For athletics to gain popularity, television needs to embrace a new paradigm: Are they bold enough?

September 28, 2013 3

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© Copyright – 2013 – Athletics Illustrated

Of the online discussion between elite athlete David Torrence and Runner’s World Magazine writer, John “The Penguin” Bingham, regarding whether elite athletes are to blame for their anonymity, Torrence’s rebuttal provides the most effective and permanent solution, he said, “EDUCATE the public. Create BETTER TV broadcasts, and don’t just SETTLE for how things have always been done. As great as it is that Running gets on TV, I honestly believe that every time a meet/race is aired, we LOSE fans who tune in and think “gosh, this is the most boring thing ever.”

Torrence’s suggestion requires a collective paradigm shift by the traditional media, its digital counterpart, as well as big business in order to accomplish the goal of collective notoriety; an achievement that will happen only by the summoning of a bold new attitude, much patience and time. But he is correct in his elucidation; the television broadcasters need to treat running, the way they treat NASCAR, if the running community is going to gain broad-scope and consistent fan support.

Bingham commented in response, suggesting that if elite athletes stuck around after they finished the marathon and cheered in the everyday runner, they would instantly become revered. This has some merit however, it is an alienating stance to take and not exactly a practical or full solution, he wrote, “I guarantee that the first “elite” to show even a LITTLE interest in the rest of the pack will become a hero overnight.”

That’s a bit rich. If Ryan Hall or Shalane Flanagan stood at the finish line for four extra hours after finishing their marathon, to see every last soul waddle through, would a major network run a live, prime time marathon broadcast because Hall and Flanagan promised to be standing cheering to the end? Of course not! What if they cheered for just two or three hours? Would the remaining two or three hours’ worth of runners feel insulted, perpetuating the myth that the elite do not care and somehow they owe the waddlers something?

This all started after the Wall Street Journal’s Kevin Helliker wrote an article called, The Slowest Generation, referring to the average finish times in mass marathons being slower than in the glory days of the sport. Tony Reavis wrote apopular article exploring the same phenomenon, on his website Tonyreavis.com called DUMBING DOWN, SLOWING DOWN. In response to it, agent Brendan Reilley wrote, “I think we’ve had too many years of the John Bingham (Waddle On, Penguins) philosophy.” The latter brought out Bingham.

Running needs the media. Events need elite athletes.

As a race director of a small series of events, occasional volunteer as well as a writer who spends the majority of his writing and researching time dealing with elite athletes as well as media, both digital and traditional, I suggest that sure, Bingham’s solution is necessary. Grassroots support, provides long-term cultural-like growth. So his comment is valid however, what is ailing the sport of athletics has much more to do with the top end not selling itself effectively than the need to hobnob with the masses. A marathon event that attracts 50,000 participants, surely need not long for grassroots support.

Regarding the former, for example, if I don’t have the local varsity team or a few elite athletes participating in one of my meets, because perhaps they are out-of-town at another event, I have little to motivate the media to report on. I know this from experience. If the media has nothing to report, their audience is missing from the picture, so goes the rest, like dominoes.

Game changer

Recently, the yawn-inducing sport of cricket, (yawn-inducing to anyone who didn’t grow up with the game), transitioned to a smaller, faster, more entertaining model that is rapidly growing in popularity, it also has a new name, Twenty20. It is an idea whose time had come. A days-long traditional cricket match did not fit into the television paradigm, Twenty20 does. Rugby Sevens – although has been around since the Scots invented it in 1883 – is a more palatable, exciting and easy-to-follow version of the traditional game – a game that can be appreciated over a television broadcast; the Olympics accepted it. Field Lacrosse has its boxla cousin, which is fast, exciting and broadcasts much more effectively. The two teams play within the confines of a hockey rink sans ice. The National Lacrosse League’s top teams draw near sell-outs, Colorado 15,761, Buffalo 15,620 and Toronto 10,729 during the 2013 season.

Torrent made the most salient point when he wrote to Let’s Run.com, stating, “And for those who say “well, running just doesn’t lend itself to entertainment on the big screen”. That is just a lazy response. Running is amazingly exciting, IF YOU KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON. If you are educated enough to know the splits, the moves, the surges, the falls, etc. Every NASCAR race has almost half the screen filled with stats of speed, position, name, etc. Without it, it’s just cars going in circles. Which is exactly how running is broadcast.”

This is precisely the point.

Golf for example, galls those who do not follow the sport, it is so slow, the play-by-play personality nearly whispers and the humour is dry. But the advertisers know well that there are followers of the game who know the sport; they are spoon fed stats and visual effects just as NASCAR fans are.

Open your daily newspaper to the sports section, you will find NFL, NBA, NHL, Tennis and NASCAR stories and stats – albeit a day late. Is the tail wagging the dog? Are the masses reading about and watching the major league sports because the networks, newspapers and magazines tell us, this is what’s hot? Or are the fans, telling the media what they want and therefore fulfilling that specific need?

The answer is a bit of both.

The Olympic Games prove, every four years that there is an appetite for track and field, under the right conditions. Torrence said, “TV has done the absolute WORST job of promoting our sport and our elite athletes, and to put it simply: make us look cool. Every race is scripted to the point that the announcers only really know the top 5 seeds (2-3 in track), and if a lesser known athlete is leading and/or wins…he/she is often ignored completely, or mistaken to be one of the athletes that is on their sheet of paper. Track and Road Races are broadcasted the EXACT same way they have been broadcasted for DECADES. There has been very little innovation, very little creativity, very little drive to try and make it more entertaining on the screen.”

He also said, “Take some CHANCES for crying out loud.”

This last, is his most crucial point. It will require television broadcasters to embrace an adventurous paradigm shift. The question is, is anyone bold enough?

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3 Comments »

  1. Quick Silver September 28, 2013 at 8:30 pm - Reply

    Broadcast track like golf. Cut back and forth between commentators at each field event in progress giving jump-by-jump, throw-by-throw comment and analysis. Cut to the track as required. Clever leader boards custom-designed for each field event would help a lot, but that’s an easy project for an undergraduate design class.

  2. Bob Fraley September 28, 2013 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    In the mid 1980s Sport Sociologist warned sports that changes where coming. That we are no longer a rural nation and must identify with teams and establish an emotional connection between the fans and the athletes. Make the fans identify with the team or city and leave the competition believing that they made a difference in performance and winning.. Did you notice how many time a NASCAR Driver will refer to his team. Look at the way NFL, NBA. MLB, Soccer, and Nascar fans identify with athletes and the team with their shirts and caps.. The basic concept presented was “sport depends upon the society in which it exists”. The Track and Field world paid little attention to the recommendations and now we are living with the results.. Might start with the way Taylor Swift establishes rapport with the fans.

  3. John September 28, 2013 at 8:28 am - Reply

    Hey. Working on my own response to all this, but just wanted to point out: Torrence’s email was a response to Bingham, not the other way around, as you’ve described.

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