“The Rio Olympics was a digital sport failure.” Discuss

The title of this article is a parody of the exam questions you used to answer in England as a 16-year-old. Having neatly placed an array of freshly-purchased stationery and furry, luck-inducing items on your desk, you would scribble down the main points on both sides of the argument. Then conclude with (a nice, neat bow) your own assessment.

If you possessed a decent memory and the ability to write a semi-coherent sentence then you’d probably scramble enough marks to pass.

Sorry but this essay just is not going to be that simple. The winners and losers in the Rio Olympics were clear on the track, less so on the screens.

Most of us in digital sport waited for the Games with unbridled anticipation. This was the greatest show on earth and so much had developed since London in 2012.  Social media platforms, consumers, brands and TV companies had all changed their approach. Even rule 40 had loosened just a little. 

The picture is about as clear as an Olympic diving pool

However, now the athletes have long since departed from Rio, it seems this giant digital leap forward stumbled on the runway and landed in a messy heap in the sand. 

Of course, there was progress. Certainly this seemed to be a pivotal Olympics in terms of the way video was consumed. NBC figures suggest more US content was streamed than in all of the previous Olympics put together - around 100m uniques watched this way. However, on traditional TV, it was the lowest rated viewed games since NBC took over coverage in 1988. Obviously these are skewed figures given the availability of such technology in the past four years, but the trend is obvious.

And then there was the thorny issue of who, exactly, was watching.

NBC saw its Millennial audience down by 30 per cent in comparison to London. In part, this may be down to the lack of streaming options not tied to subscriptions, a gap that will be surely closed next time. But it may not be the only reason.

Reportedly, the IOC has long been concerned about the aging nature of its audience. Hence the introduction of new, youth-orientated sports to the roster and, in Rio, NBC’s investment in digital influencers. 

But, if that is an established aim, why implement a strict ban on GIFs and vines? The demographic most turned on by snowboarding and BMX will want to share mash-up videos, memes and generally riff on the content.

This is a fundamental shift rights holders need to make. Buying the rights no longer means you own all the content – especially the parts people will really want to share.

Digital content can be a new and viable legacy for the modern Games. The IOC recognize this and, it is safe to say, their new dedicated Channel will be high quality, entertaining and utterly worthy. But it will always be a step behind the creativity of similar YouTube clips or social media gifs.

They have precious few restrictions – rights, partners, editorial guidelines, quality control and work load.  

Liberty and creativity have always gone hand-in-hand.

And, of course, such content can create demand for traditional TV coverage rather than damage it as right-holders fear.

Content is the long-tail of any sporting event these days. After the open-mouthed awe of achievement has passed, someone somewhere will create an impact with the content in a poignant, political and just plain funny way. 

AND, BY THE WAY, THIS IS A GOOD THING.

The best example during Rio was Ellen DeGeneres photoshopping herself on the back of a smiling Usain Bolt as he sprinted clear of his opponents. For me, that image, the Simone Biles/Zac Efron love-in plus the before-and-after of Michael Phelps and Joseph Schooling, were the most impactful social media memes of the games. 

It has been suggested that the Millennials’ viewing patterns are a sign of indifference. The argument goes that they are just not attached to traditional sport in the same way as their predecessors. Why then, were almost two-thirds of Olympics-related videos on Facebook viewed by 18-35 year-olds during the two weeks of the Games?

Meanwhile, roughly 1/3 of Snapchat daily global audience of 150m tuned into content in the first week. One of many solid successes

But, ironically, this success was partly thanks to a pre-event deal with NBC, a traditional broadcaster. 

For me the argument does not stack up. The Millennials were there, just not where you wanted them to be. 

So the picture is about as clear as an Olympic diving pool. 

Even the success of the streaming statistics are somewhat undermined by the fact that the vast majority were via catch-up, live streaming barely moved. Was this down to the NBC decision to timeshift so much coverage? Meanwhile the much-sought after Millennials, and their advertising potential, are becoming no easier hard to pigeon-hole. 

Until the IOC understand that the Games’ legacy is also made up of the things they can’t control the Olympics might be in danger of aging itself out of relevance

That is why a neatly-pressed, buttoned-up conclusion will not round-off this piece. 

It must be noted that NBC’s advertising revenue was up, significantly. However the confusion of traditional broadcasters and fragmentation of the audience should put further pressure on decision-makers to alter their approach. The Rio games illustrate once more than the emerging audience for sport on digital, social and TV is fundamentally different from those that have gone before.

Give them what they want, when they want it, how they want it and, above all, let them have fun with it.

It is a battle between being played out in numerous, if not most, sports these days but, as ever, the Olympics is different. The stakes are so much higher. It is a movement not a sport and, as such, taps into a higher purpose for all of us.

As, Clio Chang in the New Republic put it: “until the IOC and NBC understand that the Games’ legacy is also made up of the things they can’t control—the tremor of Muhammad Ali’s hand, fists clenched in a black power salute, even Laurie Hernandez’s wink before her floor routine—the Olympics might be in danger of aging itself out of relevance. 

“If that happens, they will only have themselves to blame.”

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