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Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) as the Pandemic Summer Olympics — What Will Its Ratings Look Like?

Media observers attempt to foresee how many will tune in to the Games of the XXXII Olympiad amidst unprecedented obstacles

The Summer Olympics soon arrives in Tokyo, and with it, the Opening Ceremony on July 23 will display the pageantry, pomp and circumstance showcasing Japanese culture.

The entire spectacle is meant to be a representation of global unity. The irony is it will all unfold in front of a sparse amount of people inside the stadium.

This will be a frequent sight at each arena during the XXXII Olympiad, for these are the first Games amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally slated for July 2020, the coronavirus postponed the Tokyo Games to this summer. There are many analysts, though, that question the choice to still move forward with these athletic competitions considering the varied vaccination rates worldwide. For example, the Olympics’ home country of Japan, which is among the nations with the lowest vaccine confidence in the world, currently has only 18 percent of its citizens as completely inoculated, compared to the near 50-percent levels in each the United States and the United Kingdom.

The figurative cloud of uncertainty hovers heavily over these Olympics as Tokyo continues its state-of-emergency lockdowns. The recently-scrapped plans of having spectators at every Olympic event will result in a harkening back to the soundless, antiseptic atmospheres of which most global sports fans were familiar — but not fondly recall — last year.

Tokyo will be the second of three consecutive Olympic Games to occur in East Asia, sandwiched in between the two Winter Olympics, in South Korea’s Pyeongchang in 2018 and China’s Beijing this coming winter. The huge time zone differences will be a major issue, as most live sporting events will occur in front of an American audience who are mainly either night owls, insomniacs or early morning risers. If the Pyeongchang Games were any indication — it averaged a record-low of just below 20 million viewers per night on NBC and its cable+streaming outlets — the Tokyo Olympics could be in for its own lows among summer-only Games, at minimum.

Not only are time zones and COVID-19 complicating matters for the Olympics, global audiences are increasingly finding other means of viewing entertainment especially on the streaming front. In the United States, the recently-launched Peacock is the primary over-the-top content service for the Games. NBCUniversal hopes Tokyo will provide the significant boost the new streamer needs for it to be the new go-to option among the already-established competitors like Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Disney+. It will also serve as a test of the service’s viability. In recent years, online platforms like ESPN, CBS All Access (the former name of Paramount+), and HBO Max (among others) have all experienced outages during their telecasts of select live events like college football championships, award shows, high-profile boxing matches and even season finales of buzzed-about shows (e.g. “Mare of Easttown”). And, Peacock itself had its own hiccups during their July 18 telecast of WWE’s “Money in the Bank”.

Meanwhile, the company is transitioning away from the more-reliable but decreasingly-popular cable TV model. It will be the final Games televised on the NBC Sports Network (NBCSN); NBCU announced earlier this year the all-sports outlet will cease operations at the end of the 2021 calendar year.

On top of being a global sports event, the Olympics are also about the storylines surrounding the competitors. Established stars like gold medalists gymnast Simone Biles, swimmer Katie Ledecky and the USA men’s and women’s basketball squads will, of course, attract immediate attention. In addition, little known names can become new beloved sports heroes. Without retired Jamaican legend Usain Bolt in the mix, perhaps a new track and field star can emerge to prominence. The returns of baseball and softball may generate the new Jennie Finch-like figure. And with a still-formidable American men’s swim team, someone could very possibly fill in the void left by Michael Phelps, the first Games in a generation without the retired Olympic legend.

Obviously, the overarching plot that engulfs all these stories will be the pandemic, and how the past year-plus has affected the athletes’ training and preparation. Even the Games themselves will be a constant reminder COVID-19 has not yet been completely overcome. Commonplace gestures from the athletes themselves like hugs, handshakes and high-fives as reactions to their accomplishments will be prohibited, stymying the potential for moments of joy and triumph. Emphasizing the socially-distant aspect of it all, the vast majority of family members and friends of the competing Olympians will be cheering their loved ones on while watching from their respective homes, or NBC’s watch party setup at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla.

