- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 27, 2008

As the world gets back to reality after the biggest and most impressive Olympic Games in history, it also will try to make sense of what it just saw for 17 days.

There was a lot of Michael Phelps and a lot of gold. And a lot of fast Jamaicans.

And there was a lot of money spent, perhaps not all of it wisely.

China spent $40 billion to hold the games. Was it worth it? Only the Chinese will know.

The billions spent by companies to become official Olympic sponsors? Even bigger question. While there is value in trying to break into a largely untapped market of 1.5 billion people - nearly 300 million of whom are middle class - recent reports suggest the return on investment from the Olympics doesn’t match projections.

What’s certain is the purchase of television advertising will go down as a good investment: NBC reported record ratings driven by live coverage of Phelps’ run to eight gold medals.

More than 211 million people tuned in to the games on NBC or its affiliated cable networks, averaging more than 27.7 million viewers a day. The NBCOlympics.com Web site drew nearly 52 million unique users - more than double the number of four years ago - and the number of video streams hit 75.5 million - more than seven times the number seen at the Athens Games. The company also saw an 81 percent jump in Olympics-related merchandise over the 2006 Torino Games.

Meanwhile, other sites with Olympic content also did well. The Olympics page built by Yahoo!, for instance, reported an average of 4.7 million unique users each day during the games, outpacing NBC’s site despite having no rights to show video of the events.

The International Olympic Committee has two big decisions coming up, and both could take place in the next year. It must decide on a host city for the 2016 Summer Games from a short list that includes Chicago, Tokyo, Madrid and Rio de Janeiro. Then it must negotiate a new television contract for the games beyond 2012.

For viewers at home, the television contract may be the more important decision. NBC is locked in through the London Games but likely will face stiff competition from ESPN and Fox. Given NBC’s penchant for failing to show many significant events live (ahem, Usain Bolt) there may be popular support for the IOC to select ESPN, which has made statements indicating it would avoid showing events on tape delay.

Of course, from the IOC’s perspective, money is the key issue. ESPN has paid big bucks for properties it wants. (The 15-year, $2.5 billion deal with the SEC is a prime example.) And it also has been ahead of the curve in its ability to show sports online and would love to use the Olympics to spur further distribution of its ESPN360 and ESPN Mobile offerings.