Outside may occasionally take a critical stance toward the Olympic Games, but we’ll say one thing for the biennial five-ring spectacle: it bestows many of the sports we cover with a flash of media attention, granting otherwise obscure athletes a moment in the mass-marketed sun. On the fourth night of the Olympics last summer, 33 million U.S. viewers tuned in to watch swimming and gymnastics. That’s two million more than the number of viewers who watched game seven of last year’s NBA Finals, which was itself the most-watched pro basketball game in nearly 20 years, according to Sports Media Watch.
For those of us who fancy ourselves among the cognoscenti of niche “Olympic” sports like running or skiing (a list that now also includes climbing, surfing, and skateboarding) the ephemeral uptick in mainstream interest prompts a wistful question: Why isn’t it always like this? Are our sports, without the media hype, inherently boring to viewers? And, if this is indeed the case, what can be done about it?
Broadly speaking, a standout feature of most sports covered by Outside is that they celebrate the achievements of the individual, rather than those of a team. This is significant because most athlete careers are relatively short, so they don’t provide the same opportunity for lifelong fandom—like a professional sports franchise does. It may be the underlying source of my innate pessimism, but I’ll be a New York Knicks supporter for life and can even pass it on to my future children, like a hereditary disease. Conversely, it’s harder for me to maintain an interest in U.S. men’s skiing without a dynamite protagonist like Bode Miller occasionally transcending the laws of physics. Team sports, for better or worse (certainly for worse in the eyes of George Orwell), also appeal more readily to our tribal instincts—“Raider Nation” and “Cheeseheads” come to mind.
Speaking of football, it remains the most popular spectator sport in the U.S. by a significant margin, although it’s impossible to gauge how much of the allure is generated by the kind of hoopla that has little to do with the game itself. “Imagine going to a football game but take away all the pomp and circumstance. Don’t play any music between plays. Don’t have any cheerleaders. Don’t have any flashing ads on the Jumbotron. Just have the game. How boring would that be?” elite distance running coach Ben Rosario once asked me, in response to a question about how running could do a better job at marketing.
According to Rosario, a big reason why the major sports in this country are so successful is that they’ve long understood that sports need to be aggressively packaged and sold as entertainment. Recent examples of this include the rise of fantasy leagues and the NBA’s inclusion of sleeved jerseys as part of an effort to bolster apparel sales. For his part, Rosario floated the (anachronistic) idea of creating trading cards of big-time runners.
It’s clearly a little optimistic to assume that with cooler uniforms or better merchandising a fringe sport like enduro cycling would suddenly be garnering NFL-level ratings, but Rosario has a point: presentation matters. It matters on a purely promotional level, and also when making decisions about how to broadcast live events. In an age of drones, action cams, and hyper-sophisticated technology, surely there can be innovative ways to convey the unfolding drama. If the “hole cam” was enough to compel thousands to watch the World Series of Poker (!) on ESPN, there must be hope for sports where participants actually have to get out of their chairs. Imagine if, for instance, major marathons could collaborate with select gyms to live broadcast their races and have spectators see how long they can “keep up” with elite-level runners on a treadmill.
“I’ll never understand why downhill skiing doesn’t have a greater TV presence in the United States. It’s fast, dangerous, picturesque, suspenseful, and pure,” New Yorker journalist and skiing enthusiast Nick Paumgarten lamented in a brief dispatch in the lead up to the Sochi Olympics. “You’d think NBC would want to prime viewers’ interest in the months leading up to the Olympic Games, but, save for some week-old races aired deep in the ghettos of cable, Alpine skiing is little more than a quadrennial curiosity.”
How should the networks prime viewers’ interest? One easy way is to give them a compelling narrative. To their credit, NBC makes a halfhearted attempt to do this by splicing their Olympic coverage with those short, endearingly mawkish athlete bio movies (“I am the girl from Vermont who loves horses”) that make you want to call your mother. But these films are obviously not going to cut it on their own, especially when they are only aired during the Olympics when, in a sense, it’s already too late.
Of course, in 2017, some athletes no longer need to rely on traditional outlets to tell their stories. As the vast social media followings of athletes like Kelly Slater or Alex Honnold attest, the stars of “fringe” sports can attract lucrative sponsorship deals without the help of major TV networks. This is another way of saying that in the Internet age certain fringe sports might not really be fringe sports at all, but merely have a different metric for gauging their popularity. There are sports like extreme skiing, where the “watchability” factor is largely independent from the context of organized competition. For these sports, live coverage is irrelevant; what matters is how many times a video gets viewed on YouTube.
But not all sports have the death-defying bravado of extreme skiing, and not all athletes have the luxury of being Kelly Slater, who can rack up 1.5 million views with an out-of-competition YouTube clip.
In early January, two-time Olympic gold medalist, current Outside cover model, and decathlon world-record holder Ashton Eaton announced his retirement at the ripe age of 28. The fact that the man frequently touted as the world’s greatest athlete can bid adieu in his 20s and not receive more than a blip of media attention exemplifies the problem. When I spoke to Eaton the day after his announcement and asked what his sport could to better to counter this widespread indifference he was quick to answer.
“I think the reason track is not like the other [more visible] sports, is mostly because there’s a lack of storytelling,” he said.
Here’s to hoping that the ever-expanding social media landscape will empower future Ashton Eatons to tell their own stories, and not be forever consigned to the realm of “quadrennial curiosity.” Otherwise, well, maybe trading cards will make a comeback.