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Olympic Games America's favorite sports spectacle

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: December 17, 2003

The Olympic Games occur for only a few weeks every other year, but the Olympic flame burns eternally for most American sports fans.

The Olympics ranked as the nation's most popular sporting spectacle in a poll of 1,048 adults conducted by the Scripps Howard News Service/Ohio University.

Nearly 56 percent of the poll respondents said they often or sometimes watch or read about the Olympics on television, the newspapers or the Internet.

The National Football League garnered the second-most interest with 49.7 percent, followed by Major League Baseball with 43.2 percent.

The Games' appeal during Olympic years is undeniable. Last year's Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City received stellar television ratings, spurred by a record-breaking gold medal haul by United States' athletes including figure skater Sarah Hughes and skeleton racer Jim Shea. Next year's Summer Games in Athens promise to be equally compelling, and in June NBC plunked down over $2 billion to earn the television rights for the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the 2012 Summer Games at a site still to be determined.

But in odd years like 2003, Olympic sports like skiing, swimming and volleyball are rarely showcased on television, and they are largely forgotten by the mass media. Nevertheless far more poll respondents said they follow the Olympics than more publicized sports like the National Basketball Association (36.2 percent), NASCAR auto racing (22.1) and the National Hockey League (13.7).

"The Olympic Games is an international, cosmopolitan, all-embracing one-world sporting event," said John Lucas, an Olympic historian who has attended every Summer Olympics since the 1960 Rome Games. "Nothing rivals it.

"The United Nations, UNESCO, and the World Bank have indicated that there are 202 recognized nations on the planet Earth. Athletes from every single one of them will be in Athens (for the 2004 Summer Games)."

Unlike most other sports, the appeal of the Olympics stretches across geographic, gender, racial and age boundaries.

At least 51 percent of the fans surveyed from the Northeast, South, Midwest and West followed the Olympics. It is the most popular sport in each region. No other sport came close _ in fact the NFL and MLB were the only sports that attracted even 40 percent of the fans' interest in each section of the country.

"It's the last bastion really of television events which consistently brings the entire family together to the screen," said David Neal, executive vice president, NBC Olympics.

Among men, 62.4 percent followed the Games: only the NFL was higher at 64.9. Among women, 49.7 percent were Olympic fans; the NFL was a distant second at 35.7, followed by baseball (33.7) and a Winter Olympic staple, figure skating (31.4).

"When you look at numbers that show 49 percent, the highest rank among women, one of the things that it reaffirms for us is that it transcends sport," said Neal. "The nature of the event is a global gathering, and sports just sort of happens to be the reason that everyone is together."

Over 50 percent of white, black, Hispanic and Asian respondents followed the Olympics. No other sport received support from each ethnic group of at least 40 percent.

The Olympics are the most popular sport among whites (58.8), Hispanics (54.6) and Asians (60.7), while it was the third-most followed sport among African-Americans, trailing the NBA (67.4) and the NFL (64.3).

"Here's an interesting phenomena," said Neal. "We find out when we look at our minute-by-minute ratings of the opening ceremony, consistently the highest rated part of any opening ceremony is the parade of athletes. At first glance you might say, there is some sameness to that, but the fact is that American television viewers love watching to see the various countries march in together _whether looking to see the countries that their ancestors came from or just a general interest and seeing all those athletes coming into the stadium as one."

The Olympics also appeal to people of all ages, but the highest interest was among young adults. Of those between ages 18 and 24, 62.1 percent said they follow the Olympics.

"So many of the students think that since it's a worldwide thing, it's not just restricted to American mores, so I guess they think from a political point of view, that is what you should participate in," said John Walter, professor of American Ethnic Studies and history at the University of Washington. "Before that, they saw it as a contest between ourselves and the Soviet Union, it was capitalism against communism."

In other surveys conducted in recent years, the Olympics' popularity was hurt by a series of scandals including doping abuse, corruption and bid rigging. Sub par TV ratings at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney fueled the perception that the Olympics had lost some of its luster.

However, a resurgence in viewership for the Salt Lake Games (ratings of 19.2, up from 13.8 in 2000) reinforced the popularity of the world's most grandiose sporting event.

"Here in Greece, we recognize that the Olympic Games are unique because they represent the purity of competition, set on a global stage, where people of every nation have a chance to compete _ success is based on merit, and the boundaries of human achievement are tested, exceeded and redefined," said Serafim Kotrotsos, Athens 2004 press and media general manager. "These are values that will always mean something to people, wherever they are from, and the Olympic Games is where we can all see these events unfold."

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from July 30 through Aug. 12 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The overall poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.

PASSION FOR SPORTS VARIES BY AGE, GENDER, RACE

By David Nielsen

Scripps Howard News Service

In a nation polarized by war, political partisanship and vexing cultural issues, it isn't surprising that Americans' views on sports vary widely.

A recent poll of 1,048 adults conducted by the Scripps Howard News Service/Ohio University examined how closely Americans followed 15 sports, including the major professional team sports, college football and basketball, auto racing, tennis and golf.

While the poll showed that Americans of all stripes are interested in sports, a closer look reveals distinct differences in the attitudes between men and women, young and old, and whites and minorities.

Men are bigger fans of every sport except one: figure skating. Of the women polled, 31.4 percent are skating fans, compared to just 12.8 percent of the men.

Conversely men are overwhelmingly more interested than women in college football (46.9 percent to 23.3) and boxing (35.1 to 13.0).

