Sooner or later, Big Sports must come to grips with the Internet. As the industry lines up its lawyers in a goal-line stand to prevent its scrappy little competitors from making it into the lucrative online end zone, it is painfully clear that no one understands what the Internet can do for sports. That’s because everyone is consumed with fear that it’s going to take over the whole show.
The Olympics is the latest example. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is trying to score early in the New Economy era by setting up the slickest play in the great, new millennium playbook — the intellectual property bottleneck. The IOC is using extreme measures to ensure that nothing about the 27th Olympic Games will leave Sydney via the Internet without the committee’s stamp of approval.
Technocrats on three continents are using the latest wizardry to monitor the Net, zealously guarding official logos and making certain no Web site displays Olympic news, images or content of any kind without permission. The IOC may believe its requirements are for the protection of intellectual property, but there is a more apt description for the committee’s behavior: misguided overreaction.
The fear, of course, is that the Internet will siphon off broadcast revenue due the IOC, particularly from the big American networks, who are very touchy about hoarding their exclusive rights. The IOC even shut down an Australian site that was showing — via jumpy, patchy streaming video — months-old footage of the Australian national swimming trials.
But the fear is unfounded. The Olympics, like every event that depends on interested spectators, benefits from free advertising spread over wide and diverse venues. The more that people know about and become interested in the competitors, the more they will tune into network coverage.
The fact is, the games, in and of themselves, are interesting only to the few and confusing to the many. If you’ve been watching NBC’s prime time, tape-delayed footage of such arcane events as semifinal synchronized swimming, you know that not every Olympic event is must-see TV.
U.S. television ratings have dropped 32 percent from what they were at the 1996 Atlanta Games and 19 percent from the 1992 games in Barcelona.
Official Olympic Web sites are going gangbusters, but as even NBC officials admit, that isn’t the reason for the lowest TV numbers in 20 years. The biggest factor is the 15 to 18 hour time difference between Sydney and the United States, which means that most Americans know the results long before they’re unfortunate enough to tune in to NBC’s marathon, five-hour, all-tape-delayed, old-news coverage.
U.S. Pro Sports ahead of the Pack
In the United States, pro sports have paved the way for Internet paranoia. The National Football League monitors NFL-related Web sites with religious fervor, swooping down with batteries of lawyers if it finds copyright infringement. Even legitimate news sites dedicated to NFL coverage are not allowed to use team or league logos.
NASCAR, the most popular — and the greediest — of the stock-car racing circuits, is the worst offender. This is a sport that sanctions advertising so pervasive, it is the marketing equivalent of a low-rent trailer park with no deed restrictions.
NASCAR recently maintained that all the events taking place during a race should be regarded as intellectual property. The move was tantamount to claiming ownership of the natural course of human events. Essentially, the organization wanted to own the news in order to sell it back to news outlets. Fortunately, NASCAR was unsuccessful in its bid.
Turn Loose the Hounds
Because of the chaotic, temporal nature of the global spectacle it oversees, the IOC has more incentive than most to allow the free flow of online information. But as yet, the committee isn’t getting it.
By all means, IOC officials, prosecute those who use the Olympic rings and other official logos in an inappropriate manner, and leave the good, live events (as if there were any) to the bankrollers. But let the online news hounds help you out!
Salvation may lie in allowing anyone and everyone to transmit, broadcast, print, or convey by any means possible, anything and everything to do with the Olympics. The games are suffering a lot more from too much boredom than from too much buzz.