Making sense of NBC's tumbling Olympic ratings

Question: Could NBC's ratings for the Olympics be any worse?

Answer: Only if Dennis Miller were added to the broadcast team.

It's a joke only a CBS exec could love. The biggest news to
emerge from the Olympics last week wasn't the slew of swimming
records but America's lackluster response to the Games. The media
howled about NBC's Nielsen woes; sports columnists tossed around
share figures as if discussing the scores of some crazed
gymnastics judge (13.1! 14.9!). From all the doom-and-gloom
reports, you'd think NBC's Sydney numbers, on top of the figures
for ABC's Monday Night Football (starring rookie sportscaster
Miller) signaled the death of TV sports.

Is the picture that dire? True, Olympic ratings are down
dramatically. These Games will likely be the least watched since
1968. Through the first week NBC was averaging a 14.6 rating (a
ratings point is roughly a million TV homes), far below the 16.1
it had guaranteed advertisers.

Critics have chewed over the reasons for the decline--NBC's
decision to tape-delay all events, the lack of a breakout star,
the conflict with baseball's pennant races and with NFL games.
But here's the dirty little secret of Sydney: Even with a
flawless broadcast and a dozen charismatic heroes, Sydney's
numbers would still be down from previous Games. "These Olympics
are in a different media environment than, say, the Seoul Games,"
says Stacey Lynn Koerner, VP of broadcast research for ad-buying
agency TN Media. "In 1988 the networks had 70 percent of the
prime-time audience; now they're fighting for 50 percent. The
numbers have a lot to do with normal audience erosion."

That erosion explains why, with the exception of the Super Bowl,
ratings for almost all premier sports events, including Monday
Night Football, are down. Yet the top sports events still
overpower their competition. MNF handily wins its time slot, and
Sydney broadcasts accounted for eight of the top 10 programs last
week. On a daily basis, prime-time Olympic coverage has outdrawn
competing telecasts by an average of six million viewers. "What
separates certain events from regular programming is the way they
can dominate a night," says Koerner. "The NBA Finals, the NCAAs
and the Super Bowl do that. The Oscars can do it, and the
Olympics are still doing it."

In other words reports of the demise of televised sports have
been greatly exaggerated. The Sydney Olympics may not be the
Atlanta Games, but as Koerner points out, "they're still the
Olympics." --John Walters


Allan Houston accepted so many condolences last week you'd have
thought that he'd lost a loved one. In a way maybe he had, since
the Knicks guard, who's in Sydney playing for the U.S. Olympic
team, seemed far from thrilled with the four-team trade on Sept.
20 that sent 11-time All-Star center Patrick Ewing to the Sonics
and netted New York forward Glen Rice and centers Luc Longley
and Travis Knight, among others. Several of Houston's fellow
Dream Teamers, including Ewing's new teammate Gary Payton, told
him not to worry--that the Knicks would surely make another deal
to address their newfound weakness up front.

What they didn't point out was the obvious: that any further New
York trade talks may well involve Houston. Widespread rumors have
New York dangling him and forward Marcus Camby as bait in an
attempt to land a big man like the Hawks' Dikembe Mutombo or the
Kings' Chris Webber. (New York reportedly contacted Atlanta about
Mutombo last week, but the Hawks showed little interest in
dealing.) Houston was even less excited about the idea of being
traded than he was at the prospect of soft Aussie Longley as the
Knicks' new starting center. "Do I want to play with the Knicks?
Of course I do," he said, "but I don't know what their plan is.
To try to predict what's going to happen or where I'll be would
not be healthy right now."

With Houston, Rice and Latrell Sprewell, New York has a glut of
scorers, but Houston is committed to making it work if the Knicks
stand pat. "Playing Latrell and me together wasn't supposed to
work, but it did," he says. "We'll be O.K." Other Dream Teamers
aren't so sure. As Houston was talking to reporters after a game
against Lithuania, Vince Carter ran by, patted him on the back
and jokingly said, "The Knicks stink."

Houston didn't laugh, but he didn't argue, either. --Phil Taylor

Sport? Not a Sport?

SPORT "Anything that's competitive and that requires discipline
is a sport." --Angels infielder Mo Vaughn

NOT A SPORT "Anything you rent to entertain five-year-olds at a
birthday party doesn't qualify." --Seahawks guard Pete Kendall

SPORT "Why not? It's more of a sport than synchronized
swimming." --Golfer Steve Pate

SPORT "It belongs right there with lawn bowling."
--Mariners pitching coach Bryan Price

SPORT "Definitely. I saw Cirque du Soleil. That's some athletic
ability." --Tigers infielder Dean Palmer

SPORT "If people come out and pay to see it, I guess you have a
right to call it a sport." --Indians pitcher Steve Karsay

NOT A SPORT "It's an extreme game." --Yankees infielder Derek Jeter

NOT A SPORT "It's an exercise." --Rangers infielder Frank

NOT A SPORT "It's something I did as a kid to pass time."
--Stars forward Brenden Morrow