While the gender gap looms large for some sports, it narrows precipitously for others. The interest in tennis is remarkably close: 25.6 percent of the men and 23.4 percent of the women. Women and men also share a common interest in hockey (14.9 percent of men, 12.6 percent of women), which doesn't surprise Nicole Lavoi, sports sociologist at the University of Notre Dame.

"There tends to be a perception that certain sports are more appropriate and more interesting to women," said Lavoi. "Now that's more of a myth than it is reality, and you see that with the lack of gap in hockey. You would assume that more hockey fans would be male. However most people don't know that hockey is the fastest growing women's and girls' sport in the country. So that makes sense.

"In terms of boxing and college football that's not shocking. That's more along the lines of a very masculine, aggressive sport where men tend to watch it with other men, and it's typically a social event that doesn't include women."

Among the most polarized sports is the NBA, particularly among different racial and age groups.

Professional basketball is the most popular sport among African-Americans (67.4 percent) and is the third-most followed sport by those between 18 and 24 years old (59.4). But less than half as many whites (28.4 percent) and people 65-and-older (25.1 percent) follow the game.

"Sports Illustrated about four or five years ago pointed out that in certain parts of the north, several high schools, even when the majority of the students were white, parents would tell their sons don't even bother to try for basketball (because) you're not going to make it," said John Walter, professor of American Ethnic Studies and history at the University of Washington. "The impression was that as long as there are any black students around, the white students can't jump. And you know there is a film by that name which of course is nonsense.

"But the impression is that's what it is because there is a high percentage of black folks in basketball. There's also the underlying sense of racism which is still alive and well in our country."

Boxing's popularity is equally stratified. 41.7 percent of those 18-24 follow it, compared to only 9.5 percent of Americans 65-and-up. Similarly, 44.4 percent of blacks and 41.2 percent of Hispanics follow boxing, but just 17.8 percent of whites.

"Black people identify with (former heavyweight champion) Jack Johnson and then later on with Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, and all those who came after," said Walter. "For black folks then this was an affirmation that they were not inferior, because all this time they've been told then as now that black folks are inferior to white people.

"As far the Hispanics, you can see what's happening. They're small people, but they dominate the smaller classes after blacks left."

The sport with the highest gender gap was the NFL, which was followed by 64.9 percent of men and 35.7 percent of women. Extreme sports/skateboarding had the largest age difference: 32.4 percent of those 18-24 followed this new sport versus just 1.5 percent of poll respondents 65-and-older.

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from July 30 through Aug. 12 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The overall poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.

NOT EVERYONE IS A SPORTS FAN

By John Lindsay

Scripps Howard News Service

It will surprise few that a recent poll conducted by Scripps Howard News Service/Ohio University found that Michael Jordan is the most famous athlete in the United States today.

Who was second in total responses is more than puzzling.

Tiger Woods? Nope, he was third with 13.3 percent, more than 17 percentage points behind Jordan.

Barry Bonds? Shaquille O'Neal? Combined, they failed to total three percent.

The runner-up to Jordan in this most-famous portion of the SHNS/OU poll was "Don't Know." This ambiguous response finished second at 20.4 percent.

Are these people oblivious to the overwhelming world of sports? Many sure don't make much effort to keep up.

Aside from the Olympics, the National Football League is the most popular sport in the U.S. And this survey indicated that the number of respondents who watch an NFL game often or sometimes is an impressive 47.7 percent. But those who say they never watch an NFL game is a healthy 41.1 percent.

The poll results got worse for other major sports. Baseball's combined often-or-sometimes watch a televised game figure of 38.1 percent was nearly five percent behind the 42.7 percent who never watch the national pastime on TV.

Those who never watch an NBA game on TV (51.7 percent) dwarf those who often or sometimes do (33.6 percent). College football? Never 54.8 percent to often-or-sometimes with just 31.9 percent. College basketball? Never (61.7 percent) looks like Duke while often-or-sometimes (25.4 percent) is Quinnipiac.

And don't believe that NASCAR's popularity is booming. Those who never watch stock car racing total 69.4 percent to slow poke often-or-sometimes 19.8 percent.

So who are these people who can't name any famous athletes, and how do they ignore sports in a society that is supposedly obsessed with scores, stats and personalities?

Christian M. End, a psychologist at the University of Missouri-Rolla, has some answers. End is the co-author of "You're not a sport fan? The stigma of identifying as a male non-sport fan."

"Our research has shown that 80-90 percent of Americans identify themselves as sports fans, but a good deal may not be informed enough to answer that question," End said. "You have to remember that though many people might not watch sports on TV to know who is most famous, they still would take their kids to a sport that they actually play. That's their sports."

Even if that's true, with 217.6 million adults in the United States, End's figure would mean there are at least 22 million people who could care less about the Super Bowl or World Series.

"I just don't have a lot of time to pay attention to sports," said poll respondent Margaret Sammson of Berea, Ky. "But my husband sure does."

Life is hardly easy for those who dislike sports. End's research shows that being identified as a sports fan affects one's social acceptance.

"In our surveys of subjects who answered 20 questions about themselves, those who identified themselves as non-sports fans were viewed in the least favorable category," End said. "... People often feel pressure to be part of the crowd. A professor I know, who often made it known that he wasn't much of a sports fan, confessed to me that he found himself in San Francisco on a business trip when a person next to him asked 'How about that 49ers game last night?' And he answered 'Yeah, it was some game.'

"Even though he hadn't watched it or even known it was on. He then asked himself why he pretended and it was simply to be accepted in that situation."

Being a sports fan is a very public thing, End also noted.

"It's the one identity that we, as a society, go out of our way to publicize," End said.

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from July 30 through Aug. 12 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The overall poll has a margin of error of 4 percentage points, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.