After a hesitant start, the Dutch team is still on track to win a record number of medals. What else happened at the Tokyo Olympics, which have now entered their second and final week? There was the saga surrounding Simone Biles, who chose her mental health over six gold medal chances. You had the story of the two athlete friends who decided to share their high jump gold medal together after they were both stranded at the same height. And the unexpected heir to the throne of Husain Bolt also managed to attract the necessary attention.
Those are the Games issues that every news follower and sports adept used to get. But for the glutton, or for lovers of a specific discipline with fewer Dutch people in the field, these Games had to search for images and information. Because the NOS no longer has all the rights, the broadcaster can no longer broadcast everything simultaneously via streams, as was the case with previous editions of the Games.
Sports economist Daam van Reeth, professor at the Catholic University in Leuven, also had to search, even though he is an above-average sports viewer. Professionally, he is interested in how people watch sports. For example, do men mainly look at male athletes? And is the compensation that female athletes receive in proportion to the attention that viewers have for them?
Are these the Games where the streams win over linear TV?
“No, certainly not. Eurosport has a player somewhere on the site, which is also offered under the name Discovery+. If you take out a subscription, you can watch almost all sports live. But to my surprise, in the run-up to the Games, that station gave little publicity to it. And so some sports are viewed very little, although the time difference – Tokyo is seven hours ahead of the Netherlands – will also play a role in this. Quite painful when you consider that for some athletes it is the only chance of exposure in four years.”
He is still waiting for final streaming figures from Eurosport, but as an avid cycling viewer he has already noticed that online streaming can lead to a dramatic drop in viewing figures. „At a race like Milan – San Remo you can easily watch one million viewers in my home country of Belgium. But in the Eurosport Player there were only 20,000, while many enthusiasts would have liked to see it.”
Streaming figures of sports matches are systematically overestimated, Van Reeth calculates. “On social media it can seem like everyone is streaming, but these are usually people who have a stream on in the background while working. Not everyone can afford that. TV viewers are relatively old, they do not always know how to find those streams.”
Are new sports like surfing, skateboarding and shorter game variants like 3×3 Basketball and the Rugby Sevens appealing to new audiences?
“Judging by the buzz around these new sports, I think so, but comparing is difficult because the Games take place in a different time zone every four years. But whether people – young or old, male or female – look at something ultimately depends mainly on national medal chances. That is and will remain the main reason for tuning in to the Games for the time being.”
What is striking about these innovations is that they mainly concern American sports. Are traditional sports from other parts of the world not even due?
“American channels still contribute by far the most television money to the Games. And American culture has been dominant since the 1950s, especially among young people.”
But shouldn’t the IOC protect sports that are less popular in the West against the logic of TV rights? A sport like cricket is embraced by millions of Indians and Pakistanis.
“The IOC is different from a Unesco World Heritage organization, isn’t it. It is an organization that organizes sporting events. This does not mean that they do not fulfill a social role, but I rather see them around issues such as gender and climate. About the latter: you may wonder whether it is such a good idea to move thousands of athletes and coaches and a multitude of visitors around the world? I think it’s an interesting idea to build permanent Olympic facilities on three continents and then rotate them. At least then you don’t have to build all those stadiums for the occasion.”
You are specialized in viewing behavior and gender equality. How are these Games doing in that area?
“Due to the time difference, that is also difficult to say, because it is difficult to compare with previous editions. But what always stands out in my research: if women’s sports are offered at the same, often favorable time as men’s sports, the differences in viewing figures and appreciation virtually disappear. In 2012, Dutch viewers even gave women’s sports a significantly higher rating (8.27 against 7.43), while a third fewer female athletes were in the picture. I therefore plead for a better distribution of the best TV slots between the sexes. Why, for example, does the Tour de France for women start at eight in the morning and are the Grand Slam finals in tennis for the women on Saturday and for the men on Sunday – much more favorable for TV viewers?”
And do we mainly look at sporting peers?
“Men and women mainly look at people who are considered beautiful according to the prevailing ideal of beauty, according to my research. That gives a strong physical component like shot put a significant disadvantage, while sports with good-looking people, whether they are male or female, do better on average. That will never change.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of August 3, 2021