NBC paid a pretty penny for television and digital rights to the Olympics until 2032. Paying $7.65 billion for 16 days of programming every two years is a lot of money. The theory is that there are only so many marquee global sporting events and the Olympics is probably at the top. The events will capture the attention of the nation and be well worth the investment. The problem is that as doping seems to become more prolific — with Russia essentially running a doping program at a national level — bans and bad news could effect the television ratings this year and beyond.
For fans, the Olympics is about national pride and supporting their country. That makes sense but it also about riveting television and competition. That competition is watered down if one of the largest and most competitive countries — Russia — in the world is banned from the games — as some people are calling for. It’s always better for the drama and television ratings to have a rival that can actually compete rather than a coronation for 16 days.
Banning countries also is a slippery slope. If systemic cheating is found at a high level for the United States — not at the government level, but at the team level — what happens then? Ban the U.S. from the games when the games biggest TV partner is giving $7.65 billion? That would absolutely crush NBC. What happens if China or other large competitive countries are found guilty of doping along with Russia? Banning those countries would essentially lead to the U.S. against smaller countries in the medal count. It won’t be that riveting.
The other issue that needs to be weighed in all of this is the faith of the fans. Fans are less likely to tune in if they are constantly assuming that players are doping to gain an unfair advantage. There’s no reason to watch if fans know who will win because of that unfair advantage.
It’s a balancing act and the only loser right now is NBC. As the Olympics get closer, the IOC and its partners will have to work to make sure that all parties’ investment in the games is worthwhile. That seems close to impossible right now.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.