Sports show the power to unify


The water cooler has been replaced.

We are standing around Twitter, deconstructing figure skater Evan Lysacek’s long program, debating whether Evgeni Plushenko’s quadruple jump was undervalued.

We are gathering on Facebook pages to bad-mouth NBC for its love of tape-delayed sports or to be one among thousands of instant style critics: What were they thinking with those women’s bobsled suits? How does Bob Costas get that hair color? How do I get Shaun White’s tomato red?

In the last six weeks, Americans have watched and talked about big sports events in numbers that have achieved record levels for television as well as online, including social media -- from the Super Bowl to Tiger Woods’ public mea culpa and now the Winter Olympics.

There have even been Twitter discussions in which people say they will remember forever where they were when Woods said, “I’m sorry,” just as they remember where they were for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks or John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Lawrence Wenner, professor of communication and ethics at Loyola Marymount University, said he is not surprised to see these sports moments draw us together as a nation.

“It goes against the prevailing wisdom that television as we know it is beginning to fade,” said Wenner, who is writing a book called “Fallen Heroes: Sports Media and Celebrity Culture.”

“Sports and big media events can still reign,” he said, including coverage of the healthcare debate or the war in Iraq. “We can watch all these things and talk about them in a more civil way. And with the Olympics we can all root for the USA and talk about it with strangers.”

So it isn’t only the 100 million who watched CBS as the New Orleans Saints beat the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl or the countless millions who tuned in to any of the major networks to listen to Woods. It is Web hits and streaming video views too.

“Maybe we’ve been in our silos too long,” Wenner said of the rise of social media. “We long for a community, even a globalized one so maybe you’re following a group, even one where you don’t really know anybody but you have a commonality, a particular sport or moment.”

For NBC, the ratings for these Winter Olympics are turning out far better than expected.

Through Wednesday night’s events, ratings are up over 20% from the 2006 Turin Games.

Even with much of the action tape-delayed either briefly (for packaged shows on the East Coast) or by three hours for West Coast viewers, 27 million watched Wednesday’s prime-time broadcast, 9 million more than on the same day in 2006. The night was dominated by short-track qualifying runs and women’s aerials, where the U.S. didn’t medal.

Alan Wurtzel, head of research for NBC, said his network was also finding out a lot about the social-community aspect of these Games.

For example, he said a company called Research Results tells him that 46% of Olympic viewers have changed their routines to watch and that 63% of those people stayed up later.

So if a co-worker is yawning more or downing an extra energy drink, blame it on ice dancing, aerials or Nordic combined.

Orin Starn, chairman of the cultural anthropology department at Duke University, said there is one thing that ties together the Super Bowl, Tiger Woods and the Olympics.

“Crossing gender lines,” he said. “The whole Super Bowl experience is pitched toward an audience of men and women, not just men.

“Tiger Woods turned into a soap opera drama that could be marketed to women. It became a transgender, cross-racial confrontation. The Olympics are packaged as a nightly drama more than a sports event. So I don’t know if all sports can become a new national social glue, but these particular big events can be.”

Wenner suggests that’s because we can discuss the big events without making judgments about a person based on who that person rooted for. Men and women could say that Woods has apologized enough and should play golf again or the exact opposite, that he owes his family, his fans, his sport, something more.

“And neither opinion makes you a bad person,” Wenner said.

Olympics historian David Wallechinsky, however, pointed out another unifying principle with the ratings uptick for the Winter Games. “It’s helped immensely that the U.S. is doing well,” he said. In fact, the U.S. is having its best Winter Olympics ever.

As Wallechinsky was speaking by phone from Vancouver, Canada, and pausing to check the pro- gress of the men’s individual Nordic combined event -- “I want to see how Johnny Spillane is doing,” he said -- two e-mails landed in my inbox asking whether it was possible to watch anywhere a streaming video of the Nordic combined.

That has never happened.

It turns out the U.S. did well again -- Bill Demong won gold and Spillane silver. That’s the first gold medal ever for the U.S. in the event. And no, there was no streaming video.

“I’m getting the results on Twitter,” said e-mailer Ed, who preferred to keep his last name private. “It’s weird in a way. I can’t watch the event anywhere live so it’s like 1970 but I can get the result immediately like it’s 2010.”