Olympics vs Regional Leagues: A Game of Money and Geography

The Olympics is the pinnacle of world athletic competition, so why are many of the world’s most popular team sports are not represented? The answer lies within a battle of conflicting economic interests and league autonomy.

Photo by David Straight

With the 2016 games in Rio de Janeiro under way, many of the biggest regional leagues in the world will not have their respective sports represented. And largely, they’re fine with it.

From the National Football League (American football) in the United States to the Indian Premier League (cricket), many of the world’s most important sports leagues will remain on the sidelines for the Olympic games.

They’re not the only ones. In fact, according to data compiled by Sporting Intelligence, 6 of the top 10 leagues with the highest average attendance worldwide feature sports not included from the games. But it’s not as if the IOC is intentionally excluding these games. On the contrary, many of these leagues and the governing bodies that oversee them actively speak out against Olympic inclusion.

Cricket is a sport with immense popularity in India and southern Asia as well as Great Britain. However, both the ECB (England and Wales Cricket Board) and the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) have resisted attempts by the IOC to attract the sport. Not surprisingly, the issue typically comes down to money.

Hosting a cricket event in the Olympics would present scheduling difficulties and loss of revenue for national cricket leagues. In India, the IPL attracts an average of nearly 28,000 fans per match, exemplifying the league’s ability to generate immense cash.

It’s also an issue of autonomy. With rules and the nature of matches varying from league to league, it’s important to entities like the IPL to maintain a degree of control over their game.

Cricket is not alone when it comes to reluctance to jump on the Olympic bandwagon. As of 2012, baseball is no longer included in the games and sports such as Australian and American-rules football have never been (officially) included.


Map by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson
Map by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson

Usually, the cause lies with familiar culprits: a perceived lack of international appeal and an exaggerated influence from European countries on the IOC. But more importantly, the obstacles have been the leagues themselves. Organizations such as Major League Baseball (US) are not coming to agreements to allow top players to take a leave of absence from the regular season.

More recently, controversy has turned to basketball. A sport with seventeen participating countries in Rio, basketball has quickly become one of the most globalized sports since its Olympic inception in 1976.

The United States has always been a cornerstone of Olympic basketball. However, every four summers, the balance between the regular season of the National Basketball Association (US) and Olympics is tested for some of the best players in the league.

In Rio de Janeiro, the US team will be missing NBA stalwarts LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and Russell Westbrook in addition to many others. Though Team USA is still likely to field an impressive roster, the question looms: Is the NBA (and other national sports leagues) more important to players than Olympic glory? The answer is increasingly (and somewhat resoundingly) yes.

Rather than face the threat of injury, thereby threatening contracts and ability to play in regular season basketball, it has become commonplace for top stars to watch the games form home. These are players who are already sitting on nine-figure contracts to play in the United States. Why risk it all for one unpaid tournament?

Olympic basketball surely generates immense viewership both within the United States and abroad, but it’s dwarfed by that of the NBA. In 2012 during the London games, six USA Men’s Basketball game averaged 2.6 million viewers with the gold medal game against Spain exceeding 12 million viewers.

The NBA over the last seven seasons has averaged almost identical television ratings for the regular season alone. The NBA playoffs routinely exceed the mark set by Olympic basketball with the highest mark being set by Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals which attracted over 31 million viewers.

What does this all mean for the Olympics? More than likely, countries will continue to further prioritize their top revenue-generating national leagues over international competition. However, sports that rely on international competition or those without strong national circuits or team-appeal such as tennis, track and field, or swimming may play an increasingly important role in furthering the Olympic games.

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