Learning to appreciate a sport that's more fun to do than it is to see on TV
Last December, rumors circulated that the International Olympic Committee was considering cutting five track and field events from the Olympic Games program, including the 10,000-meter race. In a statement at the time, Brian Roe, a senior technical official for the International Association of Athletics Federations and an IOC adviser, explained that the 10,000 might not be altogether dropped from the Olympics, but reformatted into a road race.
"The 10,000 is not really part of the track-and-field calendar any more other than at the Olympics and Worlds so there was an argument against it,” Roe said, according to The Age. “The feeling was that the main protagonists are nearly all road runners so if we are to continue with the distance, why not have an event to which millions around the world can directly relate—a 10-kilometer road race. That doesn't drop an event, but it makes it more relevant—which is a key IOC objective.” Notable in Roe’s explanation is the assumption that a 10K road race will be of greater interest to an Olympics audience than a track 10,000 meters because “millions can directly relate” if the same distance is run on a different surface.
This is undoubtedly true. According to Running USA, 1.4 million people finished a 10K road race last year in the U.S. alone. While statistics weren’t readily available for how many people raced a track 10,000, we can safely assume that that figure is negligible by comparison. As Roe mentions in his statement, the 10,000 has become a rare event in professional track and field. On an amateur level, it’s almost unheard of.
But, in distance running, “relatability” does not necessarily equate to “watchability.”
Despite the immense popularity of marathons and half-marathons among amateur runners—Running USA cites over 2.5 million finishers last year between the two distances—televised coverage of major marathons like New York or Boston remains within the purview of local stations or niche cable channels like NBC’s Universal Sports. I contacted a research analyst at NBC Chicago to get some feedback on the ratings for the network’s coverage of last weekend’s Chicago Marathon, which is the second largest marathon in the world and one of the most competitive. Citing Nielsen’s data, she informed me that WMAQ’s telecast of the race averaged approximately 100,000 households over the last three years–compared to an average of 330,000 households for the same a.m. time slot on a typical Sunday. WMAQ’s Sunday Night Football coverage which, to be fair, runs during primetime, averages 425,000 households.
As I’ve noted before, running is unique in the discrepancy that exists between the vast number of amateur athletes who participate in the sport and the widespread indifference to it at a professional level. And in the U.S., there are a number of reasons for why this might be including the already overcrowded professional sports landscape, or the lack of American athletes on the podium in pro running’s marquee events. Or maybe it’s just that watching a bunch of emaciated men and women run around for an extended period of time is simply not that compelling as a spectator sport. As someone who gets up in the middle of the night to live stream obscure track meets on the other side of the world, I may be in denial about this.
To get a second opinion, I reached out to TV commentator Tim Hutchings, who makes his living flying around the world to call the biggest road and track races, from the Berlin Marathon to the Olympic Games. Hutchings will be commentating on the New York City Marathon on November 1, and is, in a sense, the John Madden of running.
The charismatic Englishman, himself a former Olympian and world class cross-country runner, had a few things to say about the appeal of running and the challenge of making the sport come alive for a TV audience.
Firstly, he doesn’t think the 10,000m will be cut or changed as an event
I vaguely remember hearing about that, but I think most of the athletics community would take that with a pinch of salt. There are various disciplines within the track and field spectrum that could be cut, but I don’t think the 10,000 is one of them. It would be utterly bizarre if they did something like that.
On the relatability vs. watchability question
Most Olympic Sports get great viewing ratings, and most people haven’t done those sports. So, really, how much correlation is there between having done it yourself, and being interested in watching it?
However, that being said...
If you think about running, there is no skill level required to enter a road race. Everybody can put one foot in front of the other. There’s no court or facility required. It’s the access to it. It’s the lowest common denominator in terms of access and participation of any activity–so everybody should be able to identify to it to some degree.
How to entice people to watch running on TV
I think a lot of it comes down to the quality of the pictures and the quality of the commentary. I do think that TV commentary can either talk people to sleep, or enlighten and illuminate the pictures before them. You have to enhance the pictures because watching guys running around for 25 laps, you can argue, is an acquired taste.
One challenge of being a commentator for a sport with such devoted fans
It’s a tough call to hit a balance in commentary, where you’re not patronizing the people that do know the sport and do enjoy it and people who are new to it and need to be told everything from the ground up.
Knowing what to look for in a race
All distance sports have little nuances. So in the Tour de France, you do get breakaways from the cyclists and in distance running, you do get people trying to put in hard laps and easy laps and making the opposition guess what they’re playing at. In the ideal scenario, you do get stuff that’s going on that makes the first 20 laps of a 25-lap race fairly dynamic and there’s something to talk about all the time.
Interesting runners make for an interesting race
I put great stock in knowing the basic, athletic information about each runner, but what is real gold dust is the color information: stuff about their personal lives, for the East Africans, what they’ve done with their prize money to rejuvenate their villages and change the lives of the people around them . . . I love it when you can bring up weird stuff about people that is interesting–you want to get under the skin of the individual so to speak. You want to be able to illuminate who these people are and what their lives consist of. Do they keep tropical fish in their underpants–all this kind of stuff.
But distance runners are a modest bunch
Unfortunately, endurance athletes tend to be very quiet and reclusive, a lot of them. They can be fairly shy. It’s not written in the books that when you become a superstar endurance athlete, you’ll be really good with the media as well.
Why the New York Marathon is always a great race to watch
New York gets consistently strong fields and it’s a demanding and dynamic course, so I think there’s more opportunity to run fast early on and break away with all the bends and bridges.