tyson Gay blame anyone but himself when he didn't qualify? Nope. Did Nastia Luikin lay her Uneven Bars medal down on the gym floor out of a judging protest? No.), they are proving that the US doesn't just produce excellent athletes, they produce athletes with excellent sportsmanship. Better example than Gold medals any day, as far as I'm concerned.

But I would like to see NBC gone from the Olympics. If this board is any indication, we just want to see the sports. Uninterrupted by bad commentary or twenty billion commercial breaks (would it have KILLED NBC to not have two commercial breaks during the Men's 1500 meter freestyle swimming competition) or the atrocious "Chevy Gold Medal Moments."

That NBC holds dramatic sports events hostage for a sponsor (like the men's and women's 100m sprints in Track)? I'm disgusted. And if they love their "back stories" so much, why don't they just create yet another cable/satellite channel that runs nothing but "personal stories" 24x7. That way those who want to know that X athlete has a tragedy (and a dog) can go watch that, instead of the athlete actually performing.

Some other network, please god, out bid NBC for the Olympics beyond London, and then just saturate the air waves with actual sports coverage.

Posted by: Chasmosaur | August 18, 2008 10:52 AM

Frankly, I'm not too happy with the coverage from NBC. Apparently, because of their financial standing they were able to highly influence the Olympic broadcast schedule to fit American PrimeTime.

I'm not sure about the east coast, but here in on the West Coast, most of the gold-metal winning coverage has been at 10-11pm at night. While this may be Nielsen Primetime for 18-45 year-old males, this is not prime time for aspiring "young americans" like my 7-year old, who is already 4 years behind in his training by some people's standards. In fact, the best time to show this stuff is during the day, when these young americans are actually awake. This is when my son watches, thanks to TiVo.

Don't get me wrong. I know why the olympics are on at 10 at night. This is when the highly coveted Nielsen watcher has his set on, or at the bar watching another TV set. Just look at the commercials -- Not only to they get to watch some gold-medal coverage, they get to watch a clydesdale do a high five with a dalmatian. They also get the friendly reminder to get their new wireless toy via ATT and pay for it using VISA.

So, Mr. Farhi, don't pander me with the "it's also for the kids" argument. It's all for the money, period.

Posted by: WestCoastViewer | August 18, 2008 11:37 AM

The only complaint is most events are not live. I know most results from the net and it takes out some of the excitement. Even if I did not, I can sense who is winning from the commentators who knew the result already, so s/he is always right with his/her 'insider knowledge'.

Well, unless 'one world, one time zone', there is no better solution as the advertisers want the biggest bang of the dollar.

Again thanks the Chinese for showing how they welcome the world.

Posted by: TonyP4 | August 18, 2008 11:51 AM

After reading several comments, I can tell you Chinese's success in sports is the same as their outstanding economy: they do not have the same talents/resources, they have to work very hard and they succeed (compared to China 30 years ago).

While American kids are busy with the video games (and getting fat with fast food), Chinese kids are busy studying. I just hate the Chinese bashers who find anything to bash even for a sports event.

Hope the ugly Americans is a minority.

Posted by: TonyP4 | August 18, 2008 12:00 PM

"While American kids are busy with the video games (and getting fat with fast food), Chinese kids are busy studying. "

You haven't been to China lately, have you? The kids there play video games like crazy, including cracked PS3 and other console games not available to American kids on their PCs.

Posted by: Anonymous | August 18, 2008 1:05 PM

USA will be no match to China.

Consider China as an USSR with 1.3 Billion ppl. And worse yet, this nation has severe built-in bitterness, its people think that by getting the most gold medals (it's always counting on TV lol), the nation can be redeemed out of the beatings/inferiority of the past.

The purpose Olympic for China has never been about "Olympic spirit". Externally, it tries to impress the west by cleaning up the beggars and migrants from the streets, selecting the prettiest girls from all over the country to present the show, building walls to hide old buildings.. etc..

Internally, it tries to justify its own existence by getting the west's recognition. And with China censorship, the people are more likely to see news like IOC members kissing China's ass than fake lip-syncing (to this day, there are still mainland Chinese who are so sure that this piece of news is fake, made up by the west lol).

They have already expand to other sports like rowing and trampoline, what's next? Meanwhile, in USA, who is gonna pay to see a weightlifting match ? And how many kids aspire to become a weightlifting athlete?

Posted by: China Insider | August 18, 2008 1:15 PM

I'm trying to find out more about the episode where a Chinese athelete fell while doing a vault and still managed to come away with a medal (gold?). That seems to be the buzz here at the office...