These notable obstacles seem poised to deny these Games a high success rate. But will there still be heavy interest from the viewing public, perhaps even to see it they can actually pull it off with minimal issues? What ever ratings declines the Tokyo Olympics may see (NBC’s decision to no longer output its daily preliminary ratings since February indicate declines are probably imminent), there will be a focus on how dominant their near-three-week coverage is within the scope of all of television. The network first proudly proclaimed it so for its Pyeongchang Olympics three years ago: raw numbers lackluster compared to previous Games, but most overwhelmingly above what else is on television. And since then, the scope of home entertainment has fragmented audiences further, especially among the younger crowd.

The mighty NFL and its Big Game even experienced recent ratings stumbles. Why would it not be the Olympics? They will remain a significant viewing destination but only an average of 17 million per night is likely.

Several other professionals in the media industry provided their ratings prognostications for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics, upon request. Here are their takes:

Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider

17.6 million. Let’s face it…everything is basically down by double-digit percentages on broadcast and cable. While the long wait for the Olympics could mean additional interest, chances of bucking the downward trend is unlikely in today’s highly fractionalized environment for consuming content.

Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch

Viewership was likely to decline for the Tokyo Olympics even in the alternate reality where it went on as scheduled, with fans, last summer. The one-year delay and the empty fanless atmosphere – which viewers in this country are almost certainly uninterested in dealing with again – should send the numbers well below Rio in 2016 (which was already lower than usual). NBC might have to get creative with how it tallies figures for the primetime coverage, adding in concurrent cable windows on CNBC, USA and NBCSN. On NBC alone, I think viewership will fall dramatically short – maybe by 10M viewers or more — of the 25.4 million in 2016. I’ll go with 13.5 million per night (on NBC alone), 15.9 million including the concurrent cable windows.

Danielle McCartan, New York’s WFAN sports radio talk show host

Added up all of those figures [of previous Olympics since 1988], then divided by the total number of Games and got 27 million. I’m then going to go down a little bit because I, personally, still have yet to be able to catch a USA Baseball game, or USA Men’s basketball game.  The USWNT, the women’s basketball, and the USA Softball are on at ridiculous hours.

So, in accounting for all of that, I’m going to guess: 20.3 million.

Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer

29.6 million.  With no fans allowed and the Olympics missing last summer, people will watch and be interested.

Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) deejay-sports announcer

Like all other sporting events, the Olympics are due to see a downward trend. It will probably be a record low, even worse than the last Winter Olympics. NBC will try to spin this as more viewers are streaming but people are just not as excited for them like usual. I’ll go 16.4 million viewers.

Terence Henderson, T Dog Media

With the pandemic and the lack of crowds dampening interest for the home viewer, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games will draw 22.7 million viewers on average.

Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn sports anchor

With all the circumstances surrounding these Olympics, it’s tough to imagine viewership being historically high. Mid-20 millions, similar to the Athens Summer 2004 Games.

Ken Fang, Awful Announcing

Average viewership for Tokyo 2020ne on NBC, cable and streaming will be 24.8 million. With fewer people watching on TV and COVID affecting the news on the Games, NBCUniversal will see a lower viewership. While sports viewership has gone up on certain events in 2021, the Olympics don’t necessarily resonate with younger viewers and that will be reflected in the lower numbers this year.

Dave Bauder, Associated Press

22 million, although that may be optimistic. Usual reason of declining viewership across the board applies, and there’s just not much buzz to these games.

Rich Greenfield, Media and Technology Analyst at LightShed Partners

20 million – Viewership was already going to be a challenge with the rapid growth of streaming options over the past few years, but adding in no fans will make the content less exciting as we witnessed for other sports throughout the pandemic.

David Barron, Houston Chronicle sports media columnist

27.5 million. The extra tonnage on Peacock may help offset some of the inevitable over-the-air decline, which will accelerate once Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky are done midway through the Games.

