LANE ONE: NBC enjoying strong Olympic Trials ratings; could this be a preview of a Tokyo ratings bonanza to come?

Nearly 3.8 million U.S. fans watched races like Clayton Murphy's men's 800 m win at Monday's U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials! (Photo: Tim Healy for TrackTown USA)

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Less than a couple of weeks ago, the NCAA Track & Field Championships were held in the rebuilt Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon with the main portions of each session shown live on one of the ESPN networks. The ratings were modest:

09 June: 206,000 viewers on ESPN2 (no. 122-rated cable program that day)
10 June: 236,000 viewers on ESPN2 (no. 125)
11 June: 233,000 viewers on ESPN2 (no. 130)
12 June: 234,000 viewers on ESPNU (no. 96)

By comparison, ESPN was showing the final two games of the NCAA Women’s College World Series on the 9th (Wednesday) and 10th (Thursday), drawing 2,081,000 and 1,565,000 viewers.

A bad omen for the U.S. Olympic Trials? NBC worked with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and the national governing bodies for diving, swimming, track and gymnastics to create two full weeks of programming, in part to highlight the selection process for these high-profile U.S. teams, but also to rev up viewers for the 17-day Olympic smorgasbord coming from Tokyo beginning on 23 July.

No reason to worry. It appears that American fans are getting ready for the Games. Check out the gaudy ratings results of the Olympic Trials programming so far:

This was the most limited sport to be shown, with three hours on NBC over 12-13 June, showing the individual finals:

12 June (Sat): 8 p.m. = 1.757 million viewers (no. 3 vs. ABC/CBS/FOX)

13 June (Sun): 7 p.m. = 2.027 million viewers (no. 3)
13 June (Sun): 9 p.m. = 2.446 million viewers (no. 4)

True, the diving did not score well against the other over-the-air primetime programs, but it was competitive and averaged 2.076 million viewers per hour shown. A good opener.

One hour of diving from 12 June was shown on CNBC and drew 174,000 viewers, ranking no. 77 among all cable programs shown that day. Who knew that diving was on CNBC?

USA Swimming’s primetime Trials sessions from Omaha were staged from 13-20 June and held their own against other network programming:

13 June (Sun): 8 p.m. = 2.198 million viewers (no. 4)

14 June (Mon): 8 p.m. = 2.878 million viewers (no. 3)
14 June (Mon): 9 p.m. = 2.818 million viewers (no. 2)

15 June (Tue): 8 p.m. = 2.994 million viewers (no. 2)
15 June (Tue): 9 p.m. = 2.804 million viewers (no. 2)

16 June (Wed): 8 p.m. = 2.748 million viewers (no. 2)
16 June (Wed): 9 p.m. = 2.748 million viewers (no. 2)

17 June (Thu): 10 p.m. = 1.861 million viewers (no. 3)

18 June (Fri): 9 p.m.= 1.894 million viewers (no. 4)

19 June (Sat): 9 p.m. = 2.109 million viewers (no. 1)

20 June (Sun): 8 p.m. = 4.905 million viewers (no. 2)

Truth be told, the huge Sunday evening rating is due in part to the lead-in (and spillover) of the end of the U.S. Open in golf, which had 7.435 million viewers at 7 p.m. All of the finals were shown live in the Eastern and Central time zones, but delayed in the Mountain and Pacific zones on five of the eight nights.

All together, the swimming beat at least one other network on six of eight nights and two or more networks on five of eight and averaged 2.732 million viewers across 11 hours.

Preliminaries and early races of one evening session (17 June) were shown on NBC’s to-be-shuttered NBCSN and did not do nearly as well; all of the prelim sessions were shown delayed:

13 June (Sun) = 321,000 viewers (no. 80-rated cable program that day)
14 June (Mon) = 185,000 viewers (no. 120)
15 June (Tue) = 270,000 viewers (no. 75)
16 June (Wed) = 204,000 viewers (no. 95)
17 June (Thu) = 243,000 viewers (no. 122; heats)
17 June (Thu) = 436,000 viewers (no. 41; finals)
18 June (Fri) = 215,000 viewers (no. 125)
19 June (Sat) = 424,000 viewers (no. 45)

Still not bad for mostly preliminaries!

Track & Field:
The ongoing U.S. Track & Field Trials at Hayward Field began on 18 June and were either intermixed or followed the swimming trials on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The numbers so far:

18 June (Fri): 10 p.m. = 2.168 million viewers (no. 2 vs. ABC/CBS/FOX)

19 June (Sat): 10 p.m. = 2.373 million viewers (no. 1)

20 June (Sun): 9 p.m. = 2.969 million viewers (no. 2)
20 June (Sun): 10 p.m. = 2.918 million viewers (no. 2)

21 June (Mon): 8 p.m. = 3.786 million viewers (no. 1)

Pretty impressive numbers over the weekend to see the women’s and men’s 100 m finals and a stunning Monday audience that was the highest-viewed program on network television!

The cable numbers for track & field on NBCSN reflect the fact that the sessions were live and not delayed as with swimming, and a lot better than the NCAA meet:

18 June (Fri): 7 p.m. = 507,000 viewers (no. 33-rated cable program that day)
19 June (Sat): 8 p.m. = 715,000 viewers (no. 13)

Figures for Monday’s cable hour were not yet available. But across the first five hours of the track & field coverage, NBC has drawn an average of 2.843 million viewers, with four days of the Trials still to go beginning on Thursday.

Look for Thursday and Friday viewership to be down, since the broadcasts will only be on cable (NBCSN), but NBC will have Saturday and Sunday’s coverage (live in the east, delayed in the west).

Next up are the U.S. trials in gymnastics, to be held in St. Louis from 24-27 June. NBC will show all four days live, with the women’s competition – starring superstar Simone Biles – on Friday and Sunday, and the men’s program on Thursday (NBCSN) and Saturday (Olympic Channel and NBC). Will Biles and the women’s trials get U.S. Open numbers?

Even with 2-4 million viewers for these Trials events, this is a far cry from the Olympic audience that can be expected next month. For the Rio Games in 2016, NBC’s average primetime audience was a staggering 25.4 million average nightly, and the 2012 audience from London was even larger.

Whether this kind of viewership can be obtained for an Olympic Games in an Asian time zone is yet to be determined, but the ratings for the PyeongChang Winter Games in Korea in 2018 were 17.8 million per night on NBC only and 19.8 million average in primetime across all of its Olympic programmed networks. That was down from the ratings for prior Games in Europe or North America, but still far ahead of its competition.

For now, sports like diving, swimming and track are enjoying interest and viewership they do not normally see in the U.S. Hopefully, the leadership at USA Diving, USA Swimming and USA Track & Field are planning how to make these levels the norm instead of the once-every-four-years exception.

Rich Perelman

(Ratings data from Nielsen via

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