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2008 Olympic Trials and 2007 New York City Marathon Television by the Numbers
by: LetsRun.com
January 16, 2008

This year's Olympic Trials were a tremendous success for those who attended them.  The excitement in Central Park was palpable and the crowds were unlike any other previous Olympic Marathon Trials. Sure there were areas of the park that were devoid of spectators, and prerace hopes of 100,000 spectators was a virtually impossible goal to shoot for, but in major sections of the park there were thousands of people running back and forth on a spectator friendly course to cheer on America's best. Something that we've never seen before.

Ryan Shay's death put a damper on the celebration of US running, but having the Trials on a spectator friendly course in NY was a good idea.

In addition to the large crowd, one of the major reasons for having the 2008 Olympic Marathon Trials in the fall in NY was because it would generate more nationwide media coverage of the event by being in the media capital of the world, the day before the NYC Marathon. Certainly in terms of print media coverage particularly in papers like the New York Times, this idea worked.

But being purists ourselves we believe for any event to be taken seriously in the American consciousness it needs to be on live television. While we may shoot for the moon, distance running fans for the first time were able to watch the race live on the internet which was a good consolation prize. This year's Trials had a unique media format, with the start of the race on the NBC Today show live, live internet streaming of the race on NBCsports.com, and later a 30 minute highlight show of the race on NBC (far too short in our opinion to properly cover a marathon).

So how did the 2008 Trials do in terms of television? Well we guess it depends on how you look at it.

If you're talking about the start, more people watched the Marathon Trials than any other track and field event this year by a long shot. The Today Show gets great ratings, and 3.4 million people watched the Today Show the day of the Trials. Pretty impressive.

How did that carry over to the 30 minute highlight broadcast later that day? Hard to say really.

Trials Outdrew ING NYC Marathon
963,000 people
watched the thirty minute highlight show on NBC later that day. That was more people than who watched the ING NYC Marathon one hour highlight show the next day, 832,000 (although to be fair, it needs to be pointed out the marathon was going up against the impossible to beat NFL while the Olympic Trials were competing against college football). But the ratings were far from extraordinary, so it's hard to credit them to the NBC Today show intro. Hopefully down the road some of the people on the Today show will become long term fans of the sport and their initial exposure at least made them intrigued.

Mainly, we're glad the Olympic Trials outdrew the ING NYC Marathon  It supports what we've believed all along that the Olympic Marathon Trials are the ultimate reality show.

Perhaps it's a bit more important to compare these numbers to past ratings. We only have the 2005 NYC Marathon highlight show ratings (and the comment here that the 2006 ratings were comparable to the 2005 ones), but the ratings this year were much lower than in 2005. In 2005, 1,548,000 people watched the NYC Marathon highlight show a little less than double the amount who watched this year.

Race Rating # of Households Watching # of People Watching
Olympic Marathon Trials 0.7 752,000

963,000

2007 NYC Marathon 0.6 636,000 832,000
2005 NYC Marathon 1.1

1,211,000

1,548,000

Rating = % of All Households With TVs Watching the Event
For comparison the World Track Champs drew a 1.0 and 1.3 rating on 9/1/2007 and 9/2/2007 on NBC going against college football and preseason NFL.
*2005 ratings as quoted in this LetsRun.com article
*2007 Ratings provided by Nielsen

Obviously, that's a bit disappointing. But does that mean this year's marathon was much less appealing than in 2005? No. With the 30-minute taped shows, the marathon ratings' fluctuation are probably mostly determined by what else is on TV at the same time (ie which NFL football game it is up against). The key thing to realize is that even taped marathons do well on television in terms of ratings compared to other television. The week before the ING NYC Marathon, the NBC sports special "Off Road Racing" in the same time slot only drew 468,000 viewers compared to the ING NYC Marathon's 832,000. That's a significant difference.

But by and large we believe that marathons do much better on live television or when shown in their entirety taped so the drama can build (and there is no reason an Olympikc Trials marathon in the winter couldn't be held at 2 in the afternoon). Supporting this belief is the strong ratings the local live broadcasts the major US marathons get. Thanks to the folks at Sports Business Journal who had a special section on the dollars pouring into marathons, we can look at the local ratings the World Marathon Major Marathons in the US, Boston, Chicago and NYC, got.

Local Rating (Rating = Percent of Local TVs that are watching)
Race 2004 2005 2006 2007
Boston Marathon 7.9 7.9 8.7 11.5
Chicago Marathon 2.2 2.6 3.1 2.2
NYC Marathon 3.3 4.4 4.1 3.3*
NYC Half Marathon 1.5*
# of Households (Not People) Watching
Race 2004 2005 2006 2007
Boston Marathon 188,000 190,000 206,000 274,000
Chicago Marathon 76,000 85,000 109,000 77,000
NYC Marathon 244,000 325,000 298,000 242,000*
NYC Half Marathon 110,000*

Nielsen ratings from October 29-November 4th SportsBusinessJournal unless noted by *.
* From LetsRun.com custom research request with Nielsen.

As might be expected, NY with its population base draws the most viewers, but Boston is king when it comes to popularity. Watching the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day is a New England tradition and the ratings bear that out. People in Boston this year were 3 times more likely to watch their marathon than the people in New York were to watch theirs. (In the table above, we also included the NYC half marathon ratings just to show that the magnitude of the race does influence the ratings. The comparison isn't perfect because the NYC half is at a less favorable time slot 7-9 am, but you can draw what you want from it).

In conclusion, the ratings of the Olympic Marathon Trials definitely show that they warrant more than a half hour highlight show on television. Hopefully, the attention the Trials garnered in NY where all the media honchos live and work, will warrant them getting more network coverage in future years. As recently as 1996, Bob Kempainen's gutsy Olympic Trials win in Charlotte of all places, where he vomited while pulling away to victory, received 2.5 hours of same day national coverage (along with highlights of the previously held women's trials).

But maybe we live in a fairy tale world because you only have to go back 4 more years to 1993, when the NYC Marathon was on (we believe) live national television in its entirety on ABC with Jim McKay and Lynn Swann. The Trials got a very strong 3.0 national rating and 10.9 local rating, yet ABC dropped the race the next year. Go figure.

Go back another decade to 1984 and ABC was reportedly paying close to $500,000 a year to broadcast the race.

Times have definitely changed, but it's time a major network put New York City (and the Olympic Marathon Trials) back on live TV. NY did a great job with the trials this year in many aspects, but if they get them again, we hope they have more television coverage. Ryan Hall's run of beauty was a sporting event full of drama that plays out best on live TV. NBC couldn't have gotten better advertising for the upcoming Olympics.

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