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Simone Biles' Return Helped Tokyo Olympics Viewership, But the Average Stays at 16.8 Million Viewers

Lindsey Wasson | Reuters
  • The Tokyo Olympics averaged 17.4 million total viewers for Tuesday's coverage.
  • If advertisers fail to get impressions negotiated, they receive make-goods -- inventory in other NBC programming.
  • But some top performers like Caeleb Dressel, Katie Ledecky and Sydney McLaughlin are sticking out with great performance.

The Tokyo Olympics averaged 17.4 million total viewers for Tuesday's coverage, and NBCUniversal's overall primetime average remained at 16.8 million viewers across its platforms, the media company announced Wednesday.

Gymnastics star Simone Biles' return to competition Tuesday morning and helped lure viewers. Biles withdrew from events last week, citing mental health concerns, but returned to capture a bronze medal in the women's balance beam on Tuesday. Biles, 24, now has seven Olympic medals, which ties Shannon Miller for most among U.S. Olympic gymnasts.

NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC, noted TV-only viewership drew 16.8 million viewers on Tuesday. The beginning of track and field competitions also helped, and U.S women's soccer and U.S. men's basketball were two of the main attractions for the Tokyo Olympics earlier in the week. The U.S. women's team fell to Canada, 1-0, and knocked out of the chase for gold. That contest ended early Monday morning. The men's victory over Spain in the knockout round (quarterfinals) was shown on NBC's streaming service Peacock and finished around 2 a.m. Eastern time Tuesday.

The Tokyo Games recovered from low ratings during the opening ceremony event, which attracted roughly 17 million viewers. The opening weekend included 19.8 million viewers for July 25 coverage, which featured the U.S. men's basketball team losing to France.

But numbers started to decline after that as viewership last Friday averaged 15.5 million viewers across TV and streaming. However, viewers streamed roughly 3 billion minutes of Tokyo Olympics content across its platforms including Peacock, and NBCUniversal estimates that total will surpass the 2016 Rio Olympics, which streamed 3.3 billion minutes.

If advertisers fail to get impressions negotiated, they receive make-goods -- inventory in other NBC programming. Historically, the Summer Olympics has been a massive draw for viewers. In 2016, the two-week event attracted an average of 27.5 million viewers across all NBC platforms. The 2012 Games in London attracted roughly 31 million viewers, and the 2008 Beijing Olympics averaged 27 million viewers.

Sydney McLaughlin of the United States poses with her gold medal for the Women's 400m hurdles, Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan, August 4, 2021.
Lindsey Wasson | Reuters
Sydney McLaughlin of the United States poses with her gold medal for the Women's 400m hurdles, Olympic Stadium, Tokyo, Japan, August 4, 2021.

Olympic profiles raised and new names discovered

If sponsors aren't getting the impressions from the U.S. viewership side, athletes can't maximize endorsement deals, said Edward Schauder, a sports attorney at law firm Phillips Nizer.

Schauder has negotiated endorsement deals involving top athletes, including Tiger Woods and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.

However, performance can trump ratings, and winning multiple gold medals would help overcome the low impressions as companies leverage iconic Olympic names long-term.

"If you win gold medals like Mark Spitz, you will always be known," Schauder said. "You win 28 medals like Michael Phelps, you will always be known."

This year, swimmer Caeleb Dressel, who won five gold medals in Tokyo, shined. He joined Spitz and Phelps to win at least five medals in one summer. And at $37,500 per gold medal, Dressel earned a six-figure payday. Dressel is already aligned with top sponsors, including Toyota and Coca-Cola, and made national media rounds on Tuesday after returning to the U.S.

U.S. women's swimmer Katie Ledecky also stood out, especially during the battle with Australia's Ariarne Titmus in the women's 400m freestyle. Ledecky won four medals at the Tokyo Games and now has 10 medals in her Olympic career.

On Tuesday, U.S. track and field star Sydney McLaughlin (gold) set a new world record in the women's 400m hurdles. McLaughlin, the former Gatorade High School Athlete of the Year, overcame fellow U.S. runner Dalilah Muhammad and finished in 51:47 seconds.

McLaughlin, 21, is aligned with watchmaker TAG Heuer and has a deal with apparel company New Balance.

"There will also be that one or two athletes that will emerge and everyone is talking about," said Schauder, adding marketers and film producers could identify "cool stories that people find out about after" the Olympics.

Gymnast Suni Lee and golfer Xander Schauffele as two of the more exciting storylines that emerged from the ames.

After Biles withdrew from competitions, Lee, 18, stepped in and won the women's gymnastics all-around competition, extending the U.S. 17-year winning streak in the event. Schauffele was involved in a final round thrill with Slovakia's Rory Sabbatini. Also, women's wrestler Tamyra Mensah-Stock was second on Facebook's list, after becoming the first Black woman to win gold in the competition which made its debut in 2004.

On the international front, 13-year-old females Momiji Nishiya (Japan) and Rayssa Leal (Brazil) were also popular in the Tokyo Games. Nishiya finished with gold, and Leal took silver in the women's street skateboard competition, one of the new sports added to the Olympics. And 13-year-old Sky Brown became Great Britain's youngest Olympic medalist when she finished with bronze in the women's park skateboarding final.

Also, college athletes should benefit from the name, image, and likeness when they return to universities.

"They'll be able to add Olympic medalist to their profile and being a member of an Olympic team," Schauder said. "It's like when Christian Laettner benefited from being the college kid who played on the Dream Team."

Entering Wednesday, the U.S. remains in first with 79 total medals (25 gold). China has 70 medals (32 gold) and the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) is third with 53 total medals.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal owns NBC Sports and NBC Olympics. NBC Olympics is the U.S. broadcast rights holder to all Summer and Winter Games through 2032.

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