Aside from scoring issues, one of the big things that fans have been complaining about is the way NBC missed many of the international women’s routines in their coverage of the American Cup meet. I too, found it terribly disappointing seeing only one routine by the Australian competitor, Georgia Simpson, but I was not in the least bit surprised. Those who watched it from other countries and seem to be positively outraged seem to be forgetting a very important fact; that the program was not made for us. NBC missed international routines because their imperative was to show the performances of the US gymnasts to the US audience. When we were forced to watch basically nothing while we could hear the floor music of a gymnast we very much wanted to see we did not see them because the timing of the meet dictated that we would miss some aspect of one of the US gymnasts’ performances or scoring. We saw nearly all of the routines of the US competitors, and even some of the exhibition routines of the US alternates (more on that later) while we only saw one of some of the others.
Annoying? Yes? Fact of sports media? Yes!
Let’s go back to media 101 basics. It is very, very simple.
The job of television broadcasters is to sell audiences to advertisers.
Yes, it really is as simple as that. Sports are products. Audiences are consumers. Advertisers want to find a way to get those audiences to consume a little more than just the sport they are watching.
Now, let’s take a look at who the big promoters and advertisers were for The American Cup. In fact, let’s use the most obvious example shall we? The one that gets to attach its name to the competition, AT&T. So, who is AT&T? They are an AMERICAN company, based out of Texas, that sells phone and wireless packages to American people and companies. Now, AT&T didn’t decide to promote the American Cup because they like gymnastics. They promoted the American Cup because they knew it was a saleable product for them- and if you don’t think sport is basically reduced to a product by the media, as in a marketable, profitable commodity to be sold to promoters- you are dreaming. For AT&T, The American Cup was a product that had potential to reach a wide segment of their target audience through television and other means. Companies like Kellogs and Crest, whose brand logos were hung all around the stadium are hoping to catch the eyes and the unconscious of all those watching the action there or through their television sets.
When it comes to sports events, particularly these smaller ones, butts on seats account for only a fraction of the profits made from such a meet. Money is made from sponsorship and advertising. All those pesky and almost non-stop commercial breaks every everyone complained about? All of those companies whose ads we were forced to sit through- just as we are with every other television program- bought advertising slots from NBC for the time the American Cup because they knew, or at least hoped that their target audience would be watching the event on television.
NBC’s responsibility as a business, then, is to ensure that as much of that target audience as possible watches the meet coverage. How do you do that? You package a must-watch event. How do you make it a must-watch event for Americans? You let the audience know that some of the best athletes in America will be competing and that this meet is the ‘first step in the road’ to sport’s biggest media product- the Olympic Games. And once you have them there, you make sure they become as invested as possible in the outcome of the competition in order to keep them there. How do you appeal to television watchers in a country like America? You show them the Americans. You remind them that they are among the best nations in the world at this spot, that the sport has stars and heroes they can pin Olympic hopes on, that there is a chance of Olympic gold at the end of this NBC peacock rainbow. You appeal to parochiality and patriotism, just as every other nation does in their coverage of a sports event.
Another way you appeal to audiences is by playing on that lofty and oft-employed American ideal that anyone can be a hero.
What do you think the John Orozco fluff early in the programming was about? John’s story is lovely, but it is also one that can well and truly draw in both educated and un-educated gymnastics viewers. By giving the audience ‘characters’ in this sports ‘story’ back story, by giving us little “Johnny from the Bronx” tale, it attempts to vest us in the story through narrative- a narrative of a kid triumphing over sport’s favourite word, ‘adversity’ in order to invest us in the outcome of this gymnastics meet.
For the women’s story it was difficult, particularly since they were lacking any particular showdown they could narrate the story through, such as they had with Mustafina’s presence last year. Last year, the commentary was all about the rivalry between Wieber and Mustafina, where Wieber was the rising heroine and Mustafina her Russian adversary. It was a ‘battle’ that could keep US viewers compelled. I am willing to bet, if Komova had come to the party this year, they would have played heavily on rivalry and ‘bitterness’ from last year’s World Cup and the World Championships. Drama is good because drama is compelling and then drama maketh money. This year, they had to rely on another trope, inheritance, the fact that US American Cup winners tended to go on and win the Olympic gold. How much did we hear about that? Of course, that isn’t nearly as compelling as a showdown. But they didn’t really have one to offer, making the women’s side of the competition a little lacklustre both as a competition but also as a narrative. This is why the commentators practically pounced on the Gabby Douglas story about two thirds of the way in to the meet when they realised how she was scoring. All of a sudden there was a LOT of talk about Douglas, and they even replayed her beam and then showed her floor. This was a ‘story’, a story about a young upstart, a potential threat they could throw at the audience to keep them invested.
I am not saying that these narratives would not exist if advertisers and media didn’t exist. Humans are storytellers by nature. It is what we do I am merely saying that the media harnesses these tales as ways to sell sport to us.
Yes, the NBC ignored the performances of many athletes while showing nearly all the US performances, but the NBC American Cup program was for an American audience, made with a vested interest in the outcomes for the US sponsors who wanted that product sold to an American audience. And for American gymnastics fans who also think that NBC did a bad thing by not showing the other nations, never forget, television broadcaster probably care less about you- they have you already- than attracting new eyeballs. Complain all you want, but think about it this way- if NBC couldn’t sell the American Cup to US audiences by showing a product that has been successful in the past, we would all be scrabbling around on the internet hoping those fans in the stadium had taken surreptitious footage of the meet because otherwise, like so many meets, we wouldn’t see it at all.
