As NBC promoted its coverage in the time leading up to the Sochi Games, it became clear that for all of the celebrity hosts and medal hopefuls, the real star might be the true breadth of coverage available in the United States.
More than 2.1 million viewers streamed the U.S.-Canada hockey semifinal through NBC's website. (Getty Images)
The network’s plans to broadcast every event of the Winter Olympics live, either online or through its family of networks, was a welcome, albeit ambitious, one. As the viewership numbers continue to rise for online products, it appears to confirm NBC’s assertion that mobile viewing is gaining favor compared to the traditional broadcast.
“People have adjusted their habits,” said NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus on a recent conference call. “They know when they need to authenticate. They’re now accustomed to the ecosystem surrounding Olympic consumption.”
NBC is also more accustomed to dealing with the demand than they were two years ago for the 2012 Games, where “some adjustment” was necessary.
“We...had some early issues with streams in London,” said Lazarus. “That’s not the case here in Sochi. All of our metrics are up versus Vancouver, certainly, and most are up versus London.”
Those numbers have been bolstered by a number of marquee games, starting with the thrilling qualifying round men’s ice hockey match between the United States and Russia last Saturday, which was the most-streamed hockey game in the network’s history, beating out all of the Vancouver 2010 tournament as well as the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Finals at over 598,000 viewers.
The game dominated the sporting conversation in the United States, which carried over into the team’s Wednesday quarterfinal match against the Czech Republic. Though the U.S. gained in early lead and the outcome was never really in jeopardy, NBC still garnered about 798,000 online viewers, NBC’s most ever for an Olympic event, breaking a record set during the women’s soccer final between the U.S. and Japan during London 2012.
It was a record that stood until Thursday when Canada broke the hearts of about 1.2 million American viewers with 3-2 overtime victory in the women’s ice hockey gold medal game.
That also also survived for just a day. When the same two countries met in the men's hockey semifinal on Friday, it attracted 2.1 million viewers, a total greater than the two previous records combined.
Though no issues were reported during Friday's game, Lazarus expressed concern beforehand that demand might exceed the U.S. infrastructure’s ability to provide.
“We’ve had great success and really no issues with our streaming to date,” said Lazarus on Thursday. “But if you recall all the way back to London, we’ve had some businesses, including the LA City Council, who asked their employees to stop streaming the Olympics because it was shutting down their servers.”
Looking to PyeongChang
It is unknown how NBC's coverage of PyeongChang would be affected by the lack of NHL participation. (Getty Images)
With a bulk of viewership coming as a result of ice hockey, the natural question is whether NBC will exert pressure on the National Hockey League, of which the network is a major partner, to allow its players to again participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“We would prefer to have the best players in the game and in every discipline - whether it’s hockey or skating or anything - the best players in the world participate in the Olympic Games,” said Lazarus.
However, he added, it will come down to a decision between the owners and players.
Jeremy Roenick, who played on the U.S. team in 1998 and 2002, now works for NBC as an analyst. He says the players may not readily give up their opportunity to play in the Winter Games.
“I know the European players, the Russians, the Finns, the Swedes … they’re so loyal and proud of their countries,” said Roenick, who won a silver medal with the 2002 U.S. team. “I know that they would want to be in South Korea, regardless of the travel. I think it’s going to be a very interesting decision.”
The NHL has refused to commit to the Olympics beyond Sochi, where a deal to include players was worked out just last summer. Many suspect the league could end its involvement with the Games to avoid shutting down for two weeks midseason.
Another option for the NHL would be to revive the World Cup concept, which could be scheduled at a more opportune time. The league could also generate revenue from such a tournament, something it does not do directly from Olympic hockey.
Lazarus declined to speculate on what the lack of NHL participation could mean for NBC’s coverage of PyeongChang 2018.
"I think you know we are going to have four years to talk about the next [Winter] Olympics," said Lazarus.
Written by Nick Devlin
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