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Sports fans are ready for the Winter Olympics

Matt Del Percio from Altman Solon takes a look at the results of a fan survey of five major Winter Games nations shows strong interest, longer viewing time planned over 2018

After four years marked with a global health crisis and the cancellation of major sporting events, sports fans are once again ready to watch the Winter Olympics. A new survey from TMT strategy consulting firm Altman Solon finds strong interest among fans globally, with an expectation that viewers will watch more of the 2022 games in Beijing than they did in 2018.

Among regular sports viewers in the UK, Germany, France, Italy, and the United States, interest in the Olympics is strong, with 40-60 per cent of fans saying they are interested. In the UK and U.S., women are substantially more interested in the Winter Olympics than men.

2022 Games: Viewers Plan to Watch More

In all the countries surveyed, the percentage of fans who report they expect to watch more of the 2022 Olympics compared to 2018 is larger than the percentage of fans who plan to watch less of the upcoming Games. At least 40 per cent of respondents in Germany, Italy, and France are planning on watching more than they watched prior Games, with Italy showing the strongest increase. This is interesting since Italy had the lowest interest level in the Olympics of any country tested, suggesting that there is a smaller but more loyal base of Italian Olympic fans. Just over half of the respondents in the UK and U.S. interested in the Olympics are planning on spending the same amount of time watching the Winter Olympics as during the last Olympics.

More Platforms, More Fragmentation

Over the past decade, there has been a lot of discussion of how TV ratings for the Olympics – Winter and Summer – have slipped in recent cycles. However, embedded in that discussion is the reality of covering the games from a far-flung time zone (and in the case of 2022 with events being held on a different day than Europe and the Americas) when events are being shown live on streaming services. Long gone are the days when results of key events are kept secret until the tape-delay broadcast in prime time. 

Increasingly viewers are watching live online or holding off until they can watch at a convenient time for them, making it difficult to measure ratings across platforms.

This viewership fragmentation is reflected in the survey results: most popular TV / video platforms used to watch the Winter Olympics among interested respondents are free-to-air TV, traditional pay-TV service, and free streaming. At least half of the respondents in the UK, Germany, Italy, and France, plan to watch on free-to-air TV, which is reflective of viewership habits in the European countries included in the study. Alternatively, 52 per cent of respondents interested in the Olympics in the U.S. plan to watch on traditional pay-TV.

How the coverage will be handled in the UK will be an interesting mix of streaming and free-to-watch TV. Unlike in the U.S., where NBCUniversal is the sole rights holder, rights in the UK are shared between the BBC and Discovery. Discovery is betting on the ability to watch the Games anytime/anywhere will pay dividends for the European audiences given the time zone differences. Similarly, BBC coverage will be shared across BBC One and BBC Two and supplemented by a live digital stream on BBC iPlayer and the BBC Sport website. 

Both the BBC and Discovery will use technology and innovation to draw in audiences. For Discovery, their Cube studio – including a foray into extended reality – will play a central role in its coverage, while the BBC will showcase their Salford-based virtual-reality studio. 

Alpine Skiing, Bobsled, Figure Skating Interest Viewers

While interest in the various Winter Olympic events varies from country to county, there were some common favourites among the five countries tested.

In the UK, respondents who are interested in the Winter Olympics trend toward Downhill / Alpine Skiing, Bobsled, and Figure Skating. About one-third of respondents in Italy (35 per cent) and France (32 per cent) were also most interested Downhill / Alpine Skiing, which boasts some of the biggest stars at the Winter Games, including America’s Mikaela Shiffrin and Italy’s Sofia Goggia.

Figure Skating is the leading sport of interest in the U.S. – chosen by 26 per cent of respondents – and is also relatively popular in France and the UK  The interest in figure skating could point to a rebound in ratings for these historically popular events, which experienced a viewership downturn in 2018.

This fan-interest data certainly trends positive for Olympic broadcasters as we near the opening ceremonies in Beijing. But a lot can happen over the fortnight of the Olympics that could impact viewership and engagement, including already percolating geopolitical concerns.

Regardless of the final statistics, top-tier sports competitions like the Olympics enable live TV and video service providers to attract and build audiences. The Olympics drive consumer interest and value for media partners and sponsors not only in their home countries, but also among global fans – making the games integral to brands’ international growth strategies.

Olympics media rights holders seeking to maximise the value of and return on their investment in Olympics coverage and shoulder programming must optimise the availability of content across platforms to meet fans where and when they want to watch. You might say this is a golden opportunity to build a global audience.

The Winter Olympics survey was conducted in mid-January with more than 2,500 respondents across five countries.