Decent preliminary ratings, strong attendance and participation from high-profile athletes aside, the book's still out as to whether AOL Time Warner Inc. will give a future thumbs up to the Goodwill Games.
Some industry sources believe this year's summer games in Brisbane, Australia — which ended last Saturday — may be the last for the money-losing venture. AOL Time Warner is looking to trim expenses and hasn't announced whether it will continue the Goodwill Games, which have lost millions of dollars in each of its four previous incarnations.
For its part, the summer event was performing adequately in the ratings. Over its first four days through Aug. 31, the Goodwill Games averaged a 0.9 primetime rating, slightly below Turner's projected 1.0 and well short of the 1.6 rating generated by the 1998 competition in New York.
But the strong ratings of its live morning coverage (by U.S. time-zone standards) had pushed the event's cumulative ratings average to above a 1.7, said Turner Sports senior vice president of public relations Greg Hughes.
And several high-profile, ratings-generating events set for the games' final three days — such as figure skating, men's basketball and track and field — were expected to provide a significant ratings uptick.
"We're pretty pleased about the ratings performance so far," Hughes said.
The Games have also proven to be a major attraction for the host city. Sources close to Turner said event venues were filled to nearly 80 percent of capacity and local television ratings were 30 percent higher than projected.
Hughes would not comment on AOL Time Warner's plans for future Goodwill Games, but he pointed out that the 2005 Winter Goodwill Games are already set for Calgary, Canada.
AOL Time Warner executives had not returned calls regarding the issue by press time. But a company source said the media conglomerate would consider a number of factors — including the cost of the event and its international impact — before rendering a final judgement.
"A decision will not be based on ratings or expenses alone, but on a number of things," said the source. "But no decision will be made soon about future sites."
If AOL Time Warner decides to pull the plug on the games, AOL Time Warner vice chairman Ted Turner has said he may personally finance future events. At an Aug. 29 Goodwill Games teleconference, Turner — who founded the competition — said he would consider financially subsidizing future Goodwill Games events, if necessary.
"Since we created the Goodwill Games, there has always been speculation that whatever games we were in were the last," Turner said. "But here we are in Brisbane. I'd rather put my money in a poker machine than bet against the Goodwill Games."
The cloudy future for cable's first original sports franchise is in stark contrast to the success of ESPN's youth-targeted X Games franchise. The X Games — which are coming off a very successful event two weeks ago in Philadelphia — have become a ratings and marketing juggernaut for both ESPN and the industry, although the event's household numbers are comparable to the Goodwill Games.
ESPN averaged a 0.8 afternoon and primetime rating for events held Aug. 17 through Aug. 23, an increase of 24 percent over last year's numbers, said the network.
But the X Games reach the advertising-coveted young male 12-17 and 18-34 demographics, which has allowed ESPN to create numerous brand extensions, including a magazine and a series of X Games "skate parks" around the country.
"The X Games are taking off because they have more unique events that kids and teens are looking for and reflect what they're doing," Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell said.
He added, though, that the Goodwill Games are still a relatively inexpensive, viable programming resource for Turner.
"I think the Goodwill Games as originally conceived was a terrific idea," he said. "But I don't think it's fulfilled everyone's expectations."