BEIJING — That $3.5 billion the International Olympic Committee gets from NBC will buy a lot of alarm clocks. Swimmers and gymnasts at the Beijing Olympics probably will want their share. Heeding a request from its biggest TV partner and other broadcasters in the Americas, IOC officials announced Thursday that swimming and most gymnastics finals […]
BEIJING — That $3.5 billion the International Olympic Committee gets from NBC will buy a lot of alarm clocks.
Swimmers and gymnasts at the Beijing Olympics probably will want their share.
Heeding a request from its biggest TV partner and other broadcasters in the Americas, IOC officials announced Thursday that swimming and most gymnastics finals would be shifted to the morning in China so they can be shown live in prime time in the United States.
There is a 12-hour time difference between Beijing and New York.
“We’re pleased with the announcement,” NBC Sports spokesman Mike McCarley said. “It will allow the two most popular Summer Olympic sports in the United States to be seen here mostly live.”
Not so pleased were the Aussies, who are only two time zones away from China. Swimming is tremendously popular Down Under, and if it’s going to be televised live there, it will likely be in the late morning.
“The only thing that gets me cranky is that (the IOC) have made the decision for commercial reasons, not for the good of the sport,” Australian coach Alan Thompson said.
Many would argue that flush finances do make for healthy sports, and in this case, money certainly talks.
NBC paid $3.5 billion to televise the five Olympics from 2000 through 2008. That’s more than double than what is contributed by the next biggest rights holders, in Europe, and a compelling reason for the IOC to go along with a few of NBC’s requests.
In fact, NBC also wanted more track and basketball at prime time in the United States, but the IOC decided track and field finals, except for the marathon, will be held at night, while the men’s basketball gold medal game will be in the afternoon.
“One speaks of one or two sports, but in the end it’s about 28 sports,” said Hein Verbruggen, the head of the IOC’s coordination commission for the Beijing Games. “Such a schedule is a matter of discussion with the host country, the broadcasters and the federations. … What comes out of it is a compromise.”
It capped off several months of back-room negotiations between the IOC, TV rights holders and sports federations, and it’s a decision that could have a long-term bearing on the IOC’s financial future. TV money made up 53% of the IOC revenues from 2001-04.
U.S. ratings have been on a declining trend over the past several years, in part because viewers don’t want to watch if they already know the result, especially if American stars — say Bode Miller in the 2006 Winter Games — haven’t fared well. The IOC television contracts are in place through 2012, but there is great interest on where the rights fees will go from there.
The U.S. Olympic Committee, which gets more than 80% of its revenue from television fees and corporate sponsorship, supported the decision.
“The important thing is, the IOC is giving everyone almost two years to adjust and adapt to the new schedule,” USOC spokesman Darryl Seibel said. “It’s also important to note that these starting times will be the same for everyone in Beijing. There won’t be any advantage or disadvantage to athletes from any country.”
The leaders of USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics each supported the move, saying the showcasing of their sports to a prime-time audience in America will benefit them.
“It’s a very smart decision from a marketing standpoint,” USA Gymnastics president Steve Penny said. “When you look at how challenging it is to get ratings these days, there’s no more important event for us to promote than what we’re all about, which is the Olympic Games.”
Gymnastics is not, by nature, a morning-oriented sport. Most gymnasts might do conditioning work in the morning, but they don’t start working on full routines until the afternoon. The American men’s team spent months adjusting their schedule for this month’s world championships in Denmark, where they had a 9 a.m. qualifying session.
In swimming, often preliminary heats are held in the morning, followed by finals later in the day.
“I’m glad to have so much time to prepare for the schedule,” Michael Phelps said. “It’s a level playing field, and I think everybody will be well-prepared for the Games.”
The schedule was being sent to international sports federations and broadcasters Thursday, but was not immediately released to the public.
Swimming officials in Britain were among those unhappy about the switch.
“We’re really disappointed by the IOC’s decision,” said British Swimming chief executive David Sparkes. “It’s clearly one the IOC may come to regret in time.”
IOC executive board members, who decided on the time changes, drew on experience from past Olympics in making their decisions.
At the 1988 Seoul Games, swimming, gymnastics and track finals were held in the morning. In 2000 at Sydney, they were not, and the U.S. TV audience fell below expectations.
IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said the final schedule puts rowing in the afternoons to catch prime-time TV audiences in Britain, where the sport is popular, while diving finals will be staged in the afternoons and evenings for the Australians.
Contributing: Associated Press writer Charles Hutzler in Beijing