Editor’s Note: An LA84 grant to the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society funded three reporters to attend, report and write stories from the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games in South Korea.
Those who think women’s sports can’t draw an audience need to look no further than NBC’s ratings during Chloe Kim’s halfpipe gold medal showing.
The 17-year-old from Long Beach, California, who made her Olympic debut in Pyeongchang, gave a master class in snowboarding in the final. She scored a 98.5 in a victory lap run and earned 8.5 points more than the second place finisher, Jiayu Liu, who highest score was an 89.75. It amounted to a global coming out party for the prodigy and Americans made sure not to miss it: while NBC’s primetime Olympic coverage drew just 22.3 million people on Monday — slightly down from Sochi — during the 15-minute period of Kim’s final runs viewership spiked to 26.9 million.
The halfpipe viewing area in Pyeongchang was similarly more crowded than it had been for any earlier events at the games. “There are so many people here who came to watch,” Kim told reporters after winning gold. “That is so exciting to see women’s snowboarding be something that people want to see.”
Kim, who was born in Long Beach, began snowboarding at Mount High before training at Mammoth Mountain with the likes of Team USA veterans Kelly Clark and Shaun White in recent years. Leading up to her first Olympic Games, Kim leaned on the California veterans for support.
“It’s really nice to know that you have all these people who have been through it all and they’re willing to help,” Kim said after being named to the Olympic team in Mammoth. “I was actually pretty bummed out the other day and I called Kelly and she talked me through it,” Kim said. “Even if it’s not snowboard related. Let’s say something bad about you came out and you don’t know how to handle it. Kelly was the first person I thought of.”
Both veterans enjoyed helping Kim through her first experiences as an Olympian. “If I can help in any way and be that phone call, I’m there,” White said in Mammoth with Kim. “I like that. It’s fun for me too.”
“You just try to make yourself available,” said Clark, who won a gold medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics and bronze in Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014. “You try to make sure that you can use your experience for the betterment of others.”
Clark has long been known for being one of the most progressive women riders in the sport and has constantly pushed women’s snowboarding to new heights. With Kim’s decisive win in Pyeongchang that torch has been passed.
“I knew I wanted to do that third run,” said Kim, who scored high enough on her first run to clinch gold. “I wanted to do the back-to-back 10’s, go bigger and better.”
That bigger and better attitude is what audiences are showing up to see, and what’s putting women’s snowboarding on the map in a big way. “The sport has been progressing at such a fast pace,” Kim said before adding, “We saw a lot of cool stuff in the halfpipe today.”
It wasn’t just Kim who saw a lot of great stuff in the halfpipe, but viewers across America who tuned in to see that 17-year-old girl go “bigger and better.” Women’s sports, as it turns out, have a massive appeal.