June 18, 2006

The Times of Finals

There's an international uproar brewing over the schedule of events in Beijing in 2008. You may have read about it at Timed Finals, where Scott Goldblatt has been doing an excellent job following the story and laying out the issues.

The outline of the story is this: NBC has suggested that the finals in swimming (and perhaps a number of other high-profile events) should be rescheduled from late afternoon to early morning. That would mean that they could be broadcast live in United States primetime, meaning a bigger audience and more advertising revenue for NBC.

As Scott also reported, a few Australian sources are today stating that this is a done deal — the IOC is "set to announce" that the swimming schedule in Beijing will be modified in accordance with NBC's request.

My prediction is that this announcement will not materialize, at least not for a week or so. That's because the IOC Executive Board meeting doesn't start until Wednesday, and concludes on Friday. It's possible that the Board has made a decision already, or that sources inside the IOC already know how it's going to turn out, but the stories I have read are not all that convincing. My guess is that the decision has not yet been made, and statements to the contrary are just speculation fueled by outrage at the possibility.

But let's back up a few steps. First of all, who really has jurisdiction over the scheduling of competitions? The Olympic Charter, Rule 49, deals with the Technical responsibilities of the IFs [International Federations] at the Olympic Games:

1. Each IF is responsible for the technical control and direction of its sport at the Olympic Games; all elements of the competitions, including the schedule, field of play, training sites and all equipment must comply with its rules. For all these technical arrangements, the OCOG [local organizing committee] must consult the relevant IFs. The holding of all events in each sport is placed under the direct responsibility of the IF concerned.

2. The OCOG must ensure that the various Olympic sports are treated and integrated equitably.

3. As to the schedule and daily timetable of events, the final decision lies with the IOC Executive Board.

Rule 49 starts out giving all responsibility for the technical arrangements to the IF (meaning FINA, in this case). Of course, it makes a lot of sense to let FINA set the competition schedule, since their resident technical committees have much more sport-specific expertise than BOCOG or the IOC. On top of that, though, somebody has to be responsible for rationalizing the schedules for all the sports — allocating days to sports, avoiding venue conflicts, and even making minor schedule adjustments to ensure that concurrent finals are avoided as much as possible. My reading of the intent of Rule 49 is that this is the responsibility given to the IOC Executive; not overhauling the daily schedule, but making sure that the swimming schedule as defined by FINA fits within the overall Games programme.

However, the letter of Rule 49 clearly gives the Executive the power to modify the FINA-sanctioned competition schedule as dramatically as they want to, and for any reason they choose, even if that modification has a significant impact on the athletic competition.

I don't really have an opinion on whether swimming a final in the morning is better or worse than swimming a final in the afternoon, or whether it gives anybody a particular advantage. I'll defer to Scott and the other experts on that question. However, there is no doubt that this change will have an impact on the competition.

In many Olympic swimming events, athletes have to compete in event finals on the same day as heats or semi-finals. Rescheduling finals to the morning, therefore, means reshuffling an already-crowded schedule, and will lead to new and unanticipated conflicts. Some swimmers who compete in multiple events will now be faced with the prospect of racing a flat-out personal best in the morning — and then turning around to race in qualifying heats later that same day. This is not a big issue for the superstars, who cruise through the advancement anyway, but will have an effect on athletes who need their best performances just to reach the finals.

At any rate, I am not qualified to decide whether racing finals in the morning instead of the afternoon is a good thing or not — but the IOC Executive members are not qualified, either, and certainly NBC Sports executives are not. I agree with Scott and most of the people who are covering this story that modifying the competition schedule to suit NBC is a bad idea.

Of course NBC has a lot of influence with the IOC, and there is no getting around that. The US television broadcasters pay enormous sums to the IOC for the rights to broadcast the Olympic games. NBC paid more than $3.5 billion for the rights to the 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2008 games; they added another $2 billion for 2010 and 2012. That's somewhere between half and two-thirds of the money that the IOC takes in for TV and multimedia rights. It's not surprising that NBC's opinions and requests carry a great deal of weight with the IOC.

NBC might also have a legitimate feeling that they overpaid for the 2008 contract. An oddity of the bid process, as I pointed out before, is that the IOC tenders the Olympic broadcast rights before the bidders know the identity of the host city. NBC signed the contract for the 2008 games sometime in 1998. Beijing was not selected as host city until 2001. The heads of NBC Sports know that the Beijing Olympics will not be as lucrative as, say, a Toronto Olympics, because the time differences will mean a lot of tape-delayed broadcasts. I don't think it's surprising or unethical that they are trying to use their financial power to make the best (for them) of a bad situation.

It's interesting, though, to ask yourself this: why does the IOC sell television rights before selecting a host city? This article proposes one answer:

Neal Pilson, a former CBS Sports president who advised the IOC on this year's rights deals, says that … "The decision [on the host city] is made on the merits, not based on U.S. television interests. … The reason why bidding took place before the selections was to take that factor (US television money) out of the games selection process."

In other words, the IOC doesn't want the IOC delegates selecting the host city to be swayed by the potential impact on broadcast revenue. They get NBC to sign on the dotted line first, and then ask the delegates to select the host city "on the merits."

That's all very noble and everything, and if I believed that the host city election was an important IOC function with some kind of integrity that needed protecting, then I guess it would be a good idea to keep NBC out of it.

It turns out that I don't believe any such thing. But putting my own views aside for now, let's think about the logic of this situation. In order to limit NBC's influence on the host city election, the IOC forces them to bid on the 2008 Olympics without knowing where they will be held. Then the IOC chooses Beijing, which has the completely predictable outcome of making NBC unhappy. So to make NBC slightly less unhappy, they're willing to allow some influence on the schedule of the competition.

So in other words, although it would be wrong to let NBC influence the selection of the host city, it's OK to let NBC influence the sporting competition itself.

Does that seem backwards to anybody else?

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