clock menu more-arrow no yes
An Olympic flag flies over the the Ariake Tennis Center ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics.
An Olympic flag flies over the the Ariake Tennis Center ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, July 21, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Filed under:

Olympic viewership is down. Why are conservatives getting the blame?

Like everything else, there’s a partisan divide over the Tokyo Games

With no spectators allowed at the Tokyo Olympics, the friends and families of athletes are getting together to watch the competition together on TV.

But these “watch parties” have not been enough to boost the ratings of the games, which have been called “a bust” for NBC. In the first three days of the competition, viewership was down between 32% and 46% from what it was in the early days of the Rio Games in 2016.

This could be because these games are so unusual. They’re taking place in 2021 because of the pandemic, yet still called the 2020 Olympics, and the usually packed stands are empty.

But could it also be that conservatives’ frustration with “woke” athletes and social-justice protests are showing up in Nielsen ratings?

Anecdotally, it might seem so. The partisan divide that inflames America emerged in the Tokyo Games games this week, when some conservative commentators decried the decision by gymnast Simone Biles to abruptly withdraw from competition. Biles, some said, was representative of an American “coddle culture” and young people who believe their own feelings and needs supersede that of a team or a nation.

Others have suggested that too much emphasis on social justice is having a negative effect on athletes’ performance.

In commentary on the streaming service Fox Nation, Tomi Lahren said she pulls for the U.S. no matter how “annoying woke and theatrical” its athletes. But, noting Team USA’s slow start, she said, “Apparently, the popularized and glorified culture of wokeism and victimhood may not be beneficial to the athletic prowess and performance of our USA athletes.”

The grumbling on social media caused one writer for Vanity Fair to declare, “The right is now rooting against America’s Olympic athletes.”

But is that’s what’s really happening? Or is it that a handful of high-profile commentators and politicians see riffing on controversial athletes as a slam dunk for their own ratings?

No spectators, few viewers?

Trump’s influence on his supporters is widely acknowledged, and in June of 2020, he said that he would not watch NFL and U.S. soccer games if players kneel during the national anthem, as professional athletes Colin Kaepernick and Megan Rapinoe have done.

NFL ratings did decline during the fall of 2020. Forbes reported that there were about 15.4 million viewers on average, down from 18.7 million in 2015.

But as Brad Adgate wrote for Forbes, “Despite the falloff, NFL ratings remain strong in a continuing fragmented video landscape.” Ratings are down across the board, and the NFL is still outperforming other primetime shows, he said.

Also, it’s hard to quantify the effect of the pandemic on viewership, but with some players opting out for the season and teams playing in empty stadiums, it would be understandable if fans’ enthusiasm waned. The same could be happening with the spectator-less Olympics in Tokyo.

More significantly, our viewing habits are changing independent of our politics, said historian Paul Matzko, author of “The Radio Right: How a Band of Broadcasters Took on the Federal Government and Built the Modern Conservative Movement.”

Matzko says that conservative commentators, especially those on talk radio, have tremendous power to influence listeners, given the amount of content produced each week.

“The typical major talk radio show is produced every weekday and runs three hours, so just the top 15 shows are putting out around 45 hours of content every day. Even setting aside hundreds of additional local shows, the dedicated fan can listen to nothing but conservative talk radio all day, every day of the week, and never catch up,” Matzko wrote for The New York Times.

But he said in an interview that he doubts conservative unhappiness with social-justice protests, such as Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry turning her back on the flag, is responsible for the ratings decline.

Ratings across the board have been in decline for years because of the changes in how we consume media, whether from traditional TV, cable or streaming. And viewership hasn’t just declined this year. “The 2018 Winter Olympics were the lowest rated in the last three decades,” Matzko said. “And the 2016 Summer Olympics were the lowest rated Olympics since 2004. So the current 2020 Olympics is more or less on trend. It’s not like this is a sudden trend.

“But it’s useful, if you want to score political points, to paint it that way. This is how politics works,” he says. As such, all the talk, he said, is “mostly opportunistic point-scoring” by talk-show hosts who see the topic as red meat for a hungry audience.

That’s not to say that there isn’t genuine outrage over what some people see as athletes’ rejection of America, while purporting to represent the country. But in fact, Matzko said, the decline in ratings is more likely due to more mundane reasons, such as people watching the highlights of the games on YouTube, rather than sitting down each night to watch the coverage as a family.

“When we were kids, you watched the Olympics because what else were you going to watch?” he said.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the number of people streaming the games hit record highs this past week.

Who is watching?

That said, an Ipsos poll released July 21, two days before the Summer Games began, found a sharp partisan divide when people were asked about their plans to watch the opening ceremony and the competitions.

Thirty-nine percent of Democrats planned to watch, compared to 29% of Republicans.

Despite being less likely to watch, slightly more Republicans than Democrats (63% to 60%) said that U.S. performance in the Olympics makes them proud to be an American. And only a third of respondents said the athletes should be able to engage in protests at the games, such as kneeling during a national anthem. Only about 7% of Republicans said this, compared to 55% of Democrats, Ipsos said.

Berry, the hammer thrower who has said the U.S. flag and anthem don’t represent her because of the country’s racial injustice, doesn’t compete until July 31, so for now, Biles is bearing much of the wrath for her decision (which was personal, not related to social justice or any other causes).

Writing for The Washington Times, Kelly Sadler called Biles a “selfish quitter,” saying “Children are no longer taught life is tough and it’s your job to overcome.” She and others compared Biles with another gymnastic superstar of the past, Kerri Strug, who famously won the gold in 1996 in Atlanta after performing while injured.

But not everyone has piled on. Some prominent conservatives have said people should respect the 24-year-old’s decision in a time when athletes are seeking more agency over their bodies and careers. Conservative podcaster Ben Shapiro said on Twitter that Biles is neither a heroine or villain, but that “we live in such an insanely polarized society that we can’t just let people be people.”

And Seth Mandel, executive editor of the Washington Examiner Magazine, tweeted that it’s disingenuous to say that there is one conservative position on what Biles did and it’s the most extreme version of what’s being said.

Meanwhile, nonpolitical news sources are continuing to report that ratings have been disappointing so far, and some advertisers are beginning to think they’re not getting their money’s worth, Variety reported. There’s still time for a rebound, however. The Olympics continue through Aug. 8.

Politics

The GOP wants to take back the governor’s office in Nevada. Here’s who is running

Analysis

Did Roe v. Wade help or hurt religious freedom?

Family

Horror movies and marital quality: What one tells you about the other

View all stories in InDepth