The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio featured swimmer Michael Phelps, already the most decorated Olympian ever, returning from retirement. Others, too, came to Rio with multiple golds, big endorsements and well-known backstories, including U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
The 2018 Winter Games in Pyeong-chang, South Korea, have just a flicker of that star power, with only two returning U.S. gold medalists, snowboarder Shaun White and alpine skier Lindsey Vonn, registering significant name recognition with American audiences, according to data from Hub Entertainment Research. (The survey was conducted online Dec. 16-19 with more than 1,000 U.S. respondents, ages 16-64.)
That may not bode well for a megabillion-dollar event that already shines less brightly than its warm-weather counterpart.
“It’s been proven time and time again that the Summer Olympics, with its diversity of sports and type of athletes, tends to have a broader appeal,” says Amy Rappo, communications strategy director at ad agency Droga5.
The Hub study found a paucity of well-known names coming to Pyeongchang, so much so that 19% of those surveyed claimed to have heard of none of the dozens of potential stars.
Traditionally, men’s hockey has been one of the most popular Winter Olympics sports. But the NHL has opted not to go on hiatus for the Games for the first time since 1998, denying the competition many of its top players.
Still, NBC benefits from the fact that it’s airing the Super Bowl and Winter Olympics in the same year — the first network to do so since 1992. And the football game is being played Feb. 4, just four days before the start of the Olympics, giving the network a platform to tout breakout candidates like Mikaela Shiffrin, an alpine skier with the possibility of challenging for as many as five gold medals.
“I think they’re going to use a lot of their Super Bowl time to ramp up promotions and do more profiles on the athletes as well,” Rappo says.
Yet the true appeal of the Olympics for viewers is not the caliber of stars at the start of the Games, argues Elizabeth Lindsey, manager partner at sports marketing and talent management firm Wasserman, but rather those who emerge over the course of the event.
“I can guarantee you some of the names that aren’t recognizable going into the Olympics will be known after the Olympics, because the Olympics is a story maker,” Lindsey says. “It’ll happen again this year, because it always does.”
WHICH OF THESE OLYMPIC ATHLETES HAVE YOU HEARD OF?
Pre-Games, only a handful of athletes have significant awareness among viewers
Shaun White: 53% Awareness
White entered the pro circuit at age 13. Now, at 31, he’s become one of the most decorated figures in snowboarding, earning two Olympic gold medals as well as 15 golds at ESPN’s X Games. He’s also taken home 10 ESPY Awards.
Lindsey Vonn: 51% Awareness
The 33-year-old alpine skiier is the only American woman to capture Olympic gold in the downhill event, winning in Vancouver in 2010. No woman has more World Cup wins (76) than Vonn.
19% have heard of none of these athletes
Kelly Clark: 15% Awareness
Clark is the youngest U.S. woman snowboarder to medal at the Olympics, taking gold in the halfpipe at age 19 in 2002. She also won bronze in 2010 and ’14.
Jamie Anderson: 13% Awareness
A five-timeX Games gold medalist, snowboarder Anderson won Olympic gold in 2014 in the first Olympic slopestyle.
Nathan Chen: 12% Awareness
The 18-year-old Chen has been the U.S. men’s national figure skating champ for the past two years — since he hit the senior circuit. This is his first Olympics.
Lindsey Jacobellis: 10% Awareness
A five-time world champion in the snowboard cross, Jacobellis memorably took silver in the 2006 Olympics when a late flourish failed.
Maddie Bowman: 8% Awareness
Snowboarder Bowman won Olympic gold in the Games’ first halfpipe competition, in Sochi. After rehabbing a torn ACL in 2015, she’s won two X Games golds.
Amanda Kessel: 7% Awareness
A concussion during the 2014 Olympics sidelined Kessel for two years, but in 2017 she led the U.S. women’s hockey team to the World Championship.
Maia and Alex Shibutani: 7% Awareness
The sibling ice dancers have been a team for 14 years. They took bronze at the 2017 World Championships after placing ninth in Sochi.
Mikaela Shiffrin: 7% Awareness
Alpine skiier Shiffrin won her first world title in the slalom in 2013 at age 17 and has never lost since, including at the Sochi Olympics.
(Sources: Hub Entertainment research, Variety; Only athletes with more than 6% recognition are shown)