Jay Posner, sports editor of San Diego Union-Tribune

17.8 million. I sense no buzz for these Olympics and the time difference and lack of fan energy at the venues won’t help, either.

Neil Best, Newsday sports columnist

Summer 2021 – Tokyo, 22.1 million

This will be the most unpredictable Olympics of the 21st century in terms of gauging interest level and ratings, but I assume by the time NBC is done with its statistical jiu-jitsu the numbers it produces will be respectable.

Chad Finn, Boston Globe sports media columnist

24.2 million. With no fans in the arenas, the television product will be only slightly more appealing than the NBA bubble.

Michael McCarthy, Senior Writer at Front Office Sports

21.5 million. Pandemic caused changes in viewing habits claims its biggest victim: The Olympics.

Maury Brown, Forbes

16.6 million. With no fans and COVID hanging over the event, expect viewership to take a hit.

Steve Kaplowitz, afternoon sports talk radio host at 600 ESPN El Paso (Texas)

18 million on NBC + cable + streaming. There is not as much buzz about this summer Olympics as in past years.

Richard Deitsch, sports media columnist at The Athletic and co-host of Prime Time Sports on Toronto’s Sportsnet 590 The Fan

20.5 million. I’m honestly perplexed when it comes to a prediction for the Tokyo Games. I’ve never seen less pre-Olympics enthusiasm — at least anecdotally — for a Summer Games in my lifetime. That’s understandable given a global pandemic and the state of emergency in Tokyo. At the same time, the Games offer a true communal experience with very little entertainment competition against it. I won’t be surprised if this prediction is way off in either direction.

Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy

18.5 million.

Acceleration in media distribution evolution will weigh on average minute viewing in prime resulting in the lowest rated Summer Olympics ever. While the headline decline for NBC is sure to be the lead story, the overall viewing delivery across broadcast, pay and streaming/digital assets will exceed the reach of any prior Olympics enabling NBC’s diverse distribution plan to build long term value across more diverse platforms than ever. The end result will be an extraordinarily profitable Olympics confirming NBC’s investment while demonstrating the need for updated broader definitions of success for strategic media property commitments in the modern era.

Lou D’Ermilio, LOUD Communications, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports media relations

My estimate is 26.25 million, a bit lower than Beijing in ’08, the last summer games from that part of the world. It just feels like the news about Japan’s ongoing battle against COVID-19 and athletes now testing positive has taken some of the joy out these games.

Dan Cohen, Senior Vice President of Octagon Sports and Entertainment Network

26.2 million.

Jonathan Tannenwald, The Philadelphia Inquirer

Below Rio (27 million) but above PyeongChang (19.8 million). The time zone difference is going to matter here. It’ll be interesting to see how track & field broadcasts do without Sha’Carri Richardson’s star power, and how many women’s soccer fans wake up at odd hours for the U.S. games. Also of interest will be how big the audiences are on Peacock for women’s gymnastics, if we can find out.

Mark Cuban, “Shark Tank” entrepreneur/Dallas Mavericks owner

No clue other than out-of-home (OOH) records will be shattered.  Obviously there isn’t a long history, but if there is an underdog USA team that goes on a run, OOH numbers will be insane.

To recap, here are the predictions in sorted order

Name Viewers
(in millions)
Jon Lewis 15.9
Jason Jacobs 16.4
Maury Brown 16.6
Douglas Pucci 17.0
Marc Berman 17.6
Jay Posner 17.8
Steve Kaplowitz 18.0
Patrick Crakes 18.5
Jonathan Tannenwald 19.8-27.0
Rich Greenfield 20.0
Danielle McCartan 20.3
Richard Deitsch 20.5
Michael McCarthy 21.5
Dave Bauder 22.0
Neil Best 22.1
Terence Henderson 22.7
Chad Finn 24.2
Ken Fang 24.5
Dan Serafin 24.6
Dan Cohen 26.2
Lou D’Ermilio 26.25
David Barron 27.5
Scott Nolte 29.6