SPORT "When I was young, I got on a trampoline once and fell off
and hit my head on the ground. I thought, Damn, you've got to be
an athlete to do this." --UNLV football coach John Robinson

SPORT "Sure, but you would never catch my fat ass on one."
--Golfer John Daly

Trend Watch

If you've seen Shaq Daddy blinging and flossing his latest whips
and dubs, you're probably already down with Dub, a new
hip-hop-flavored magazine devoted to celebs and their wheels that
has become the media obsession of choice among car-loving
athletes. Shaquille O'Neal can be seen on the cover of the
current issue blinging (gleaming with jewelry) and flossing
(showing off) his whips (custom rides) and dubs (wheel rims).
That's why Latrell Sprewell and Mike Tyson (not to mention
musicians such as Snoop Dogg and Fred Durst) also have flossed as
loudly as possible to get into Dub's pages, according to
publisher Herman Flores, who with two partners launched Dub eight
months ago.

"When we shot Shaq," says Flores, "he was dressed in warmups. I
said, 'If you're gonna be on the cover, you gotta be outta
control! So he tells one of his buddies, 'Yo, get my ice.' Next
thing you know, he has this frosted platinum dog chain around his
neck and a huge diamond bracelet. He was just blingin' it!"

The competition to bling can get overheated. "We told Tyson his
vehicles probably wouldn't be on the cover," says Flores. "He
wasn't happy. He called us the next week and said, 'Come back. I
just bought an $800,000 Jaguar XJ220. Only me and Bill Gates have

High-profile fans are now desperate to be Dub'd. Flores says
that reps for boxer Prince Naseem Hamed, Tampa Bay running back
Warrick Dunn and Puff Daddy have called. Explains Jazz forward
Bryon Russell, whose Cadillac and Mercedes will be featured in
Dub's next issue: "Guys like me, we have 20-inch rims on every
car we got. We all wanna be flossin' in that magazine."
--Chris Lewis

burning Question

Q If a Formula One car raced against a CART machine, which would

A On a twisty course, like the one built at the Indianapolis
Motor Speedway for last Sunday's U.S. Grand Prix, CART's Michael
Andretti would have no chance against F/1's Michael Schumacher.
Though the engines for both open-wheel racers produce about 800
horsepower, F/1 cars (like the one below) are about 400 pounds
lighter. Says Andretti, who raced on the F/1 circuit in 1993,
"That helps with braking, cornering and acceleration. An F/1 car
is going to outperform CART in all those areas." Opinions are
split as to whether the same would be true on an oval. Derrick
Walker, a former F/1 mechanic who owns Walker Racing team, which
competes in CART and IRL, believes the CART machine, with a top
speed of 240 mph (to the F/1's 225), would rule. Andretti,
though, thinks the F/1's weight advantage would give it the
edge. So, does the bulkier CART vehicle have any advantage over
an F/1 car? "Yes," Andretti says. "In an accident."


Orioles outfielder Albert Belle, by the Indians, for ruining the
carpeting in the visitors' clubhouse during the teams'
three-game series at Jacobs Field in early September. After
several of Belle's at bats, the Indians say, he returned to the
clubhouse, opened a bottle of red All Sport, took one gulp, then
poured the rest on the floor.

On the arm, Britain's Princess Anne, by an unidentified sports
federation official at an Olympic field hockey match in Sydney. A
member of the royal entourage noticed the breach in protocol, and
the official apologized.

Ground on Cowboys Golf Course, a public course in Grapevine,
Texas, in which the Cowboys are partners. Dallas owner Jerry
Jones says the venture is part of his attempt at "springboarding
the Cowboys' brand into untapped markets." Weekend greens fees at
the course are expected to top $100.

Jacksonville youth football coach Ronald Gibson, 34, with
aggravated child abuse, after he allegedly threw a 10-year-old
player to the ground, breaking both the boy's arms, because the
boy had dropped a pass during practice. Gibson is awaiting

At Odds
USC and Pat Saukko, whose family has raised five generations of
the school's horse mascot, Traveler. Saukko has applied to
trademark the horse's name and image, a move USC opposes.

To Xavier's Hall of Fame, Sister Rose Ann Fleming, academic
adviser for the school's athletes. Since she took the role in the
1985-86 season, every Xavier basketball player who made it to his
senior year has graduated.

good Sports
Koss, Still the Boss

To follow Johann Olav Koss around Sydney for a day is to reawaken
to the fact that not all superstar athletes are greedy boors. An
IOC member, four-time speed skating gold medalist and SI's 1994
Sportsman of the Year, Koss, 31, runs the philanthropic group
Olympic Aid. He receives no salary, living instead off his
diminishing savings, the fruits of his speed skating career.
"He's an Olympic champion, a humanitarian and a good-looking
Norwegian," says U.S. long jump great and Olympic Aid colleague
Mike Powell. "How are you going to beat that?"

