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Sports broadcaster takes note of the Special Olympics

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First Lady Michelle Obama was in Los Angeles this weekend to speak at the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics World Games. Boasting more than 6,500 athletes, it’s the biggest sporting event in the city since the 1984 Olympics. And officials say it’ll pump more than $100 million into LA’s economy. And it could be an economic boost for others, too.

I went down there to check it out and found that the Uytengsu aquatic center was almost at capacity when I got down to the USC campus. Australian swimmer, Kieran Corry, had just gotten out of the pool after helping his 4×100 relay team win its heat. He’s from Salamander Bay in New South Wales, Australia. He’s been swimming since he was five and started competing a while ago.

“It’s a lot different from what it was like when I was about nine or ten,” he tells me. “We’re a long way from home but we’ve been here for a little while and it just feels great to be competing.”

Corry is 23 now, and says the games have grown up with him. “I remember the last ten years of competition and Special Olympics has become a lot more recognized,” he says. “A lot more people are aware of what we are and what we do. Lots more than what it was when I started out.” 

He also tells me it wasn’t cheap to get his team over here. And it’s not like sponsors were knocking down doors. “We did a lot of fundraisers back home and got some funding from some local businesses in Australia,” he explains. “It was enough to get us over here.”

Athletes from 177 countries will compete in events this week. And ESPN took note. The sports broadcasting body has a studio on site and produces a daily highlight segment.

Vicki Michaelis, a professor of sports media at the University of Georgia, says ESPN might be trying to get a foothold on any part of the Olympic market — one that’s been dominated by NBC. Michaelis knows a thing or two about that Olympic market. She was the lead Olympics reporter at USA TODAY for 12 years.

“When you see some of the athletes that are front and center — Michael Phelps, Abby Wambach, Michelle Kwan — these are Olympic athletes that are very marketable, and I think this is a way for ESPN to grab some of that share, as well,” she says.

“I think what they’re seeing is that there is an untapped market,” she tells me. “And I think that across sports we’re seeing that this message of acceptance and inclusion is something that everyone in sports needs to embrace and realize that this is where the audience wants sports to go.” 

Michaelis says at the end of the day, disabled or not, these athletes are just competing. “These are athletes and they have compelling stories, and that is what audiences love about sports,” she explains. “When you look at the Olympics, it’s all about the stories and how those athletes and teams got there. Those are the things that fans remember from the Olympics.”

ESPN isn’t alone in entering the Special Olympics World Games marketplace. There’s a lot of corporate good will to be had here. Toyota, Coca-Cola and Disney are out in full force, too.

The games wrap up on Sunday, August 2nd. 

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