The 2020 Summer Olympics are upon us, and like all Olympics Games before them, they’re dominating the headlines, for better or for worse. 

Recent numbers suggest viewership for the Tokyo Olympics have been underwhelming, but in polling we conducted earlier this summer, most Americans were poised to tune in. So what happened?

A strong fan base undergirds the 2020 Summer Olympics

To be sure, the value Americans’ see in the Olympics is impressive; in a study conducted at the start of this year’s Games, the Harris Poll found that, even in the wake of controversy and COVID-19 quirks, 75% of Americans feel that the Olympic Games are worth watching.

And in an earlier survey, 61% of Americans said they were planning on watching the games this summer. 

That said, NBC’s preliminary viewership data (as reported by Axios) shows that interest isn’t necessarily translating to action. Between both broadcast and streaming, some 17 million households tuned in for the opening ceremonies last Friday – an inauspicious 33-year low for the marquee event.

Of course, as a multi-week competition, it’s expected to see some peaks and valleys, and ratings have since ticked up, as reported by CNBC, in part due to the popularity of events like swimming, women’s gymnastics, and the triathlon.

In our preliminary polling, Americans were most interested in watching the following sporting events, which helps give us some insight into what will draw in viewers for the remainder of the Games’ run.



Regardless, the issue of viewership still looms heavy over the IOC and advertisers – so what gives?

Three potential reasons emerged in our research that could help explain the reduced viewership of the Tokyo Olympics:

  • Confusion around scheduling: Younger viewers, some of whom are already less likely to watch, were generally unaware that the Games had been rescheduled.

    As recently as June, more than half of millennials (55%) and 46% of Gen Zers still weren't aware that the 2020 Olympic Games had been rescheduled. Beyond that, Gen Zers were much less likely to have plans to tune in -- only 48% said they would --  indicating a miss for the International Olympics Committee and NBC in communicating the change to potential audiences.
  • Recent news coverage: A quarter of Americans (25%) report that they’re less likely to watch this year’s Games because of what they’ve seen in the news.

    In a year rife with controversy -- from Sha’Carri Richardson’s disqualification for marijuana use to repeated calls for cancellation due to the ongoing pandemic -- it’s perhaps no surprise that some potential viewers were turned off of this year’s Olympic Games. But it’s telling when we consider that the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, which was also plagued by controversies -- from environmental concerns to doping scandals and Zika virus outbreaks -- also suffered historically low ratings.
  • Lack of live audiences: The IOC made a game-time decision to ban spectators at this year’s Games as concerns mounted around the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.

    The audience ban was a letdown for potential spectators and at-home viewers alike: The overwhelming majority (75%) of Americans say a live audience is important to the experience of the Games -- and the atmosphere, or lack thereof, of empty stands likely impacted the ceremony’s appeal for prospective viewers. 


Bad news for brands?

The Olympics are a major advertising event, with this year’s Games securing over $1 billion in ad spend among more than 120 advertisers -- and with some of the world’s biggest brands representing 93% of spending among Olympic sponsors.  

Yet less than half of Americans -- 46% -- pay attention to which brands advertise during the Olympics.

What’s more, older Americans, who tend to have more disposable income, say they pay even less attention -- with only 33% of baby boomers reporting that they pay attention to the Olympic Games’ advertisers. 

If ratings continue to fall below expectations advertisers may be given more air time to supplement the shortfall, according to The Wall Street Journal. Viewers have complained in the past about the number of ads shown during the Games, so an increase in ads may impact their satisfaction with this year’s viewing experience -- and also shape their perceptions of the brands advertising. 


Despite streaming hiccups, Peacock sees early brand boost

NBC’s streaming app Peacock is also under the microscope during this year’s Olympic Games, with complaints around access and usability bubbling up in recent press coverage.

Fortunately for NBC, the impact on Peacock’s brand equity and momentum among consumers (that is, how consumers perceive the brand’s value and its upward trajectory) have experienced a boost since the start of the games – an early indication that NBC’s bet on the Olympics as a springboard for pulling ahead in the streaming wars may just pay off.



The above analysis references two asynchronous studies conducted by the Harris Poll.  The initial survey was fielded between June 4 - 8, 2021 among 1,055 U.S. adults ages 18 and older while the follow-up survey was fielded between July 16 - 19, 2021 among 1,012 U.S. adults ages 18 and older. Both surveys were conducted online within the United States. These online surveys are not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. Brand equity data was collected between July 23 and July 29, 2021, using QuestBrand.

For more information on methodology or to view full data tables, please contact Dami Rosanwo.

Annie Prunsky

Annie Prunsky

Director of Marketing

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