Running as a spectator sport – seriously

Out and Back June 26, 2014 0 Comments

by Dante Zappala

Lawi Lalang. Edward Cheserek. If you’re a runner and these names mean nothing to you, please read on.

It starts on a Friday night, which in my house usually means the great unwinding – pizza, ice cream, and lots of horseplay with the boys. But a recent end-of-week party consisted of me, my basement, and ESPN coverage of the NCAA Track and Field Championships. This confluence of events is as rare as spotting Elvis reading a Gutenberg Bible. My wife had taken the kids on a day trip up to NYC, and I sat patiently waiting for the text that said the bus had exited the Jersey Turnpike, my cue to head out for the pickup.

I know what you are thinking: way to blow a golden opportunity, chief. Seriously, watch track? How about you read a book, go to a bar or bang your head on a tree instead. What I’m certain you don’t know is that the men’s 5,000 meter final was shaping up to be a must-watch; so much so that I was openly willing the bus to get stuck in traffic to ensure I’d be able to watch the whole thing.

Your opinion that I’m a loon is perfectly acceptable. Despite the fact that you run and you read about running here and in other publications, you probably don’t follow the sport itself very closely. This is not your fault. The way the sport is marketed and broadcast makes it nearly impossible for the growing number of runners to actually get hooked on watching and following what’s happening with the best in the business.

Had you even accidentally stumbled upon the 5k that night, there’s nothing that would have enticed you to stay put on the couch and put the remote down. The drama that unfolded was apparent only to people who already follow the sport.

This is an anomaly unique to running. Other professional sports do a fine job of attracting the casual viewer. There is no better evidence of this than the World Cup. Bars across the country that are littered with hysterical fans who think a fifty-fifty ball is some kind of raffle.

Lawi Lalang is a senior at Arizona and has eight NCAA championships on his resume. Edward “King” Cheserek is a freshman from Oregon who has been taking names all year. He won the cross country title and then got the better of Lalang during the indoor season. His speed is intimidating and he has developed a trademark kick that is just stunning to watch.

Lalang, however, had recently beat Cheserek by less than one second in the 1500 meters at the PAC 12 championship by stealing his kick with an unrelenting pace throughout the entire race.

This year has been a classic back-and-forth in the battle of the old guard vs. the new. Lawi clearly wanted to bury the young buck in their last head-to-head competition as collegiate athletes.

Imagine for a moment if ESPN had put together a montage that played on this story line. What if they showed clips from these past races and you caught a glimpse of Lalang’s resolve and Cheserek’s raw potential? Maybe you would have watched the first 2 laps, at least.

Of course, there was no hype of the narrative, just two lackluster announcers stumbling through the action. The race went out in 4:16 for the first mile; a fast pace to be sure, but where’s the context for you, the uninitiated viewer?

I’m certain you run your miles down in the Valley much slower, we all do. To give you some information of relevance and promote engagement, running should steal from another sport that features endless laps around the track yet manages to keep people glued to the TV for hours: NASCAR.

Let’s superimpose real time information over each athlete. You could see the runner’s name, current speed, and projected finish time. Might that bait you to stick around and watch nine more minutes of this? Your Garmin keeps you motivated on your own runs with this same information, after all.

But the way distance races from the 3,000 meters on up are broadcast, it’s clear the networks aren’t interested in you following the race start-to-finish. Like clockwork, after the first mile, they go straight to commercial. They do not believe that you even have the capacity to care about what happens in the middle of the race. If that’s the case, why should you even invest in watching from the beginning?

The World Cup manages to show us 45 minutes of uninterrupted action. Even with little to no scoring, they still keep it interesting. Maybe it’s the accents, but the announcers are entertaining, they react to what is happening, and they speak with authority and clear knowledge of the sport. There’s a formula where advertisements don’t overwhelm the action. Track fails on all of these fronts, the announcers probably being the biggest disappointment.

Back from the commercial break, you could see the race heating up. Lalang and Ches were pulling away. The drama was ripe. So what happens next? Cutaways to the triple jump!

It’s a good thing I didn’t break my toe when I kicked the furniture, otherwise I would have missed a thrilling finish. Cheserek made a move to the front in the final 200 meters, seemingly ready to take the torch. But Lalang pulled even on the home stretch. He had run a brave race, pushing the pace for 12 laps. The slow bleed of the King’s kick was complete. With Cheserek flailing wildly, literally trying to hold on, Lalang regained command in the last 50 meters and won by less than four tenths of a second.

An instant classic and you missed it! Now, having read this, I’m certain you’ll try to find the uninterrupted replay of the race on the internet. Great idea, except for the one final failure of a sport desperate to build an audience: the full replay only exists behind a $20/month paywall on a website for track junkies. Next time, you’ll just have to tune in live.

Want to support the Local? Join the Chestnut Hill Community Association. Membership helps fund what we do. Join today.