NCAA gymnastics championship broadcast was a quantum leap forward

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports /

Women’s sports have the potential for dramatic growth if they’re treated with the respect, attention and nuance they deserve. This year’s NCAA gymnastics championship broadcast was a perfect example.

If you only watch gymnastics every four years, when the Olympics are on TV, you might believe that the Cold War is still going on. NBC and its subsidiaries maintain a monopoly on Olympic sport coverage, including elite gymnastics, and they continue to play on rivalries between the United States and Russia, Romania, and China. Instead of creating a sense of drama, they come off as intensely and relentlessly jingoistic. A casual viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the United States still faces a perilous threat from the Big Bad of Communism.

In reality, the top American elite gymnasts generally face the most competition from their own teammates. So if NBC can’t fabricate a geopolitical rivalry, they’ll stir up drama between the athletes themselves, whether it exists there or not.

But it was relationships, not rivalries, that set the tone Saturday on the ABC broadcast of the first-ever NCAA gymnastics championships to air live on network television. Not to the detriment of the competition, either. This was a fierce, intense meet between four top-ranked teams that came down to the final routine on the most nervewracking apparatus, the balance beam.

The announcers of the meet — the power commentary duo of former American Olympians Kathy Johnson Clarke and Bart Conner, who regularly preside over NCAA gymnastics meets on the SEC Network and on the ESPN networks —  consistently emphasized the teamwork that went into turning underdog Michigan into national champions and the teamwork that went into keeping Oklahoma, Utah, and Florida within tenths of each other and of Michigan throughout the meet.

Thousands of fans tuned in for a gymnastics broadcast that focused on gymnastics

And it paid off. A whopping 808,000 viewers tuned in to the live telecast on ABC, a 510 percent increase over viewership for the 2019 championship and the largest audience for college gymnastics on network television in a decade. Combined with the semifinals, which were aired live on ESPN2 Friday, the 2021 gymnastics championship brought in more viewers for ESPN than any previous gymnastics telecast, and viewership on ESPN was up 203 percent from the 2019 NCAAs.

Conner and Johnson Clarke spoke about each team supporting the individual competitors from universities that had not qualified full teams to nationals. For example, UCLA’s Nia Dennis, whose floor routine went viral earlier this year (and whose 2020 routine also went viral before the pandemic shut down that season), qualified on vault only to nationals after UCLA’s team failed to make it past regional competition. Dennis rotated through the four apparatuses with Alabama in the semifinals, and Conner and Johnson Clarke talked about Dennis’ tight friendship with former club gymnastics teammate Makarri Doggette, who now competes for Alabama. The telecast featured a photo of the two women’s matching inner-arm tattoos featuring both sets of their initials. It’s the kind of thing that could have been a sideshow exhibit (GYMNASTS??? With TATTOOS?!?!) but showed how close-knit this sport is at its top levels.

(It’s worth noting that Conner is married to legendary gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who competed for Romania before defecting and becoming an American citizen, and yet the subject of the Cold War never enters into his commentary on gymnastics. Funny, that.)

Throughout the meet, Johnson Clarke and Conner played to an audience with some assumed knowledge of the sport, but their commentary never alienated casual fans of the sport. They speak smartly about each gymnast’s strengths and, occasionally, weaknesses (but only if said weakness was overcome in competition). They had to keep track of four simultaneous routines on four separate apparatuses for nearly the entire duration of the meet, but would always alert viewers as to who was competing, for which team, and give some background into the athlete’s role on her team. Errors were noted, briefly analyzed in relation to a team’s fate, but not dwelt on; big routines and triumphant stuck dismounts were celebrated.

And we never forgot we were watching a competition. No one was accused of not wanting it enough; no loss was blamed on a rivalry or on politics. This show came down to minuscule fractions of points, and we knew about them all, down to Abby Heiskell’s final, nail-biting balance beam routine for Michigan that would determine if the Wolverines took home the big trophy, or the Sooners did. And Conner and Johnson Clarke gave us space. They stopped talking during those final 90 seconds as Heiskell flipped, turned, and finally dismounted. Johnson Clarke spoke for us all as the Michigan and Oklahoma squads stared, clutching each others’ arms, at a scoreboard we could not see. “This is excruciating!” she cried. And then it was over, Michigan had its first national championship victory ever, and they cheered along with us as we celebrated this young team new to victory on this stage.

You could not have written a script for this evening. And it was obvious that Johnson Clark and Conner had not; they seemed as surprised and pleased as we the viewers (at least, the ones posting frantically on Twitter and Reddit) were as the meet unfolded. It’s a lesson I wish coverage of elite and Olympic gymnastics would follow: Don’t create drama. Let the drama create itself. Because it’s sports, it will. They kept the focus on relationships throughout the competition, instead of defaulting to rivalries between schools or, worse, between individual athletes, and they emphasized the work it takes to build a team and sustain it throughout a long, grueling season (one made even longer and more grueling by the pandemic) to perform at the absolute highest level on this one afternoon.

USA Gymnastics, which recently signed a multi-year streaming deal for event coverage with the controversial FloSports, seems unlikely to take a hint from the coverage of college gymnastics, which most fans of the sport agree provides the best combination of expertise and entertainment. And in a year shaped by the COVID-19 crisis, with the Olympics taking place a year later than planned, NBC has little incentive not to use the pandemic as a storyline in its Olympics coverage. Certainly, it will find some compelling drama there, but I wish they would learn from ABC, the ESPN networks, and Conner and Johnson Clarke that the best story is the one that unfolds as you let it.

Next. What it’s really like to do gymnastics in a mask. dark