Big media and corporate sponsorship of sporting events in the United States have become as big a story these days as the sports and athletes they themselves sponsor, with nary an opportunity missed by advertisers and networks alike to promote themselves. Whether it is the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the National Collegiate Athletics Association, or the United States Olympics teams, the broadcasting rights and contracts and their respective advertising dollars rule. But unfortunately, how individual sports and their respective athletes are treated by such entities varies, and especially if the athlete is on the U.S. Winter Olympics team.
There are a bevy of ironies which most sports fans are aware of when it comes to “non-professional” athletes and teams. For starters, the Winter Olympics is not given the gravitas that the Summer Olympic Games enjoy every four years. In fact, most American spectator-sports fans are hardly cognizant that the 2006 Winter Olympics’ Opening Ceremonies are set for February 10, 2006 in Torino, Italy, a mere five days following the NFL’s Super Bowl XL.
These days the Super Bowl trumps all other sports for television viewership in the U.S., although not historically. And we cannot blame the failure of promoting the Winter Olympics and its respective sports on the success of the NFL. However, we can be critical of the non-existent coverage, for example, of World Cup skiing since the 2002 Winter Olympics, and arguably the most broadly appealing event of the Winter Games, as a truly competitive sport, maybe with the exception of ice hockey. After all, people in the U.S. do ski. And even though figure skating is a big draw, we all know that it is more a presentation that an athletic competition. And how many of us go on curling vacations?
Years ago, the World Championships for skiing were featured on broadcast television, namely on ABC Sports. Nowadays, sports fans are lucky if they happen to catch it on the obscure cable television network, Outdoor Life, which on occasion and inconsistently provides taped coverage of the U.S. Ski Team, usually a week to ten days even after the event has taken place. What a great way to promote interest!
Then, we have the hypocrisy of the U.S. Olympic Ski Team and the United States Olympics Committee which wants to have it both ways. They need the television coverage and sponsors and expect their athletes to tow the party line in being “part of the team.” However, virtually almost all the Olympic athletes compete as individuals.
There is also the rub that the American people do not have the appetite for winter sports. But with little exposure but every four years but for two weeks of coverage, you cannot blame the fans. On top of that the USOC expects the U.S. Olympic team to display exceptional behavior above and beyond those in the professional sports community, since its athletes represent the U.S. on the world’s stage. Others argue that an Olympian should not be treated any differently than say U.S. tennis champion, Andy Roddick, who competes for the World Tennis Association or even golfer, Tiger Woods, when competing in Professional Golfers Association events.
That brings us to the latest media frenzy regarding 2005 World Cup Skiing Champion, Bode Miller. For those of us who have more than a five-minute memory, you may recall that Miller won two silver medals during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, UT. In fact, television ratings and American awareness of the Winter Olympics are said to have surpassed expectations in 2002, because the Games were held just months after the September 11, 2001 attack on the U.S., and the Olympics offered an opportunity for Americans to “heal.” Therefore, those who normally would not watch the Winter Olympics did and Bode Miller was one of the feel-good stories of the Games.
Bode Miller was not expected to medal in 2002 and walked off with the silver in both the alpine combined and giant slalom races. He nearly fell down during the course of one of his races but still managed to finish second. Miller was hardly a lost story of the 2002 Winter Games. But for those potential new fans which could have come aboard since or those of us who would have liked to follow Miller’s career since, we have been locked out.
In 2005, Miller spent 250 days on the road competing nearly six months predominantly in Europe, where he is far better known. He became the first American skier in 22 years to win the overall World Cup Skiing Championship title. He competed in all four alpine skiing disciplines on the slopes which includes the downhill, the slalom, the giant slalom, the Super-G and the combined, which is one downhill run followed by two slalom runs. If you tried really hard you perhaps heard about it by seeing it on the internet or deeply buried in your favorite sports section.
But on January 8, 2006, infotainment television show, “60-Minutes,” once heralded as the best news magazine program on television, featured an interview piece with Bode Miller by Bob Simon. Unfortunately, “60 Minutes” chose to go the way of most tabloids these days by emphasizing Miller’s controversial remarks concerning tying one on after ski races and then having to pay the price the next day, in addition to his criticism about the drug testing system for World Cup athletes by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. It presented a rather skewed look at Miller, but according to the sports media has now put the Winter Olympics back on the map and that now Americans will finally start caring about winter sports. Hopefully, most sports fans find that rather insulting, along with the piece by “60 Minutes,” which has become so desperate for TV ratings these days they have stooped to the level of tabloid journalism.
The broadcast networks and the USOC underestimate the sophistication of the American viewing public. We are fed a daily diet of indiscretions and inappropriate behavior including felonies committed by both professional and college athletes. Most fans do not like it, but accept it and even give athletes the benefit of the doubt, while others sadly have just become numb to such activities. But now we have a World Champion athlete, given nearly no positive coverage for four years, and he mentions that he goes out and downs a few cool ones after his ski races and we are supposed to be shocked and outraged. Yet, we are also expected to care deeply because he is on the U.S. Winter Olympics team headed for Torino and must hold him to a higher standard.
Confused yet? The truth is, Bode Miller, not unlike a lot of athletes, does not conform to some of what his coaches say and even chooses to travel apart from the team. He trains on his own as well and since he entered the World Cup circuit in 2001 has never been one to keep his yap shut. So what’s this all about anyway? Sounds like the quickest way to stir up interest for the Winter Olympics is to create controversy. In fact, it’s a lot cheaper for the USOC. and Winter Olympics broadcast host, NBC, to fuel such stories. Instead of raising awareness of lesser known athletes deserving of attention, make sure to get them in the news every four years, any way you can, even it is at the expense of their achievements.