I never watch snowboarding, and you probably don’t either.
Some of that is due to convenience. Other than the Olympics and X Games, snowboarding is almost never televised. The same is true of Winter Olympic sports like skiing, figure skating, curling, luge, speed skating or bobsled racing. Pretty much any sport in the Winter Olympics has little mainstream popularity.
Yet, when the Winter Olympics are on, suddenly those of us — like me — who never watch these competitions are experts. We judge figure skater body placement, luge toe alignment and skiing form despite, of course, knowing nothing about any of these sports.
The reason is simple: These sports are entertaining, and the fact that they’re never televised makes them a source of fascination. But would these sports gain more mainstream popularity if they had more exposure?
Of course not.
That’s what makes the Olympics so special.
Sports like luge and curling, figure skating and skiing don’t lend themselves to marketability. They’re not really team sports, and although it would be possible to make them into team sports, like in the Olympic team figure skating competition, that’s not what they’re meant for. Therefore there’s not the same sort of regular season you’d find in the NBA or NFL, which makes it harder to develop a mainstream following.
Yet without that mainstream following, Winter Olympic sports still thrive every four years. And that starts with nationalism.
Americans naturally care more about American athletes representing America than they do about those same American athletes competing against the same Russian athletes in a non-country setting. The same is true of every country. And why not?
It makes sense to want to root for a person and a country rather than just a person. However, countries play each other in soccer all the time, yet there’s far more interest in the World Cup. That’s where prestige comes into the conversation. If someone wins an Olympic medal, it means they’re the best in the world. So does winning a world figure skating or luge or bobsled title, which do exist. But winning it while representing a country makes the achievement that much more interesting.
Then there’s the fact that the Olympics are only every four years, and they bring all these fringe sports together at once. That allows spectators to get swept up in the overall aura of the games.
In other words, imagine if instead of the Olympics every four years, there was the curling olympics one month, the luge olympics the next, and so on. No one would watch that because no one would be able to keep track or care enough.
However, bring all those fringe sports together at once, and you have one part of the equation for why people care about the Olympics. Add in some nationalism, some truly elite competitors and a saturation of media coverage, and it explains why none of us know anything about snowboarding, but every four years, we love to act like we do.