Alex Morgan and Caitlin Clark aren't going to the Olympics

The Olympics started out as an athletic competition. They've turned into a television show, whose broadcast is worth $7.65 billion in the eyes of NBC. To get ratings that justify that cash expenditure, it helps any form of entertainment — any serialized television show that eats up about three weeks of free time in an otherwise dull summer — to get stars. Stars get people's attention. People drive ratings. Ratings justify the billions.

But back to the matter of athletic competition. This is disturbing. And the people who are tasked with winning medals cannot be responsible enough to worry about public eyes or ratings.

Emma Hayes is tasked with changing the fortunes of the U.S. women's national soccer team. To do that, she can't bring a roster to Paris that resembles the group that was eliminated from last year's World Cup after winning just one of four games. Alex Morgan, the American soccer public loves you, and you've earned that admiration. NBC would love to see your familiar face on their broadcasts. That's okay. You're staying home.

The Paris Summer Games are four weeks away, and like any Olympics, expect great performances from well-known stars – Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Noah Lyles – and those we're just getting to know. No Olympics plays out according to a script, which is both the beauty and the charm of it all.

But it is also true that the preparations for the Games have cost the US team three actual draws. Hayes, the new women’s soccer coach, decided to pass on Morgan, a link to the USWNT’s glory days who, in Hayes’ eyes, could no longer provide that glory. Caitlin Clark, undoubtedly women’s basketball’s most brilliant star, did not make the Olympic team. And Athing Mu, the graceful and graceful gold medalist in the 800 meters, fell during her event at the US Olympic track and field trials, leaving her off the team in her signature event.

The Olympics aren't going to succeed or fail because Alex Morgan didn't get picked for the soccer team or because Athing Mu tripped on the track in Oregon. But think of it this way: The last three Olympics — the Winter Games in South Korea and Beijing, the Summer Games in Tokyo — were held in Asia, making the time difference in the U.S. unpleasant for many viewers to watch in real time. The last two — the COVID-delayed Japan Games in 2021, and the winter edition in China next year — were held in empty venues, as the pandemic barred fans.

So, there should be a return to normalcy in Paris. But it's a new normal. Ever since NBC built up its budget to broadcast six Olympics from 2022-32, consumers have become even further away from the single-screen, over-the-air viewing experience. Inspiring more people to settle down on the couch and turn on the TV will be helped by the inclusion of more familiar characters.

This doesn't mean Morgan should have been on the football team or Clark should have been in basketball. MU's fate, determined by the cruelty of track trials with no second chances, is even more telling. The decisions with Morgan and Clark were made based on athletic merit. There's cruelty in that, too.

“Obviously it was a tough decision, especially given Alex's history and record with this team,” Hayes said in a conference call with reporters. “But I felt I wanted to go in another direction.”

That direction is clearly youthful. Morgan, the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, will turn 35 next week. She's coming off a 2023 World Cup in which she started all four U.S. games and didn't score. Hayes, a Londoner, isn't here just because the Americans failed to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time. She's here because — after a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games and blowout performances in New Zealand and Australia last year — the program needed a reboot.

That's the opposite of what women's basketball operations need. Basketball players have won all seven Olympic gold medals since the 1996 Atlanta Games. This year's team includes not only 42-year-old point guard Diana Taurasi, who is seeking her sixth gold medal, but six other members of the team that won in Tokyo.

“Good attitude and consistency is a very important thing, and that's why we've been successful at the Olympics,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley told The Associated Press.

The football team's approach: It's broken, so let's fix it. The basketball team's approach: It's not broken, so why fix it?

It now remains to be seen whether these strategies work or not.

There will be plenty to watch in Paris. The unrivalled Biles will return to the gymnastics event that troubled her so much in Tokyo. Ledecky will return to the pool for her fourth Olympics, looking to add to her seven gold medals. Lyles will shine on the track, looking to win a gold medal of her own in the marquee sprint race.

But the U.S. team that boats down the Seine River for the opening ceremony will be without some of its most familiar faces. That won't help draw in viewers. But if it ends with a big medal haul, who cares?

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