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Olympics ratings: Opening Ceremony sees sharp decline in initial returns

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In a pandemic summer, a fanless Olympics isn't as much of a draw. 

Friday's Opening Ceremony averaged 17 million viewers on NBC both live and delayed in Nielsen's early fast national ratings. That number will rise once final out-of-home numbers are in early this week. 

The prior lowest mark for an Opening Ceremony is 20.1 million for the 1988 Seoul Games. Per Sports Media Watch, the prior six Opening Ceremonies averaged at least 25 million viewers; the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in 2018 averaged 27.8 million, and the Rio Summer Olympics in 2016 averaged 26.5 million. London's 2012 Opening Ceremony holds the record at 40.7 million.

On the "any news is good news" front, NBC noted that average online and streaming viewership grew 76 percent from PyeongChang and 72 percent from Rio, a reflection of viewers' rejection of traditional broadcast formats. 

Although the numbers for the Opening Ceremony will rise, the 17 million already marks it as the most-watched non-football sporting event of 2021. As Sports Media Watch notes, the Opening Ceremony right now would slot in at 17th place overall, just ahead of the Baylor-Gonzaga NCAA men's basketball national championship and just behind the Alabama-Ohio State NCAA football national championship.

Why are ratings down?

It's too early to make definitive comparisons about where this year's Opening Ceremony will fall relative to other 2021 events, but it's not too early to start breaking down why the Olympics aren't tracking higher overall. The 13-hour time differential with the East Coast (16 hours with the West Coast) may be a contributing factor — although PyeongChang was similarly delayed — as is the lack of fans robbing the event of much-needed atmosphere. 

Worth noting: ratings are down across the board in 2021 for virtually all broadcast events, sports and otherwise, a result of increased competition for viewers' attention and decreased viewer interest during the pandemic. 

The key driver behind lower Olympic ratings, however, is the fact that a significant percentage of potential viewers simply aren't interested in watching the Olympics during a pandemic at all. According to an Ipsos poll conducted in May and June, only a slight majority of Americans (52 percent) believe the Olympics should even go ahead at all. Only 48 percent of Americans say they are interested in the Olympics, with 16 percent saying they're very interested and 32 percent somewhat interested. (More information, including methodology, on the Ipsos poll is here.) 

Other polls reflected a similar muted interest. A Morning Consult poll found that 51 percent of Americans said they would watch some or all of the Olympics on TV, while a YouGov poll put that number at 37 percent.

What events do Americans want to watch?

Looking ahead, the Morning Consult poll found that most American viewers are more excited to watch gymnastics than any other sport, with 62 percent of Americans showing at least some interest. The remainder of the top five most anticipated sports: swimming (56 percent), diving (51 percent), track and field (49 percent) and beach volleyball (48 percent). Full details on the Morning Consult poll here.

-TOKYO,JAPAN July 23, 2021: Fireworks light the sky during opening ceremonies at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
-TOKYO,JAPAN July 23, 2021: Fireworks light the sky during opening ceremonies at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. (Wally Skalij /Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.

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