Will the Tokyo Olympics happen? NBC is banking on it

Olympic rings float in the water on a boat while a cyclist bikes by on a boardwalk
A man rides a bicycle near the Olympic rings floating in the water Jan. 8 in the Odaiba section in Tokyo.

After a yearlong delay, the Tokyo Summer Olympics are just six weeks away — despite concerns about whether it is safe to bring thousands of international athletes and crowds together in the middle of a pandemic.

Medical professionals have warned that they may not be able to handle another surge in COVID-19 cases or contend with virus variants. As of last month, only about 2% of the Japanese public was fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In recent polls, more than 80% of Japanese residents said they would prefer to have the Summer Games canceled or once again postponed.

But for NBCUniversal, televising the Games is a marquee moment for its TV networks and a huge moneymaking event.


The company had built much of last year’s business plan around its coverage of the 2020 Olympics — so NBCUniversal took a hit when those Games were postponed to July 2021. Five years ago, NBCUniversal generated $1.6 billion in revenue from the Rio de Janeiro Games, including $1.2 billion in ad revenue, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence’s Kagan unit.

On Monday, NBCUniversal Chief Executive Jeff Shell expressed confidence that the Games would go on — despite the controversy.

“Now that we are weeks away from the start of it, we are more and more comfortable that it is going to happen,” Shell said Monday morning during an appearance at the virtual Credit Suisse investor conference.

The Olympics are expected to begin July 23 and run through Aug. 8. This year international spectators won’t be allowed to attend the Olympics, only sports fans from Japan.

“Every Olympics has an issue that people worry about coming into the Olympics,” Shell said. “I lived in London, and everyone was worried about the traffic and last time it was Zika. Once the opening ceremony happens, everyone forgets all about that and enjoys the 17 days and I think this is going to be the same thing.”

The Games are so important to NBCUniversal that in 2014 it committed $12 billion to extend its partnership with the International Olympics Committee through 2032. Every two years, NBCUniversal has used its 17 days of Olympics coverage to forge relationships with key advertisers and millions of viewers. Its Olympics coverage also crushes its TV competitors in the ratings.


Shell also made a bold prediction: “Depending on how ratings are, it could be the most profitable Olympics in the history of the company.”

He noted that advertisers have been scrambling to reach viewers on traditional TV platforms as more consumers turn to commercial-free streaming platforms such as Netflix.

“There is nothing better than the Olympics,” Shell said. “You have 17 days that you dominate every night.”

The CEO, who has been in the job for nearly 18 months, pointed out that NBC’s Olympics fortunes rise and fall based on the strength of the U.S. athletes. When U.S. athletes do well, so do the television networks because their ratings soar and advertisers pay more.

Reigning Olympics gymnastics champion Simone Biles is set to perform during the first week of the Games, which should help drive viewership interest in the Games, Shell said.

“You have people who have been in their homes [for more than a year] and you’ll have the world coming together after a world-changing event to celebrate athletes, success and their stories,” he said.