ROSA KHUTOR, Russia, Feb 24 (Reuters) - The niche Winter Games sport of Nordic combined wants to turn more of its athletes into personalities in a bid to attract television viewers in the United States and elsewhere.
The discipline also looks set to follow the lead taken by ski jumping and allow women to compete.
Nordic combined - where athletes take one leap from a ski jump and then race over a 10 km cross-country course - is popular in central and northern Europe. It also has support in the United States but no regular television coverage there.
“It’s a difficult market to break into, no matter whether you’re Alpine skiing or Nordic combined,” said John Jarrett, the head coach of the U.S. Nordic combined team.
“We need to have more personalities to make it more popular in the United States. The U.S. market is more looking for the stories more than the actual competition,” he told Reuters.
Jarrett cited the case of cyclist Lance Armstrong, whose star factor made the sport more popular in the United States.
The challenge for Nordic combined is that the current world number one - and winner of the Olympic normal hill event - is Eric Frenzel, a soft-spoken and somewhat reserved German soldier who seems an unlikely candidate for media stardom.
The large hill event was won by Joergen Graabak, an unheralded 22-year-old Norwegian.
To make matters more complicated, two of the sport’s more charismatic characters - Americans Bill Demong and Todd Lodwick - are both in their thirties and will quit before 2018.
Lasse Ottesen, the race director for Nordic combined at the International Ski Federation (FIS), says he is looking to expand the sport and notes that South Korea and Kazakhstan recently joined the World Cup circuit.
“We’re one of a lot of winter sports fighting for time on the air and I think what we can try to do is build up our athletes, give them bigger profiles to make stars out of them,” he told Reuters.
“That will definitely build the interest.”
But Demong, who won the large hill Olympic gold in 2010, said the sport already has enough personalities.
“We have a successful product and it’s more important that we see the rewards of that,” he told reporters, saying existing television revenue could be boosted.
“The television channels themselves don’t spend a lot of time selling advertising. So even though they have a good product they need to, I think, have a little bit more urgency in order to create the value,” he said.
Another move that could boost the sport’s popularity is to let women take part at the Games.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach told Reuters last week he wanted to see women competing and this May, FIS member states will report on their readiness to allow female athletes to participate.
“I think it’s inevitable and I think it would be a good addition ... it’s the last event that doesn’t have a female counterpart and there’s really no reason why there shouldn’t be. It could be an equally exciting event,” said Jarrett.
One potential drawback for television audiences is that the event is split into two parts, with the cross country element starting two hours after the jumps.
Yet the sport is thrilling enough not to need any changes to the format, said Jarrett.
“The best guy is usually the winner, the guy who has to be one of the best jumpers and has to be one of the fastest guys (on the course). It’s not somebody can win the jumping by a lot and then just hold on,” he said.
“It’s a good balance right now.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford)