Games saver

The five ways to improve the Winter Olympics

Updated: February 12, 2010, 3:56 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers | ESPN The Magazine

This article appears in the Feb. 22 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

A philosophical question to fill the long winter nights: If Lindsey Vonn falls near a forest, and nobody watches, does it really happen?

We may be about to find out.

The Winter Olympics have provided nearly a century of memories. Sonja Henie. Peggy Fleming. Jean-Claude Killy. The Miracle on Ice. Bonnie Blair. Nancy and Tonya. The Flying Tomato. In an increasingly globalized, wired world, the Games are unique: a completely regional competition, filled with events few people actually do, in which the obscure become world famous overnight. That they force us to embrace rather than fear ice and snow and frigid temperatures makes them our burning candle in the seasonal darkness.

But the Winter Games have a cold. Maybe even H1N1. They are listless, wrung out, wheezing and bleeding money.

Vancouver was supposed to be a feel-good, safely countercultural (Duuuuuude, Whistler!) festival in a beautiful land full of environmentally aware, gentle people. Instead, the run-up to the 2010 Games has been a punch line. That's fitting, as their success may well hinge on comedians. A few months ago, a revolutionary prime-time program was poised to revive NBC, the Olympic broadcaster, just in time for Vancouver. But an unfunny thing happened on the way to the luge -- Jay Leno's show tanked, taking down with it any potential momentum and a nighttime audience.

In 2002, a powerhouse NBC lineup (anchored by Friends, ER and seven more shows in Nielsen's Top 20) lured viewers to Salt Lake City. Four years later, the network was mired in fourth place. The ratings for the Torino Games plummeted, the closing ceremonies trumped by Dancing With the Stars.

Now the picture is bleaker yet. Between Leno's lame-duck bomb and the network's still-fourth-place rank, NBC could lose $250 million on these Games after paying more than $800 million for broadcast rights back in prerecession 2003. Fault the soft ad market (GM alone will spend about $100 million less on Vancouver) but don't overlook the impact of the late-night wars and falling viewership. "The Leno debacle has definitely hurt," says Rick Gentile, executive producer of three Winter Games for CBS and now a professor at Seton Hall's business school. "Athletes who thought they'd get exposure on Leno or Conan O'Brien didn't."

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.