The Paralympics: did you miss them?

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on September 29, 2016

Some neighbors down the street just got back from a vacation in Iceland and they reported, with some amazement in their voice, that the 2016 Paralympic Games from Rio aired in primetime every night of their stay. After a day of visiting ice floes and hot springs, they’d pop on the telly and there it was – highlights, scores, medal ceremonies, interviews, the whole enchilada. I checked the stats to discover that Iceland sent five, count 'em, five, participants to these games and won exactly zero medals. (Sri Lanka beat them by one.) Icelandic viewers clearly weren’t tuning in to thump their patriotic chests and shout, “Iceland rules!” They must have tuned in because of the not-so-novel concept that really good, competitive sports are fun to watch.

By comparison, the US had 270 para-athletes competing in Rio and brought home 115 medals, the fourth highest number behind China, Great Britain, and Ukraine. So where was our domestic, hard-charging, wall to wall coverage? To say it wasn’t there is a bit of a misnomer. It was there, alright, but you had to go deep into your cable channel guide to find it. Ninety-nine percent of the coverage was on NBCSN, or NBC Sports Network. You might have known it by its former name prior to 2012 – Outdoor Life Network, or OLN. By, say, ESPN standards, it’s a miniscule operation with miniscule brand recognition. Ask the next ten people you see if they know what NBCSN is. You’ll get zero right answers.

The opening ceremonies of the Rio Paralympics drew 186,000 viewers on NBCSN. In TV sports terms, that’s not much. Heck, even in non-TV sports terms in this insanely sports-crazed country, that’s a drop in the proverbial bucket. A college football game this season between Virginia Tech and the University of Tennessee drew a stadium crowd of 160,000. And they had to pay!

I’ve probably overstated my point, but there is something wrong here and it’s a little hard to figure out. Why don’t large American sports networks schedule and promote the Paralympics? Is it lack of viewer interest? Hmm. ESPN can get millions of people to watch first-round World Cup soccer matches and Americans by and large hate soccer.

There’s no lack of viewer interest in other English-speaking countries. As Candace Cable, a Paralympic champion herself, passed on to me -- in the UK, Channel 4, one of the country’s four major networks, ran 700 hours of Paralympic coverage watching in total by 28 million viewers, nearly half of all UK TV viewers. Plus they have already secured the rights to the next two Para Games, the first in Tokyo, the second possibly in Los Angeles. For the 2016 games, their ad campaign, called “We’re the Superhumans,” became a huge global hit. That’s the kind of promotion that American sports networks do in their sleep, with theme music by John Williams, but in this case, simply haven’t.

It’s easy to argue, as many have, that Americans don’t care about things like para-sports because Americans don’t care about people with disabilities, full stop. They don’t want to see someone in a wheelchair at the local mall – too depressing – let alone a wheelchair user knocking the stuffing out of another wheelchair user in a para-rugby match. Having never watched such a match, they no doubt think it’s a sissified version of the game for “special” participants where no one gets hurt and everyone gets a medal. It ain’t that, trust me. Could your average American sports viewer – the guy who’ll stay up until three in the morning to watch the curling finals at the Winter Olympics -- be that dense about para-sports? My guess is yes.

It will take someone with a lot of cash – an ESPN level sports operation or sponsors who see huge marketing gains here – to educate and hook the nation’s sports junkies into checking out the Paralympics. It takes money to make money. One strategically placed national ad campaign like “We’re the Superheroes” and hour after hour of on-air hype will probably do the trick.

The Kardashians, for heaven’s sake, became a worldwide brand by just being known for being known, with no discernible talent to back it up. Would someone with real media muscle get off the stick and do the same for the Paralympics? You have the added benefit of a group of exceptional world-class athletes who have enormous discernible talent.

Twenty-eight million Brits can’t be wrong. As one obnoxious refi ad on the radio says, “It’s the biggest no-brainer in the history of mankind.”

© 2016 Allen Rucker

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