The Winter Games were great, as they always are. But they could be even better if they included the most popular winter sport in the world.
As much as Olympic basketball has forever been identified with the Summer Games, it’s time to put it where it belongs: in the Winter Olympics.
No, it’s not a “sport practiced on snow or ice,” which is the standard established in the Olympic charter for inclusion in the Winter Games. But let’s be real here. When it comes to an organization that is now putting the Winter Olympics in places where it doesn’t really snow (hello, Beijing 2022) and allows Russian athletes to compete while the country itself is technically banned, they seem to give themselves an awful lot of wiggle room when it’s convenient.
And it sure would be convenient to reclassify Olympic basketball to what it is in any other context: a sport played and watched in the winter.
No, this isn’t a suggestion to prop up the U.S. medal count, which still ended up below expectations here despite a strong finish. We’re talking about a program with that would give some balance between the Summer Games, which has more sports, more big names and far more worldwide appeal and the Winter Games, which frankly could use a little more star power and a lot more diversity.
Sure, Alpine skier Marcel Hirscher may be one of the most famous people in Austria and cross-country legend Marit Bjoergen might be a big deal in Norway. But how many athletes at the Winter Games generate an actual worldwide buzz when they compete?
In the end, the Summer Olympics doesn’t really need basketball. Between track and field, soccer, swimming, gymnastics, tennis and now golf, the television ratings and the general interest are always going to be there. If you took basketball out of the equation, it would hardly be missed.
I think if you put it in February, it would be an even bigger deal than it is now and provide an automatic draw for NBC, whose ratings for Pyeongchang were down 8% across the board from Sochi and even bigger with younger demographics. While the Olympics are still profitable for NBC, the struggle for television networks to stay ahead viewership habits are changing, and the network needs to protect its investment.
Plus, it would give more countries a bigger stake in the Winter games, which are generally dominated by the likes of Norway, Germany, Russia and the Netherlands. If you added basketball, you’d at least have countries like Australia, Spain, Argentina more in the mix (those countries had small delegations and combined for five medals in Pyeongchang) while including Africa and South America.
Of course, to make this plan work, you’d have to get the NBA and other international leagues to suspend their seasons for two weeks for the sake of the Olympics, as the NHL had done from 1998 until this year. They may have no interest in doing that.
But from a U.S. perspective, the NBA currently takes more than a week off anyway for the All-Star break, which coincided this year with the Olympics. A small schedule adjustment once every four years could theoretically allow top NBA players to participate in the Olympics in February without forcing them to sacrifice a month of their offseason.
Plus, if they could get this plan together in time for 2022, having the best players in the world in basketball-crazed China certainly wouldn’t be a bad marketing opportunity for the NBA and Nike.
While the Winter Olympics is terrific on its own, maintaining its dominance on the February sports calendar isn’t easy. Putting the most popular sport played in the winter in the Winter Olympics wouldn’t make the traditionalists happy, but it would certainly give the Games a boost.