Posted by: Travis | August 18, 2008 1:43 PM

Even the videos are interrupted by commercials. I've written both NBC and ATT. I had missed the Medal Ceremony for the Womens Gymnastics All Around. I went to NBC Olympics to watch it. It had 2 ATT wireless commercials in the video. Not before, Not After, but in the video itself. One came at the end of the National Anthem no less. INEXCUSABLE!

Posted by: CALSGR8 | August 18, 2008 2:00 PM

To paraphrase: judging by the ratings, gymnastics, track, and swimming are the most popular? Maybe that's because those, plus an astounding amount of volleyball (beach and team), are ALL THAT IS ON?!? Is it that hard to see how self-fulfilling that bit of tripe is? I'd love to see and learn more about all the other sports out there, many of which the US is doing very well in (fencing, for one) but a complete lack of coverage and an even more complete lack of intelligent announcers make that all but impossible. While not as bad as the pre-packaged "highlights" garbage we were subjected to in previous Olympics, NBC's coverage has been, in my opinion (supported by most people I've talked to) has been poor at best.

Posted by: DaveG | August 18, 2008 4:10 PM

What i want to know is whatever happened to the rest of the diving events. It seems like when the americans started loosing NBC just stoped airing the events completly. I love diving and just like the next guy would love to see Thomas and David win, they didnt. That dosent mean that i dont want want to diving anymore.

Posted by: Wendyl | August 18, 2008 5:28 PM

Relax. China will have more golds and possibly more medals this olympics. Partly for being the host country. But this kind of performance elevates the games. It fosters competition. What's interesting about watching the US kick everyone's but every year? Having a year when we are not number 1 will only lead to a drive towards reversing that trend, and elevating the competion. Basketball is a great example of this. The dream team was awesome. But would it be interesting to watch olympics basketball if we had an unbroken streak of beating every team by 30 points? The game changed, the international competition improved, and the popularity of the sport has skyrocketed. That's good for basketball.

Posted by: Cliff | August 18, 2008 11:45 PM

Some interesting comments posted. The coverage you guys are getting seems to compare very badly to the UK, where we have six dedicated BBC digital channels, plus frequent terrestrial coverage, plus extensive on-line views, unbroken by a single advert, and all included as part of a similar year-round service we enjoy for $22 per household per month.

I confess, one of the reasons I've been following these Olympics closer than any others and supporting China as if it were my own country, is the immense kick out of seeing the US ego being brought down to size; in the case of such US Americans as some of the contributors above, who consider Chinese people to live in an inferior political and social system.

But at the same time, I've been impressed by some pretty astute assessments among the comment-ers. It would be unbelievably cool to see what US Americans could achieve by transitioning from the TV couch to the sports field, and following China's example; rather than implicitly accusing them of cheating or having an unfair advantage in a dozen different ways.

Posted by: Andi Ye | August 19, 2008 5:25 PM

If I understand an undercurrent of these comments well, the purpose of the Olympics for China has never been about Olympic Spirit; they bribe judges, such success as they've had is largely attributable to advantages of being the host nation, and anyway their effort is just a stunt to try and impress us in the West. Charming!

But in the gymnastics, I noticed that the Chinese athletes were always the first to shake the hand of their competitor immediately after their performance, and the genuine smiles of respect were obvious after they'd witnessed an excellent performance. It moved me very much. The strange thing is, I never saw an American athlete behave in similar fashion. This speaks volumes to me, and I ask myself "Is it 'simply because Americans don't like watching losers', or is it that Americans don't like watching winners?"

Posted by: Jean Williams | August 20, 2008 3:48 AM

Hmm, I just looked-up about the host nation being allowed automatic entry into every event.

It seems that this is one of two exceptions to the quota of athletes entering the Olympics. Interestingly enough, the other exception is that the USA is allowed to enter their athletes in all events with no overall USOC quota.

So how is that fair? It sounds like the system is rigged towards the USA? Is that because of NBC money as well? It's certainly not because the USA is more populous than other countries, as India has nearly 4 times the population and China has more than 4 times the population.

Posted by: Lisa Ellerby | August 20, 2008 6:06 AM

Just for anybody who's interested: at this moment:

China have 45 Gold medals, 79 total medals
USA have 26 Gold medals, 81 total medals

China entered 579 athletes
USA entered 646 athletes

So far from flooding the Olympics by using their "hosting nation" privilege, if we compare the success per athlete, China does better by an even greater degree:

7.77% of Chinese athletes got a Gold medal
4.89% of USA athletes got a Gold medal

13.64% of Chinese athletes got any medal
11.31% of USA athletes got any medal

Posted by: Liser Ellerby | August 20, 2008 11:24 AM

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