By Jakob Fox
As the world prepares for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, fans are getting excited and starting to focus on the sports that they want to watch and follow. The major events like ice hockey, figure skating, and different styles of skiing come to the top of people’s lists of events to watch, but these are not the only events that create a lot of buzz. Every four years the sliding sports of bobsled, luge, and skeleton appear on the world stage with the Olympics. These high-speed, adrenaline-inducing rides down a dangerous icy track are easy to become a fan of for many reasons. For one there’s the ease of understanding the sport – whoever has the fastest time down the track wins – and the great engineering and art that goes into the sleds and helmets. Unfortunately, as quickly as the sleds go down the track, they just as quickly disappear from our interest until the next Olympics. A question that I’ve always had when it comes to less common Olympic events, like the sliding sports, is why don’t we see more bobsled, luge, and skeleton competitions on TV in non-Olympic years, since it appears that they are always well received by fans.
The numbers agreed with this reception. Looking at the popularity of Winter Olympic sports over the past three games going back to 2010 in Vancouver, it is no surprise that figure skating and ice hockey led the way with viewership and online buzz rates on most lists. These sports are relatively easy to get involved in, with plenty of rinks and programs around the country to get started and the access to watching top-tier competition during off years. According to Nielsen, both ice hockey and figure skating were in the top three most talked about sports of the 2010 games, receiving buzz rates of 31% and 10%. The surprise in this rankings however was luge, which held the second-highest buzz rate at 18%, only behind ice hockey. Before the 2014 Sochi games, Sports Illustrated released a list of the most popular Winter Olympic sporting events, and again sliding sports made this list.
The rankings of bobsled and skeleton within the top six are impressive considering there were 98 different events that took place. The popularity continued through the games and again was highly ranked going into 2018. The trio of sports was categorized together and ranked fourth on Deeproot Analytics’ list of what viewers planned to watch during the 2018 PyeongChang games, ahead of snowboarding and ice hockey. All of these numbers show a lot of positive signs for sliding sports but only add to the question.
There is no one exact answer for the question, and there are still competitions that occur in off years, but there are a few common themes. There are some major barriers to getting involved with sliding sports including very limited access to track, high costs, a lack of star power, and there are no major leagues or headline competitions for casual fans to watch besides the Olympics.
Before looking further into the reasons these sports do not receive much attention outside of the Olympics, it is important to know the differences between them. While all three of these sliding sports are timed races down an icy track, there are some key differences.
Looking deeper into why this trio of sliding sports comes and goes from our televisions and social media feeds, the first thing that stands out is the lack of tracks. According to the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF), there are only seventeen recognized tracks that are sanctioned to host IBSF competitions and training. Only two of these tracks are in the United States (Lake Placid, NY and Park City, Utah) and none of these tracks are on the continents of Africa, Australia, or South America. This lack of infrastructure, largely due to the cost and weather conditions needed to build and maintain a track, seems to be the root cause that is impacting other factors that limit the growth and popularity of bobsled, luge, and skeleton.
The lack of tracks available to train on has other trickle-down effects that limit the overall growth of these sports. With so few tracks, there is not an easy way for competitors to get into these sports. You can not simply go to your local park and try out skeleton or bobsled like you’d be able to try basketball. Additionally, with so few places to train, there is a high cost to even try any of these sports. For most people there is the cost of traveling to an ice track, then there is the cost of the sleds, helmet, speed suit, and shoes, as well as the need for coaching and track time. In all, What it Costs estimates that the equipment alone can set you back between $7,000 and $11,000 on its own for skeleton. Take all of these expenses and add it to a dangerous sport that has seen tragic accidents, including Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili suffering a fatal crash in the lead up to the 2010 Olympics, and it is understandable why the sport is not growing from a participation side.
In order for a sport to grow, there must be strong development at the youth and grassroots level. This trio of ice track sports does not have the growth that it needs to experience a staying power as skiing or snowboarding have. Additionally, there are very few big names in these sports. The most common names that come to people’s minds are the famous Jamaican bobsled team that was featured in the 1993 movie Cool Runnings and Lolo Jones who gained popularity through Track & Field and then transitioned to bobsled. By not having big headline name athletes like skiing and snowboarding with Lindsey Vonn, Mikaela Shiffrin, Bode Miller, Shaun White, Chloe Kim, and Red Gerard, there is nobody to pinpoint as a face of the sport or role models that kids want to grow up emulating. There are not many great social media accounts to follow for the sport overall, although some of the TikTok videos that take you along for a ride down an ice track are pretty epic.
Another issue for the sliding sports that impacts their growth is that the Olympics are the largest stage they get. While there are official IBSF races and competitions that take place during off years, these almost exclusively take place in either Europe or at the few tracks in Asia that have been built to host the recent Olympics (2014, 2018, 2022). These races are not on any major TV network or streaming service and due to the lack of holding power with the peak of fans during the Olympics, very few people even know that the competitions exist or know when they are happening. For these three sports to grow, they need fans to follow them more than during the Olympics.
One way to grow these sports is by allowing more fans to experience the thrill and speed safely. One potential growing point would be through the use of virtual reality. If fans could travel down the track from the racers' perspective or experience the speeds up close at more events then there would be a whole new avenue for growth. Whether it is building another ice track in another area of the country or hosting annual competitions at the current two tracks in the United States and making it a large spectacle like the Olympics or even the winter X-Games, then more people will become attracted and become fans of bobsled, luge, and skeleton. Further, in this current age with social media playing such a large role in sports and culture, it would be beneficial for sliding sport athletes to be active on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. The speed and excitement of their sports are likely to go viral, and because of the lack of exposure it would be beneficial for the sport to showcase their other competitions more on social media. This expansion could also lead to more recognizable faces for the sport and a larger reach beyond the Olympics.
As the 2022 Winter Olympics get set to kick-off, the trend of sliding sports ranking near the top of fans lists has continued. According to YouGov Sport, bobsled ranks fourth most popular in the US going into the games, and in the UK, bobsled ranked second only behind ski jumping. The attraction from these sports is there but the challenge is the staying power. For these sports to grow in the future, they are going to need to build off their Olympic glory and continue to stay relevant against other sports, or they will remain as part of a larger category of sports that only shine for two and a half weeks stretch once every four years in February and then disappear from most people’s radar.