Will the Super Bowl help boost NBC’s dismal Olympic ratings?

Once Sunday's game is over, NBC is hoping a significant portion of the viewership will stick around as it transitions immediately to Olympic coverage.

NBC's Mike Tirico will host both the Super Bowl and Olympic studio coverage. JEFF HAYNES/ASSOCIATED PRESS

In March 2019, an intriguing trade was pulled off in the NFL, one that will come into play in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

The swap didn’t involve players or draft picks, but something even more expensive: broadcast rights. NBC, which wanted to align its coverage of the Beijing Olympics with a Super Bowl broadcast, cut a deal with CBS, which was in line to air Super Bowl LVI. CBS would exchange the rights to this year’s Super Bowl — and avoid going head to head with the Olympics — in exchange for Super Bowl LV in 2021.

“When we were talking to the NFL about renewing our ‘Sunday Night Football’ agreement it was important that we could have our Super Bowl years during our Winter Olympic years, and we’re seeing success from that this year as we head toward the Super Bowl,” said Pete Bevacqua, chairman, NBC Sports Group.


That proved to be a savvy swap for CBS, which ended up with last year’s appealing Super Bowl matchup between the Buccaneers and Chiefs.

And it’s turned out to be a crucial one for NBC, which needs Sunday’s Super Bowl to give a charge to the thus-far dismal television ratings of the Olympics.

“We think the Super Bowl is going to provide an unbelievably powerful platform, to have that 100 million-plus audience where we can obviously cover the game and every aspect of what’s been a wonderful NFL season, but also promote the Olympics and promote Week 2 of these Beijing Games,” said Bevacqua.

NBC’s dream viewer is one who turns on the network bright and early Sunday at 8 to watch Olympics programming that includes speedskating, sticks around as it switches to Super Bowl hype mode with “The Road to the Super Bowl” at noon, and then five-plus hours of pregame coverage from 1 p.m. until the Rams and Bengals kick off at 6:30.

Everyone — or around 100 million of us, anyway — will watch the game. And once it is over, NBC is hoping a significant portion of that viewership will stick around as it transitions immediately to Olympic coverage that includes the ice dancing final in figure skating.


The transition should be seamless with the indefatigable Mike Tirico hosting both the Super Bowl and Olympic studio coverage. But the mystery is how much of the audience will stay, particularly if NBC’s promotion of the Olympics during the Super Bowl becomes anywhere near as incessant as those Kate McKinnon commercials for Verizon.

Through Tuesday, NBC was averaging 12.3 million viewers per day on its television channels and Peacock streaming network. That was down from an average of 23 million viewers through the same timeframe from the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in South Korea four years ago. NBC saw some progress later in the week with the success of established Olympians such as Chloe Kim, Nathan Chen, and Lindsey Jacobellis, but the drop in viewership was tracking near the 40 percent decline Bloomberg reported that the network had told advertisers to expect.

“It’s no secret that athletes in masks, venues without spectators, so much of the passion and excitement, those great moments of Olympic athletes hugging their family and friends and spouses and partners, so much of that magic is just out of necessity not present,” said Bevacqua. “But look at the difference in NFL ratings in ‘21 compared to ‘20 [ratings this season were up 10 percent over 2020]. I think one of the main differences is because in ‘20, we didn’t have the passionate NFL fan base in those stadiums adding to the atmosphere. We did our best out of necessity. But this year, those fans were back and the ratings showed that.


“The fact that we’ve been able to bring these Games to life during a pandemic with only a six-month window [beyond the Summer Olympics in Tokyo], the ratings are — of course we always want to have the ratings better — but the ratings for these Games, as I said, are about where we thought they’d be.”

Now NBC waits to see if its sports smorgasbord Sunday, with the Super Bowl as the ultimate opening act, can juice those Olympic viewership numbers.

“We’re excited about the impact the Super Bowl will have as we move into the weekend,” said Bevacqua, “and as I like to say to the team, boomerang into next week.”

Boomerangs, of course, always come back. It’s far less certain whether the Super Bowl can help interest in the Olympics do the same.

Difficult loss

Some terribly sad news on the New England sports media scene: Art Martone, formerly the sports editor at the Providence Journal and managing editor for digital at NBC Sports Boston for a decade until his retirement in 2019, died this past week at age 66 after being stricken with a rare neurodegenerative illness a few weeks ago. Martone put together a stellar staff during his time in Providence (among his writers were Sean McAdam and Tom E. Curran), but he became known to analytically minded Red Sox fans for an engaging, thoughtful blog he wrote for the newspaper’s website, back when many print editors still viewed blogs as a punch line. But his eye for talent or a well-crafted line paled in comparison to his generosity of spirit. Martone was a gentle, kind person who was always willing to dispense advice or a word of encouragement to fledgling writers. I hope he knew how appreciated he was.


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