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Gnash of the Titans

The Winter Olympics and America seem only to be fair weather friends . Underwhelming television ratings for the recently completed games in Turin indicate that the USA is only inclined to watch when their athletes are winning. Specifically, they watch when they expect to see certain athletes winning. Those would be the athletes who have been heavily hyped in the run-up to the Games.

Two examples of this point are skater Nancy Kwan and skiier Bode Miller. Both are definitely capable of winning any competition they enter. Both were considered favorites to earn medals in Turin. As a result, both experienced extensive publicity campaigns that were not of their own making. Both, however, failed to meet expectations; Kwan had to withdraw from her competition due to injury and Miller's medal chase went 0-for-5 in his events. NBC Sports, holder of the American broadcast rights, was left with a star-crossed presentation.

The spectre of total failure is not 'must see' TV. This is one of the primary differences between how the Olympics are perceived in the USA as opposed to the rest of the world. Perhaps it's a holdover from the Cold War, when the Soviets and Americans actually believed a superior medal count proved a superior socio-economic system. Even though the Soviet lie was ultimately proved via populism, it's possible the Americans never did change their mindset. Winning has an important place in life, not just in the USA, but everywhere. So does coping with loss.

That is not the key here. Neither is the fact that the American way is littered with overzealous win-at-all-cost Little League coaches, sports-meddling dads and stage moms. The important delineation of note is that, in the USA, it's vital as to who wins. Star power is amplified by the American media. This factor, for example, is what took the National Basketball Association from a sporting afterthought whose championship series was broadcast on a late-night tape-delay basis as recently as the late 1970s to a media spectacle in the early 1980s.

That's when the league decided to focus on two new talents, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, promoting them instead of their teams. It worked. It worked even better when Michael Jordan followed them.

Still, these are exceptional athletes who don't come around that often. When their careers are over, it's rare when another exceptional athlete is there to replace them. There is usually a cotillion of pretenders, but they prove to be just that. Ask the NBA. They've attempted to promote others, but the general public is wise enough to discern the difference between 'exceptional' and 'talented enough to be a professional.

' So, the focus on star power now has NBA ratings in decline. They've been hoisted on their own petard, so to speak. In the duration, though, other sports in the USA noted the NBA's initial success and attempted to emulate it by promoting star power of their own. The practice of putting a name forward became a foundation of almost every national publicity campaign for sporting endeavors. Logically, it was something to which the American sporting public became accustomed. In events such as the Olympics, where not every sport listed is a household thought in the USA, it's clear that NBC felt a strong need to insert star power.

Their secondary tactic was similar and successful to an extent in previous years, namely, focus on a human interest story to emotionally attach the viewer to a participant. Ultimately, though, there will be more regular-life athletes getting medals than those who overcame obstacles in their lives. Other countries --- even 'winter' nations such as Canada, Russia and the Scandinavians --- emphasize the competition over the competitors.

They appreciate the skill of the sport. Television ratings throughout Europe were excellent, with only the Germans amassing a large medal haul (they were the overall winners in that category, incidentally). They took note of stars, of course, but it mattered little that those stars were from other countries. They took serious pride in their own stars, of course, but recognized them as a part of a bigger picture rather than that picture serving as a backdrop for them.

It's not only a refreshing difference, but a logical one. Especially when a network needs to cover the rights fees being charged by the Olympic movement. NBC Sports has announced it will show a profit on its Turin package, most probably because much of the advertising was pre-sold with little provision for ratings-influenced price fluctuations. That tactic worked because of the American success in the previous Winter Games; coincidentally, they were held in Salt Lake City. It may not be so effective for their 2010 Winter Games package when the current ratings are pushed back in their face. The NBC coverage in Turin excellent from a presentation standpoint.

They used the cable networks in their stable --- CNBC, MSNBC and USA --- to great extent, so if one wanted to watch a particular event, odds were that it was being shown somewhere. The only drawback was, these events were not promoted nearly as well as the perceived 'star power' attractions. Only a devotee would seek the coverage.

That is not a strategy that optimizes strong viewership. The American media has conditioned its public to expecting charasmatic competition. The Olympic movement expects spirited competition. The American networks groan when smaller-market teams advance to a championship series; they'd prefer a New York - Los Angeles meeting any day. The Olympic movement rejoices when smaller-country teams achieve such a standing; Sweden-vs-Finland in the men's hockey final sent ratings through the roof in those countries, but it did well in most other nations, too, as the game itself was nothing short of spectacular in both drama and skill.

It's already clear that this era will be known in history as the CyberCentury. The world is more accessible to everyone more than ever before. It only makes sense that viewer interest can expand beyond the parameters of star power to the entire experience of a competition. Other countries' media have always known this.

Manchester United, for example, is still a major draw without David Beckham, and when he ultimately moves from Real Madrid, the same will be said again. When the American media re-discovers that it's the competition --- not just the star competitors --- that make sports attractive to viewers, the Winter Olympics will once again enjoy a resurgence of ratings popularity in the USA. Such a realization would be a welcome breath of fresh air, even during those winter days when you can see it. .

By: J Square Humboldt


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