Every other year, we are presented with an interesting question. How do we cover the Olympics on sports radio? Particularly on local sports radio? Particularly every four years when it is the Winter Olympics?
See, the Summer Olympics have a broader appeal. Those broadcasts tend to draw bigger ratings in primetime. The US delegation is bigger, and thus athletes’ origins tend to be spread across the country. That makes it easier for local sports talk hosts to find connections to their market and create content of specific local interest.
The Winter Olympics are a little different. There are plenty of athletes from Upstate New York, New England, and the Rocky Mountains. Those areas can easily find Olympic stories of local interest.
But what if you’re working in a market with no local connection to the games? What if you’re in a Southern or Midwestern market where not only do you not have any local athletes participating in the games, but there is little or no opportunity for your listeners to participate or even have exposure to some of these sports?
This is why it is so important for sports talk hosts to be comfortable talking about pop culture. That is what the Olympics are. I mean, sure, the event is a collection of sports, but that’s not how they are consumed.
Every four years we convince ourselves that we are experts on events like speed skating and luge. There are some that will take the extra step of correcting anyone that uses the word “bobsled.” “Actually, it’s bobsleigh” they’ll say. But let’s be 100% honest. None of your listeners, no matter how much they insist “I think I’m a curling fan now!”, will care about any of this after the closing ceremonies.
Hell, the Olympics were on in my house most of the day on Saturday. It’s Sunday as I type this, and I can’t remember who won any of the medals outside of the skier from Norway that got a silver and became the most decorated woman in Winter Olympics history.
Sports are obviously our lifeblood, but listeners take notice of the little things that happen around sports. Just look at Twitter during the Super Bowl. Sure we were all discussing the ballsiness of that 4th and goal call that lead to a Nick Foles touchdown catch, but social media also exploded with opinions on Dodge’s Martin Luther King commercial and Justin Timberlake’s Prince tribute. People care about this stuff.
Pop culture and sports really do go hand in hand. It’s why Dari and Mel on ESPN Radio do a Bachelor report when that show is in season. It’s why you can count on Dan Patrick talking about a new U2 album whenever one mysteriously appears on your iPhone. Sports is just an unscripted form of entertainment.
I have long believed that the potential audience for sports radio is widening. Podcasts have opened a previously untapped audience up to the idea that talk formats can be entertaining and engaging. Combine that with an audience for music radio that is falling off in our format’s key demographics, and this is an ideal time for sports hosts to re-evaluate what they do and what they cover. Sports is becoming a lifestyle format. You don’t have to be able to offer me an in depth breakdown of the Solo trailer, but you do need to be able to tell me you’ve seen it and what you think about it.
The Olympics present this odd mixing bowl of sports, pop culture, and especially in 2018, politics. You aren’t going to win anyone over with a scathing take down of Mike Pence for not standing when the unified Korean team entered the opening ceremony, but it is worth acknowledging. I mean, that story was EVERYWHERE on Friday. The same was true of criticism of CNN for their article about how glamorous Kim Jong Un’s sister looked at the opening ceremony. These stories are weirdly connected to the sports world. If you’re talking about the Olympics at all on your show, these are the stories that are worth acknowledging. I guarantee you more people have an opinion on them than on Chris Mazdzer winning the US’s first ever medal in men’s luge.
It is undoubtedly a tight rope. You don’t want to dedicate a whole ten minute segment to yelling about that aforementioned CNN article, but being aware of its existence enough to offer an opinion or use it as part of a larger conversation is helpful.
If we want to boil this down to a single rule on Olympics coverage, it would be pay attention to what really moves the needle. After all, the Winter Games opened on the same day as a really captivating NBA trade deadline. We’re in the home stretch of college basketball’s regular season, and new contracts and trade proposals are all over the place in the NFL.
The Winter Olympics are very low on America’s pure sports totem poll. It is the silly stuff, those side pop culture stories, that people remember from this event. Why do you think we still care enough about Tonya Harding to justify an Oscar nominated biopic?
You’re probably not planning on giving a ton of coverage to the Winter Games, so if you’re planning to acknowledge them at all, be smart about it. Look for the stories that are everywhere. Those probably won’t be the pure sports stories. Understand how to talk about these moments in a casual way. You don’t need to analyze every single one of them, but making it clear to the listeners that you live in the same world they do and can speak to the absurd little details of these stories will only strengthen those personal connections you need to form with your audience. That’s what takes you from being “the guy on the radio” to their guy.