How “March Madness” can make the Olympic Games better

LOS ANGELES, May 23, 2008 – Everywhere you look, the Olympic Movement is faced by problems . . . and that doesn’t even include the ongoing ruckus over the 2008 Games upcoming in Beijing:

• An Associated Press story in July 2007 noted comments from International Olympic Committee president Dr. Jacques Rogge including “‘Today we observe a widespread decline in physical activity and an increase in obesity” among youth, Rogge said, citing fewer physical activities in schools and the disappearance of open spaces in cities.”

• In April of this year, Denis Oswald, the head of the Association of Summer International Olympic Federations, complained about monies paid to the U.S. Olympic Committee from the IOC’s sale of American television rights and from worldwide sponsorships.

USOC chair Peter Ueberroth replied, according to the Associated Press, “‘We’ve said we will share more if we agree to grow the pie,’ Ueberroth said. ‘If we hold the pie steady and shrink it, and you want to fight for little percentages here and there, that’s not going to do anybody any good. We need to work together. There’s a chance to double the pie.’”

• Olympic television ratings are down, notably in the U.S., which pays much more than any other country or region for the Games. NBC’s primetime ratings for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin were down 37% from its ratings for the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, but also down 20.5% from those for Nagano in 1998.

As a response, Rogge championed the creation of an Olympic Youth Games for about 3,000 athletes aged 14-18, the first of which will be held in Singapore in 2010. “I have always been committed to engaging young people in sport,” he said in an interview with the English newspaper The Guardian in December of 2007. “Sport has to compete with a lot of other cultural or social attractions. You have music, travel which is much cheaper, you have iPod, DVD, computer games. What we are going to do is bring the athletes together and speak to them in language that they understand. We will talk about the dangers of doping; teach them about a healthy lifestyle, good diet to combat obesity, we will teach them about Olympic values, anti-racism and fair play.”

The Olympic Youth Games will be nice, but they won’t solve the problems of disinterest in the Olympic Movement or disagreements about money. There are other ideas, however, quite familiar to American sports fans.

There was a time when the NCAA basketball tournament was a quaint affair, held over just two weekends, with 16 teams competing on a strictly regional basis. It turned into “March Madness” when the field was enlarged to 32, then 48 and then 64 teams in 1985 and teams were mixed geographically. The television rights for this tournament – with the other NCAA championships thrown in essentially for free – were sold to CBS on an 11-year deal in 1999 for an average of $545 million per year. One sport, 11 days of competition (two of which with just one game each) over a 21-day period. Compare that to the $893 million that NBC is paying for the rights for the Beijing Games this summer, which include 28 sports and 17 consecutive days of events.

Extending the NCAA basketball tournament made it much more exciting and engaging to a much larger audience. Why can’t the IOC do the same thing with the Olympic Games?

It can and it should. What if the Olympic Games was extended to take place in two stages, a qualifying round and a final competition, similar to the way the FIFA World Cup is organized?

In the current cycle, Olympic Qualifying Games could have taken place in 2007 at perhaps four different locations around the world. Lasting about 10 days, complete with appropriate ceremonies, these events would qualify nations into the Olympic Games, either in specific team sports, or with a specific number of qualifiers into individual events.

For example, in the men’s 100 meters in track & field, the top six finishers in each Qualifying Games (24 total) would earn their nation “slots” in the Olympic semifinals to be held at the Olympic Games the following year. Three semifinals of eight men each would then be held during the Olympic Games to qualify eight finalists to race for medals.

This type of qualification program creates a series of advantages:

(1) It creates a new and regionally-appealing set of competitions which aren’t “so-what” events such as the African Games or Pan American Games. These events are important because they directly impact participation in the Olympic Games itself and are – in fact – Olympic competitions. As such, they will draw their own, new audiences for television, sponsorship and ticket sales and can significantly “increase the pie” by extending the Olympic competitions for an entire year. They would replace the under-funded and low-interest regional games now held on three continents.

(2) Olympic Qualifying Games will reduce the existing, oppressive burden on Olympic organizing committees and reduce the number of athletes and officials who have to be housed and cared for to those who are actually competitors and not “Olympic tourists.” Rogge has said that the Games must be smaller; here’s a way to make the Games bigger overall, but smaller for the Olympic organizing committee at the same time.

(3) Hosts for such Games are readily at hand. The IOC currently qualifies four or five cities as final candidates in the selection process for the host city. What if the procedure changed so that while one city became the host for the Olympic Games, the four runner-up cities would each be awarded an Olympic Qualifying Games? That way, all five finalists got a chance to be an Olympic host city of some type and the number of cities applying for the Games would be dramatically increased.

There are problems to be overcome, of course. International federations will scream about scheduling issues and demeaning their world championship events, but the money the Olympic Qualifying Games would generate will silence all but the most vocal opponents.

And just getting to the Games – like making it to the “Big Dance” – will become a goal in itself, creating considerable excitement and interest in smaller nations and in the smaller sports, just as with college basketball teams that compete in the smaller conferences. And isn’t that the point?

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