Social & Influencers

Can TikTok Save the Olympics?

Bite-sized clips are designed to engage younger viewers, but getting them to tune in on TV is another matter.
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Francis Scialabba

6 min read

The Winter Olympics are going great. No, don’t look at the ratings—open up TikTok.

NBCUniversal, which is broadcasting the 2022 Winter Games from Beijing, has been aggressively promoting the event across several TikTok accounts. The videos, which range from short clips of competitions to athletes like snowboarder Shaun White doing ASMR, are among the more than 250 short videos that @NBCOlympics has posted since Feb. 1.

Some of them are breaking through. “GIVE WHOEVER RUNS THIS ACC A RAISE OMG,” reads one comment on a video of a skeleton race that features an irreverent voiceover.


The breakneck posting is part of a collaboration NBCU struck with TikTok to promote the Winter Olympics and the Paralympic Games, according to an NBCU spokesperson. As part of the deal, daily content is being posted across several NBC TikTok handles, in addition to a three-episode livestream show produced by NBCU.

In all, @NBCOlympics—which also includes TikToks from last summer’s games and a handful from the 2018 Olympics—has racked up 57 million likes and more than 1.8 million followers; other accounts, like @NBCSports, have attracted upwards of 23 million likes.

The efforts represent just one component of NBCU’s wide-ranging marketing efforts to convince the American public to tune into the Beijing Winter Games even as audiences on traditional TV have been slowly drifting away from the Olympics for years, and as concerns about human rights violations in China have prompted others to steer clear.

From the lead-up to the games through now, NBCU has been on a marketing blitz, which has ranged from spending tens of millions of dollars on local and affiliate station support to social activations, Jenny Storms, NBCU’s chief marketing officer, entertainment and sports, said at a press event late last month.

Dan Lovinger, president, advertising sales and partnerships at NBC Sports Group, told Marketing Brew it’s the network’s “obligation to provide Olympic content” across different platforms so it can reach as many people as possible.

“We just want to make sure that the content is there for our viewers, because one thing we’ve learned with the Olympics is: If you provide more, they’ll consume more. People love the Olympics,” he said.

But as the end of the games fast approaches—the closing ceremony is slated for Feb 20.—has it worked? That depends on who you ask.

Winning over the youths

Since before the opening ceremony, NBCU executives have been clear that attracting younger consumers is essential to their marketing approach. “We are more focused than ever on connecting today’s youth with the Olympic movement,” Storms said in late January. “Reaching younger audiences is a key component of our strategy.”

TikTok, then, is something of a no-brainer. The app is on the path to clearing 1.5 billion users this year, according, and nearly one-third of teens say TikTok is their favorite social media platform, per research from investment bank and securities firm Piper Sandler.

“They are fishing where the fish are,” Jimmy Lynn, a senior advisor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business  and the co-founder of the live-streaming video company Kiswe Mobile, told Marketing Brew. Social media platforms, he said, are “where the younger generation is. The younger generation simply don’t want to sit home and watch a three- or four-hour sports event anymore.”

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As part of its TikTok presence, NBCU is letting some brands—although it declined to say which ones—use Olympics content for their own ads that appear in TikTok’s For You feed, a spokesperson said.

But converting social engagement into audiences on TV and streaming—i.e., where most traditional Olympics advertising is happening—is another matter entirely.

Look at the numbers

NBCU said that as of Friday, Feb 11, more than 100 million Americans had watched at least a portion of the Olympics programming on their networks, including NBC, USA Network, and CNBC. And on Sunday night, NBCUintensely promoted the Olympics during its Super Bowl broadcast, including promotional spots starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The company has also looked to find more viewers through its streaming service, Peacock, which is streaming all of the games to subscribers via its $5-a-month, ad-supported tier. So far, viewers have streamed more than 2 billion hours of Olympics programming on Peacock, and the Games are on track to be the most-streamed Winter Games ever, the company said.

But those figures obscure the fact that viewership of the Winter Games so far is expected to be the lowest in Olympics history. The Games have attracted an average of 12.3 million nightly viewers on TV and streaming as of Feb. 8—around half of what it was four years ago, according to Bloomberg. (Ahead of the games, NBCU reportedly lowered ratings expectations and, subsequently, ad rates to account for an expected audience drop-off.)

It’s no wonder, then, that the company is opting to provide advertisers with metrics that aren’t solely based on how many people are watching.  According to Kelly Abcarian, NBCUniversal’s executive vice president of measurement, traditional kinds of TV ratings are “not a holistic look at how consumers are consuming our content across screens,” she told Marketing Brew.

Instead, NBCU is highlighting metrics like ad impressions, brand lift, and completion rate on TV and streaming. Those metrics, provided by iSpot, are part of a broader test of alternative measurement options ahead of this year’s upfronts.

As of Feb. 16, NBCUniversal said it has delivered 15.8 billion household TV ad impressions since the Games began on Feb 2, according to iSpot metrics.

There’s an appetite for the alternative measurement figures NBCU is emphasizing: More than 30 advertisers signed up to test ad measurement during the Olympics and Super Bowl, Abcarian said. So even if traditional numbers decline, brands aren’t likely to disappear: As Adam Schwartz, SVP, director of sports media at Horizon Media, recently told Bloomberg, “I don’t think it’s a cause for panic about the Olympics whatsoever.”

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