Alex Morgan and Caitlin Clark aren’t going to

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The Olympics were born as an athletic competition. They have morphed into a television show that is worth, in NBC’s eyes, $7.65 billion to broadcast. To earn the ratings that justify that cash outlay, it helps any form of entertainment — any serial television show that eats up nearly three weeks of dead time in what would otherwise be a sleepy summer — to have stars. Stars draw eyeballs. Eyeballs raise ratings. Ratings justify the billions.

But back to that athletic competition thing. It’s pesky. And the people charged with winning medals can’t be responsible for worrying about the eyeballs or the 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 ushered out of last year’s World Cup after winning just one of four matches. Alex Morgan, the American soccer public adores you, and you earned that adoration. NBC would love to have your familiar face on its air. No matter. You’re staying home.

The Paris Summer Games are still four weeks off, and like any Olympics they promise to deliver transcendent performances from stars both known — step forward, Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky and Noah Lyles — and those we’re just discovering. No Olympics plays out to script, which is both the point and the beauty of the thing.

But it’s also true that the run-up to the Games has cost the American team three real draws. Hayes, the new women’s soccer coach, made the choice to move on from Morgan, a tie to the USWNT’s glory days who, in Hayes’s eyes, could no longer provide that glory. Caitlin Clark, inarguably women’s basketball’s most transcendent star, didn’t make the Olympic team. And Athing Mu, the elegant and riveting reigning gold medalist in the 800 meters, fell during her event at the U.S. 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 make the soccer team or because Athing Mu tripped up on a track in Oregon. But think of it this way: The past three Olympics — Winter Games in South Korea and Beijing, a Summer Games in Tokyo — were held in Asia, making the time difference in the U.S. unpalatable for many viewers to watch in real time. The past two — the covid-delayed Japan Games in 2021, and the winter version in China the following year — were held in empty venues, because the pandemic restricted fans.

Paris, then, should be a return to normalcy. But it’s a new normal. Since NBC made its outlay to carry the six Olympics from 2022-32, consumers have moved even further away from the single-screen, over-the-air viewing experience. Getting more people to sit on couches and turn on televisions would be helped by having more familiar characters to follow.

Which doesn’t mean, say, Morgan should have made the soccer team or Clark should be there in basketball. Mu’s fate, determined by the cruelty of the no-second-chances track trials, is more cut and dried. The decisions with Morgan and Clark were made on athletic merit. There’s a cruelty in that, too.

“It was a tough decision, of course, especially considering 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 younger. Morgan, the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, will turn 35 next week. She is coming off a 2023 World Cup in which she started all four U.S. games and did not score. Hayes, a Londoner, is here not only because the Americans failed to reach the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time. She’s here because — after a bronze medal at the Tokyo Games and last year’s flameout in New Zealand and Australia — the program needed a reboot.

That’s the opposite of what the women’s basketball operation required. The hoopsters have won all seven Olympic golds dating back to the 1996 Atlanta Games. This year’s roster not only features 42-year-old point guard Diana Taurasi, seeking her sixth gold medal, but six more members of the team that won in Tokyo.

“Good perspective and continuity is such an important thing,” USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley told the Associated Press, “and is why we’ve been successful in the Olympics.”

The soccer team’s approach: It’s broken, so let’s fix it. The basketball team’s approach: It ain’t broke, so what’s there to fix?

What awaits is to see whether those tactics work.

There will be much to watch in Paris. The unparalleled Biles will return to the gymnastics competition that so tortured her in Tokyo. Ledecky will be back in the pool in her fourth Olympics, seeking to add to her seven gold medals. Lyles will preen on the track, searching for his gold in the marquee sprint races.

But the American team that takes a boat down the Seine for Opening Ceremonies will be without some of its most recognizable faces. That might not help draw viewers. But if it ends with more medals, who cares?

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