In his role with Olympic Aid, which establishes grassroots
athletic programs for refugee children around the world, Koss
(above right, with Powell) has made several trips to Eritrea,
trying, as he puts it, "to bring the ideals of sport" to
youngsters displaced by the recent border war with Ethiopia. Koss
also guided Eritrean sports officials through the Olympic
qualifying process. "Our participation is our gold medal," says
Abraha Ghermazion Habtezion, president of Eritrea's Olympic
committee, which sent its first three athletes to the Games. "We
owe much to Johann."

Koss attacks his mission with indefatigable energy. Last Thursday
was a typical day. He woke at five and jogged for 45 minutes. At
seven he met with sporting goods retailers to put the squeeze on
them for equipment donations. At nine he laid out Olympic Aid's
goals to an executive of the General Association of International
Sports Federations. At 10 Koss talked politics with Powell and
Olympic delegates from Eritrea, and at 11:30 he met with an
adviser to Australian prime minister John Howard. After putting
out a small fire related to Olympic Aid's online auction of Games
memorabilia, Koss headed to the Olympic Village for a three-hour
meeting with Ethiopia's delegation, during which he arranged for
Haile Gebrselassie to take a ceremonial lap with Eritrean runner
Yonas Kifle after Monday's 10,000 meters. (The peace gesture
never came off: Kifle didn't make it in time because of a
transportation snafu.) Then it was off to nosh with Norway's
Princess Martha Louise at a reception. News that two athletes had
failed drug tests squelched Koss's plan to actually see an
Olympic event. Instead he headed to an IOC drug commission
meeting that lasted until 2 a.m.

Earlier Powell had asked Koss if a scheduling conflict would pose
a problem. "Nothing is a problem," Koss responded. Said Powell,
"That's what the man's about." --Jack McCallum

the Beat

What happens when you let a Playboy Playmate choose a starting
quarterback? Let's just say that arm strength ends up counting
for far less than a snazzy sports car. Earlier this year Browns
quarterback Tim Couch hooked up with Heather Kozar, the 1999
Playmate of the Year. Before the preseason Couch introduced Kozar
(below) to his pal, Bears quarterback Cade McNown, who fell hard
for the beauty. According to a source, McNown then began an
offensive series to win over Kozar--sending her flowers, phoning
constantly, even sending his Porsche from Chicago to her home in
L.A. for her use. The play-calling worked: Kozar benched Couch in
favor of McNown. She has since moved to Chicago, and she and
McNown have begun talking about marriage....

Forget Monday Night Football. The hottest sports action at the
start of the week can be found at Manhattan's China Club, which
has developed a buzz among jocks as the place to be on Mondays.
A typical gathering occurred on Sept. 11: Yankees at the club
included Derek Jeter (with Miss Universe Lara Dutta), Tino
Martinez and Dwight Gooden. Joining them were the Mets' Derek
Bell, the Brewers' Jeff D'Amico and Richie Sexson, the Blue
Jays' Kelvim Escobar, as well as Marcus Allen, Clyde Drexler and
Anthony Mason....

Boxer Roy Jones Jr. signed with Endeavor, a Hollywood talent
agency. He wants to get into TV and movie projects, as well as
nurture his burgeoning recording career--he's cut a few rap
singles on his own label, Body Head Entertainment....

O.J. Simpson just bought a five-bedroom, four-bathroom house in
Miami. Simpson, whose two children attend a Miami-area private
school, paid $575,000 for the estate, which includes a swimming
pool and a guest house. Still, the amenities apparently don't
live up to the Hall of Famer's lofty standards. "I've lived in
some pretty upscale places," said Simpson. "This place has a lot
of shortcomings compared to them."


Top Non-Super Bowl Sports Telecasts

1. Winter Olympics, Feb. 23, 1994, 45.7 million viewers Figure
skating short program: Nancy versus Tonya, Part I

2. Winter Olympics, Feb. 25, 1994, 41.5 million viewers Figure
skating final: Nancy versus Tonya, Part II

3. NFC championship, Jan. 10, 1982, 35.0 million viewers Cowboys
versus 49ers

4. World Series Game 7, Oct. 27, 1986, 34.0 million viewers Mets
versus Red Sox

5. NFC championship, Jan. 15, 1995, 32.7 million viewers Cowboys
versus 49ers

Go Figure

Active players with 400 or more home runs (Mark McGwire, Barry
Bonds, Jose Canseco, Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken, Fred McGriff,
Rafael Palmeiro), the most ever.

$2 billion
Amount U.S. taxpayers have shelled out since 1984 to help stage
the Olympics in the U.S., according to the General Accounting

Home dates this season on which the Oakland A's were outdrawn
by their Triple A affiliate, the Sacramento River Cats.

Stolen bases by Padres pitcher Adam Eaton this year, one more
than all other big league pitchers combined.

California schools in the top 10 of the NCAA men's water polo

This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse

Nike workers who handled Michael Johnson's custom-made
24-karat-gold-encrusted shoes had to wear white gloves so they
wouldn't dull the shine.

They Said It

U.S. Olympic basketball player, on the changed attitudes of
Dream Team opponents: "These guys don't even ask for autographs