Friday, August 19, 2016

Why NBC Needs to Do Better

NBC's monopoly over the broadcasting rights dates back to 1988, and have had the privilege to exclusively air the Games since the beginning of the millennium, and will continue to do so until 2032.  While this might not be an issue for sports like swimming, that has every single qualifying heat, semifinal, and final broadcast live, some of the most popular sports of the Games do not get half that treatment.  It is not secret that gymnastics is one of the most popular sports in the Olympics, those that excel become over night sensations.  If this is the case and gymnastics does pull in some of the best ratings, why is it given such lackluster coverage?

Last week, the United State's "Final Five" won the team competition by a margin of over eight points, an unheard of margin.  Simone Biles, Gabrielle Douglas, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, and Aly Raisman followed in the footsteps of 1996's Magnificent Seven and 2012's Fierce Five to be the third American Team in history to win gold.  This team is already going down in history, and still has four more days of competition ahead of them.

If this team is so historic, then why is it given such a second class treatment by the broadcasting team at NBC.  None of the gymnastics competitions are broadcast live on television; fans who want to see the action unfold have to find a live stream online or on the NBC Sports App.  Every competition in Rio is tape delayed during Primetime, and to an average fan that should not be a problem.  Who could blame NBC for wanting to have one of the most popular sports to be shown when the most people are watching? 

The problem lies when gymnastics is shown on Primetime.  The coverage is fragmented, with fans seeing a routine or two, then being bombarded with ads.  This procedure is repeated two or three more times until NBC cuts away to another sport.  The coverage of last night's historic competition did not wrap up until 11:45 EST, and even then, viewers were not shown routines of every country in the final.  The teams competing were the eight best teams in the world, yet NBC showed only five of these teams.  Of those five, two teams had just one routine shown on television.  

The coverage is worse for the men, who have not had the same international success that the U.S. women have had.  After not broadcasting the men's team final live with the promise of showing it on Primetime, NBC did not begin showing footage of the men's team final until 11:45 EST, and then paused coverage because of time constraints.  If you wanted to watch the conclusion of the event, you had to wait until 12:30 EST.  

The Olympics are supposed to encourage the spread of the sport, but how are you supposed to increase interest for the future if the next generation is asleep by the time it comes on television?  As a recreational gymnastics coach, I was so excited to talk to my young gymnasts about the Olympics and spread my love of the sport.  But when I asked my gymnasts, aged seven to eleven, if they were enjoying watching their sport at the Olympics, they all said they were not allowed to watch it because it was on too late.  

How are the next generation of Olympic superstars supposed to be inspired to chase their dreams when they are not able to stay awake long enough to witness the history being made?  Imagine if Tom Brady was not able to stay awake late enough to watch the Super Bowl.  Would he have been inspired to play football?  Probably not.  He would not see the hard work pay off, probably become dejected, and most likely would have left the sport.  The reality is that representation matters.  How are young gymnasts supposed to dream big when they do not even know what they are dreaming of?  

When gymnastics does get coverage on NBC, viewers listen to the commentary of 1984 Olympic Champion Tim Daggett, 2008 Olympic Champion Nastia Liukin, and Al Trautwig.  While two members of this trio do not lack accolades, they do not always share their knowledge in a beneficial way.  Reeves Wiedeman from the New Yorker recently shared his thoughts on the idea of "dumbing down" the commentary to the average viewer, "every bit I've learned has made the sport wildly more
interesting to watch..."

Not only do the commentators fail to explain what the viewers are watching, they are incredibly problematic.  Al Trautwig recently was the focus of a controversy when he proclaimed that Simone Biles’ mom and dad were not her parents because they adopted Biles at age six.  Never mind the fact that these Tweets are extremely insulting to adoptive children and families everywhere, but they also came in the middle of the Olympic Games.  This is incredibly distracting to Biles in the middle of the most important meet of her life, and lead to her coach defending her on twitter, a day before the Olympic Team Final. 

In addition to taking it upon himself to define Biles’ home life, Trautwig had issues with some fans of the sport.  He told one fan “listen beech”, while also insulting the class and intelligence of others.  Is this the man that NBC wants to be the voice of the sport?  When the commentators insult fans of the sport and the best gymnast in the sport, casual fans turn away.

It is time for NBC to fix their coverage of one of the most popular sports of the Games, or it is time to step down completely.  The sport, the athletes, and the fans deserve better.  How is a sport supposed to grow if the pinnacle of the sport does not get coverage?  NBC would not dare to give swimming, track and field, or any other professional sport the same treatment it gives gymnastics, so why is it okay for our sport to get second tier treatment?  

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