NBC Record Ratings Prove Swimming's Viability
By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
This year’s Olympic Games, according to NBC, were the most watched event in U.S. TV history. Over 219 million people watched the Olympics, which is about 4 million more than the Beijing Olympics. Think about that. More than the Super Bowl. More than the Oscars. More than… anything.
Which makes me think… why can’t we keep these ratings going in non-Olympic years?
Swimming was by far the most-talked about thing on social media, which is indicative of people’s overall interest levels in swimming in particular. Michael Phelps, Missy Franklin, and Ryan Lochte all dominated Twitter and Facebook “talk meters.” Michael Phelps was trending virtually every night of the swimming competition. He now has 1.3 million Twitter followers, Lochte has over a million, and Franklin has nearly 340,000. To put Phelps’ followers in context, he has almost the same number of followers as J.K. Rowling of “Harry Potter” fame, and he has more followers than “The Today Show,” Michelle Obama, or Jerry Seinfeld.
Swimming also dominated the advertisements throughout the Olympics. Though the pre-Olympic swimming hype was significant (Lochte on “Vogue,” “Time,” and “Men’s Health,” Phelps everywhere, Coughlin on “SportsCenter”/Pantene) the number of swimming-themed advertisements during the Olympics was palpable. From the AT&T Ryan Lochte advertisements (“Luck didn’t get me to London… I swam here.”) to the Rebecca Soni Kellogg’s ad, to VISA’s congratulatory ads immediately after each athlete’s accomplishments, swimming dominated not just taped programming, but commercials.
The 2012 Olympics were a flurry of swimming ads, social media, programming, interviews and coverage -- and in an instant, it was over. That strikes me as the greatest paradox: How can the biggest TV event, the biggest social media event, and the biggest advertising event just go into “mainstream doldrums” the following years?
It can’t. Not this time.
Certainly, the Olympics are the pinnacle of sport. And the Olympics only happen every four years. But at the same time, I remember whispers when the suit bans were put in place. Some were worried that, without the influx of world records, mainstream media would stop paying attention to swimming. Fans wouldn’t care. Without world records, no one would pay attention to the sport anymore. Beijing was profound because a world record was broken almost every single race… But in London, without the 140 world records, would people pay attention?
Now, there are whispers about a sport without Phelps competing. Phelps has certainly paved the way for NBC live coverage of the Olympic Trials and huge ratings boosts. Phelps changed the sport in that way. He’s been the game changer, the transcendent personality swimming needed. Now, it’s up to us to keep it going. Athletes like Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin, with huge amounts of popularity, will certainly keep it going. But other personalities, like Nathan Adrian, Rebecca Soni and Matt Grevers, should keep the interest going, too. These athletes are becoming media moguls in their own right.
So many lament the “A.P.” era of swimming – the era “After Phelps.” Some think the sport will just not have the same allure it had before. These concerns are legitimate. He is the most popular athlete in the world, and he is the greatest Olympian of all-time. And now he is retiring.
But Phelps proved that swimming – as a sport – is a marketable enterprise. The fact that Ryan Lochte has nearly as many Twitter followers as Phelps proves that interest is there, not just in the personalities, but in the sport as a whole. Lochte in particular has asserted himself as a social media guru, holding contests via his Twitter page, promising to fly out a “random follower” for a lunch and photos, and randomly calling fans. He and his team (Wright Productions) have proven that social media creativity could be the way swimming stays relevant in non-Olympic years by creating their own platform to interact with fans – regardless of which meet is on the horizon.
Time will tell if the swim-mania from London will carry over. But this is an exciting time for the sport. Swimming was instrumental in the highest-rated U.S. TV event in history. The 2012 Olympic Trials were the highest rated Trials of any sport since 2000. And fans are craving swimming like never before.
Like Phelps quoted Dr. Seuss before his last race, “Don’t cry because it’s over, but smile because it happened.” The future is bright for swimming’s popularity. Just like Phelps’s 22 Olympic medals prove he’s the greatest Olympian ever, the ratings numbers prove people (more than ever) are invested and interested in Olympic sports. Numbers are proving the interest is there – something we die-hard swim fans have known for a while.
The only question is: Are mainstream sports media outlets paying attention? Maybe, going forward, swimming and Olympic sports won’t be relegated to the hidden, deepest darkest corners of sports websites, and instead, be featured like it should be, 365 days a year.
Mike Gustafson (@MikeLGustafson) is a freelance writer for USASwimming.org and Splash Magazine.