Ryan Reser (above, right) is said to be one the United States’ best hopes in judo at this summer’s Olympics in Beijing, but apparently that doesn’t mean he isn’t still chapped about judo being largely ignored in the U.S. while MMA enjoys a growing a fan base. From a story in yesterday’s New York Times:
“It blows me away and upsets me because we’re not to that level,” he said at the Olympic judo trials in Las Vegas. “We’ve been doing a lot of that stuff all along. Not the punching and kicking, but the arm bars and chokes.”
Reser is hoping that the M.M.A. crowd will watch judo during the Olympics. He said the similarity between the two sports would lend to natural crossover appeal. And maybe get some athletes intrigued by the M.M.A. cage wearing a gi.
“We’re just not a very big sport,” he said. “We have a lot of judo, but it’s spread across the United States. It’s hard for us to get partners and news coverage. We’re hoping we can get more interest in judo.”
This is the second time in the recent lead-up to the Olympics that we’ve heard a judo-lover expressing frustration over the lack of interest in the sport stateside. First it was Karo Parisyan, and now Reser, who says he’s taken up training with some MMA fighters to learn a few new tricks. I’m not going to point out that the issue of “crossover appeal” for an Olympic sport that incorporates one aspect of MMA only reinforces my belief that MMA (which incorporates all the aspects of MMA) should be an Olympic sport all its own.
Instead, I’m going to hypothesize that crossover appeal is never the issue with the Olympics. Not really.
If it were, the most popular Olympic sports, at least in the U.S., would only be the ones most familiar to us. Wrestling has more crossover appeal for MMA than judo, and still you don’t see an overwhelming demand for it during Olympic coverage. Basketball is an exception, but it helps them to have famous superstars playing. Women’s beach volleyball is usually a winner, and I don’t think I have to tell you why. It still doesn’t explain the way what’s popular at the Olympics changes so frequently to include sports that are never very popular the rest of the year.
This is because the way the Olympics are packaged and sold via TV coverage in the U.S. has little to do with the actual sport and a lot to do with where the marketable storylines are. That’s why the Olympics has all of the nation talking about gymnastics and swimming and fencing for a couple weeks every four years, even though most of us would rather watch dog agility contests on ESPN 4 the rest of the time.
The way the Olympics is covered on television here in America is designed to give the broadcasts the broadest possible appeal, which means emphasizing characters over accomplishments. That’s why someone who overcame a debilitating childhood illness or someone who manages to be an arrogant prick (remember Bode Miller?) will usually grab more attention than someone who just happens to be very quietly good at their sport.
In other words, the Olympics is packaged as sports for people who don’t really like sports. Is that completely unfair to someone like Reser? Absolutely. Is it likely to change any time soon? Not as long as the Olympics are used a ratings magnet. Judo may be one of the sports that is largely ignored during non-Olympic times, but it’s certainly not the only one.