The Olympics should be inspiring.
After all, you watch elite athletes chasing lifelong dreams in what might be once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Kids see that anything is possible. Their elders are reminded of the power of passion.
But, until now anyway, it might not have occurred to many Olympic TV viewers to be literally inspired to actually learn or compete in the sports they’re watching. Or, at least get their kids going in, say, competitive archery or badminton.
That’s changed with NBC’s and the USOC’s joint Gold Map program, in which promotional spots provide viewers with a path to participation. Although it debuted in Sochi, this is the first time Gold Map has been implemented for a Summer Games.
The on-air spots direct viewers to NBCOlympics.com/GoldMap, which includes videos of athletes in all the Olympic sports. Once there, viewers can easily redirect themselves to websites for the Olympic sports’ national governing bodies, where they can quickly look up ways to train and compete in Olympic sports in their local areas.
Which is handy since it’s easy to forget that Olympic sports – which might seem pretty cool in Rio but also somewhat exotic – are actually going on all around us here at home.
Rationally, you know all those Olympic fencers, field hockey players and weightlifters had to start somewhere. But don’t blame yourself if it doesn’t occur to you that your kids – or maybe even you – could find somewhere nearby to try those Olympic sports.
Or, even if you have tried those sports, you might wonder how you could actually become an Olympian.
Brian Gordon, U.S. Olympic Committee managing director for marketing and broadcasting, says Gold Map interest isn’t just coming from parents thinking about their youngsters.
He says team handball officials have had a major increase in Gold Map queries from users who presumably already know something about the sport: Those people say they’re interested in trying out for a U.S. Olympic team handball roster. (Which isn’t something they picked up from TV coverage: the U.S. doesn’t have a team handball squad competing in Rio.)
“This is one of the most important programs we collaborate on with NBC,” says the USOC’s Gordon. Team handball’s national governing body, he says, “is one of the smaller NGBs, so they don’t have all the resources to promote and recruit. That’s exactly what Gold Map provides.”
Not surprisingly, the Olympic sports that have so far drawn the most online interest via Gold Map – volleyball, followed by archery, team handball and badminton -- are ones that gain a TV spotlight during the Games that is huge compared to what’s drawn on the sports’ regular competitions.
However, without NBC’s coverage of highly-visible sports such basketball, tennis or soccer, Gordon says, “we wouldn’t see all the Gold Map online traffic.”
And there is significant online traffic. Gold Map, says Jennie Thompson, NBC Olympics senior director for marketing and strategic partnerships, has drawn nearly one million page views by Day 12 of the Rio Games – up from a total of 220,000 when Gold Map debuted during NBC’s 2014 Sochi Winter Games coverage.
That jump comes partly because Gold Map has been expanded since its 2014 debut. Paralympic sports have been added. And the effort got going earlier: Unlike in 2014, NBC began its promotion 100 days before the start of the Games – on NBC’s Today show on April 27 – and Gold Map drew about 100,000 page views even before the Olympic torch was lit in Rio.
The original idea came up several years ago, says NBC’s Thompson, from the logical desire to “seize on the moment when people are most focused on Olympic sports.”
And it’s logical to then try to leverage that interest. Says the USOC’s Gordon: “With NBC, we both know we need to keep the Olympic pipeline going.”
NBC has an obvious motivation since, in an unusually long commitment between a broadcaster and an event, it has exclusive Olympic media rights in the U.S. through 2032.
Meaning, youngsters taking up rowing or synchronized swimming today through Gold Map might end up years from now gathering their own children to watch those sports on NBC’s Olympic coverage. (Maybe they can also amaze their own kids by reminiscing how NBC actually used human Olympics announcers before hologram technology improved so much it could replace them. And the kids, just guessing, will say they’ve already heard that old story.)
So, let’s go one step farther: Will NBC’s Gold Map promotions lead to any viewers eventually appearing on future NBC coverage as Olympians themselves?
Says Darrin Steele, now CEO of USA Bobsled and Skeleton after competing as an Olympic bobsledder in 1998 and 2002: “That’s an interesting question.”
Steele says Gold Map exposure from the 2014 Games produced site traffic increases, and general queries about bobsledding, to jump more than 1,200% over even the usual post-Olympic bump in interest in the sport.
Steele says it’s probably too early to tell if any of the people prompted by Gold Map will end up competing in an Olympics.
But, he says, the interest was particularly helpful in 2014: “We’re different from most Olympic sports in that rather than starting with a pipeline from youth levels, we convert athletes who’ve already competed in other sports – who we can convert to competitors in a couple of years. We had more retirements than usual after Sochi, so the timing was important to us.” So, what’s the appropriate response among fans to the idea of a cross-promotion between Olympic sport organizers and NBC that’s meant to expand the pool of U.S. athletes in Olympic sports? An acceptable answer would be to start chanting, “USA! USA! USA!” -- although judges aren’t going to give you any points for subtlety.
Instead, maybe the big idea behind Gold Map is this: The Olympics are a really big deal, but every Olympian starts somewhere and you can too.