Opinion | Winter Olympics will push sports social media forward

In digital terms, looking back on Olympics gone by is akin to leafing through a photo album from your teenage years.

Some things may be unchanged but a lot looks, at best, embarrassingly quaint. 

Back in 2010, the Olympics’ Facebook page was proud to have reached 1m followers during the Winter Games in Vancouver. Four years later, over 2m signed up during the two-week Sochi event. Right now, the main page reaches over 19m. 

London 2012 went down as the “Twitter Olympics” but, by Rio in 2016, Facebook had stolen the inside lane, logging 1.5bn interactions and persuading 15.2m people to use profile frames (remember them?) to show their support.

Of course, four years is a lifetime in social media and the “greatest show on earth” is an opportunity to demonstrate the state of the art, and then attempt to nudge it a little further. These factors combine to make each Olympics a staging post in sports social media.

For some, the Winter games will always be the slightly gawky cousin of the Summer event but it still captures the attention to such an extent that some of us will suddenly feel a compulsion to stay up till 2am to watch curling. For a few weeks, it is an obsession then, for four years, it is largely forgotten.

The introduction of the Olympic Channel was aimed to counteract that. Set up in 2015, based in Madrid and launched during the Rio games the following year, its motto proclaims it as “where the Games never end”. The channel will be flexing its muscles for the first time during a full event when the Winter Olympics starts in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 9.

Olympic Broadcast Services, the long-established host broadcaster for the International Olympic Committee, is estimating 4000 hours of coverage will be produced during the games.

Innovations include cameras on bobsleighs and graphics of “ghost skiers” acting as pacers to the live competitor as he hurtles down the mountain. Very visual, very Millennial, very Tweetable.

OBS have also developed “Content+”, specifically to create short-form clips; animations, maps and statistics that go down well on social.

Elsewhere, the Olympics’ two biggest broadcasters, NBC and Eurosport, have inked a content deal with Snapchat. The US broadcaster will be producing live VR content from an Olympics for the first time. Korean TV stations are even trialing 8K cameras.

This is also the first Games for Eurosport owner Discovery, which paid €1.3bn for the European rights to Summer and Winter Olympics up to 2024. They have announced a desire to “more people on more screens” during the Games and, to that end, brought in Ralph Rivera as managing director of Digital in late 2016. He had led the BBC's every-minute-of-every-event coverage of London 2012.

Eurosport will be the main outlet for Discovery’s deal and they will seek to localise their coverage in different countries using the channel’s long history in winter sports. They have sub-licensed to the BBC in the UK and ZDF in Germany. In addition, they have agreed a deal to put the Eurosport Player on Amazon Prime, with the potential for 20 concurrent live streams. Public broadcasters with a sublicence will only be allowed to live stream their own live broadcasts on their website and apps.

Pyeongchang is nine hours ahead of London and 14 hours ahead of New York, so this may be an Olympics viewed on catch-up in key markets. The North American audience might not watch at all: the last three Winter Olympics have had the lowest TV ratings among 18-49-year-olds of any games in the past 30 years. And this time there are no NHL players in the ice hockey.

That said, Sochi in 2014 did have a certain virality on social media. That is if you count #SochiProblems, the popular hashtag for logging issues in Russia.

Then there was the extremely short-lived and highly destructive #Quinning meme, thanks to USA bobsleigh athlete Johnny Quinn. A toilet door locked fast on him and, with no help at hand, he “used his training” to burst through the wood panelling.

The serious media aspect of Pyeongchang was summed up by JB Perrette, Discovery’s president and chief executive when he said: “The Olympics is the best laboratory for understanding of consumer consumption of media."

It is a point where extraordinary demand for specific sports content collides with extraordinary breadth of availability. And that can tell us a lot.

Even since Sochi, we have many more accessible, reliable and ubiquitous means of watching sport. Four years ago would you have been considering downloading a catch-up show on your phone over breakfast and watching it on the way to work, viewing an entire event through social media or streaming through your TV via an OTT network?

We might have had the option, but our mindsets were stuck on the traditional treadmill of consuming content. 

Eight years ago in Vancouver, the obvious options seemed little more than the BBC’s linear channels, red button and website.

Next month, if that strange compulsion for curling strikes, you can satisfy via a variety of screens and platforms.

That is why each Olympics Games or World Cup is a line in the sand for digital and social media.

Or in the case of Pyeongchang, a line in the snow.

Richard Clarke is a digital and social media consultant. He holds the distinction of having run the social media accounts at major football clubs in the Premier League and MLS, having worked for EPL club Arsenal and MLS club the Colorado Rapids.


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