At least for a couple of hours somewhere, the sport of gymnastics was visible to a wider audience- and it takes the successful performances of a national athlete to get that attention. In my country, Australia, gymnastics is practically invisible. They show gymnastics during the Olympics because for some reason, like everywhere else, gymnastics blossoms into a popular sport once every four years. But if our athletes became real Olympic contenders as a team, I would bet there would be better coverage of them on Australian television. Not simply because of their success, but because our gymnasts would become marketable commodities based on that success and advertisers might become convinced that Australians might be compelled to watch what they do onscreen.
So, no matter how parochial, how unbalanced due to realities of the media market, we should be grateful that USAG has found a way to sell the success of their gymnasts to the American public and to advertisers. Gymnastics is visible in America and that helps all of us to see more gymnastics. The same cannot be said for many other nations.
Athletes need to be sold too. It is a well-known fact that the reason why gymnastics remains somewhat niche compared to so many other more marketable sports is due to the fact that the women’s program is more popular with audiences and that WAG participants are more difficult to sell because of their age. In sports like tennis, women like Maria Sharapova and Anna Ivanovic have made money based off both their sporting successes but also their highly marketable sex appeal. Belgian Kim Clijsters has become extremely marketable due to her ‘yummy Mommy’ appeal, blending both her attractiveness and her appeal to other mothers who juggle massive commitment with child-rearing (and the Kim tennis-star-as-mommy narrative is one that tennis TV package love to use to appeal to audiences). Being teenagers for the large part, gymnasts cannot be sold in such away. For a long time, the only place for them was the Wheaties box and leotard advertisements. There have been instances. Shawn Johnson and Nastia Liukin enjoyed a lot of commercial opportunities after the Olympics. Australia’s Lauren Mitchell is featured in a VISA advertising campaign currently (I would argue that this wouldn’t happen outside of an Olympic year, though) and Jordyn Wieber decided to go ‘pro’ in order to enjoy some opportunities coming her way. Once again, witness the trend, though, it is mostly Americans.
I sincerely hope the FIG and other national gymnastics bodies start to invest in ways to sell the gymnastics product, starting with taking a leaf from the NCAA book, where they have had more success. Greg Marsden’s phenomenal success at selling his Utah team to advertisers and to thousands and thousands of Utah audiences over the years, selling out stadiums and promoting his gymnasts on billboard advertisements, is a case in point. When I complemented them at Utah recently for their extraordinary selling of the sport, though, their response pointed out exactly the reason for NCAA’s success, saying that it was only “as it should be with such a great product” because “gymnastics with the right format and the right marketing campaign is an easy sell”. Herein lies some of the problem. Gymnastics is a a terrific product with a confusing, irregular and unpredictable format. The NCAA format is an appealing and comprehensible format. It is team vs. team. It runs over a clear cut, regular season. The gymnasts are a little older. It is happy, huggy, musical and fun. Elite gymnastics doesn’t have these qualities, so it is a little more difficult to sell. This is another reason why people were worried about the change in the scoring system, not just because of how it would effect the sport, but how it might alienate potential new audiences who could not understand the way it worked.
When I discussed some of these issues about NBC’s neglect of the international gymnasts on The Couch Gymnast Facebook with some readers, one reader complained that they used to show more competitors in the past and that in sports like ice skating, attention was always given to athletes from other nations. I would actually attribute the fact that more attention was paid to other nations in the past to two things; the fact that the US gymnasts were not at the top of the sport then, and to the US fascination with Soviet athletes. Selling Soviet and Eastern Bloc gymnastics to American used to be a successful little business. Remember all those exhibitions and US vs. USSR meets that used to take place, sponsored by big corporations like McDonalds? The US would be routinely trounced by these wunderkinds, but it didn’t matter. They used to attract huge crowds and the all-important television coverage and I think this was due to US audiences being fascinated and compelled by these athletes coming from that mythical Soviet sporting machine, fostered by Cold War ideas about those nations. As for ice skating, I think ice skating is one of those sports where the sport manages to sell itself because of its showy, performance-style nature. It can be sold as performance as well as sport. Heck, they used to show it a lot in Australia, despite the fact we do not produce our own stars of the ice and that it doesn’t even really snow here!
I guess what I am trying to say here is that sports programming is the product of a media market reality where the dollar rules and people seem to forget that. If gymnastics was a more marketable product like football or soccer, we would all see our own national coverages of The American Cup, featuring the actions of our national athletes. It simply stuns me that people are hollering about bias in terms of the coverage (the alleged bias in judging is a whole other issue of which Lauren Hopkins deals with in her American Cup wrap). Besides, since when has broadcast sport ever been required or even had an imperative to be unbiased? Sure, modern news journalism is meant to be unbiased(though if you think supposedly unbiased daily news coverage is not richly influenced by politics, money and even religion, you have a screw loose) but not sports coverage. Not when it comes to whom it actually covers. Of course, we would like a little evenness in our commentators when they are commenting on an international event. But when it comes to a product like the American Cup footage, to be frustrated that international competitors weren’t shown is understandable, but to be outraged is pointless. Once again, television broadcasters don’t show gymnastics because they like the sport and want to make sure the whole world gets to enjoy it. They show it because they can sell it and this time, if you are upset, it might be because they weren’t selling it to you.
Article: Brigid McCarthy