Friday, August 29, 2014

What the women's 4 x 400 at the European Championships and Flotrack's cross country previews teach us about track

I post videos of races on Facebook from time to time, and most get a handful of responses from other fans of track, even though people who have never run, say, 20 km without stopping probably make up the minority of my Facebook friends. That even people who participate in a sport, in the form of organized competitions no less, have no interest in it as a spectator sport means it is incredibly unpopular. There are kids who enjoy playing football who might not be able to name every single team in the NFL or a single lineman or defensive back, but they'll probably be able to name five famous players and their teams.

If you find ten runners at the start line of a marathon and ask them to name a famous runner, they'll probably start with Usain Bolt and maybe add Kara Goucher or Galen Rupp if they're American, Joanie Samuelson, Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers if they're older. I doubt most could make it to ten without struggling, and I don't think a majority could name ten Olympic medalists. This isn't really a problem of slow runners, since I know many fast runners (however you want to define it for non-professionals) who couldn't tell you what a world-class time is for any event except for the mile or the marathon.

The more I run, the more I'm convinced that the problem is one of track, not necessarily that of runners. A certain amount of change and a certain amount of unsavoury marketing is necessary to make a sport something that people want to watch. Gear and complexity, for example, is popular, while simplicity isn't. This partly explains the popularity of triathlon, especially as a spectator sport, and also why obstacle-type races are more popular than doing the exact same thing on without military-grade GPS on a rubberized track. Track, in comparison, comes across as football without the equipment, without the helmets, and without the jargon. Eleven people in t-shirts and shorts playing football is almost inherently more boring.

What track can offer, though, is competition. Lots of it. I have no idea how good the European 4 x 400 teams are in a global sense, though I'm aware of the UK and Russia generally being strong, but it doesn't matter when you watch this video. Neither did it matter to the casual runners and the non-runners on my Facebook feed who watched it and enjoyed it, making it different from most other videos of posted of unknown runners beating each other. The exact same last lap, but in Nike singlets instead of national colours, with individuals instead of a relay, wouldn't be nearly as interesting. They would be athletic accomplishments in a vacuum, like watching Peyton Manning throw a football if you didn't know it was Peyton Manning and he wasn't throwing it to anybody.

Watching accomplishments in a vacuum, though, is what track asks of even the semi-serious fan. A 3:27 1500 is indistinguishable from a 3:34 1500. The level of knowledge required to distinguish the two is probably like the level of knowledge required to distinguish a quarterback passer rating of 82 from a rating of 92, or a yards-per-carry average of 4.6 from 3.6. Any serious fan would know the difference, but sports don't survive on serious fans, they survive on casual and semi-serious fans, even non-serious fans who can tolerate watching the sport for a few hours. Fans who like watching the game because it's fun. Their enjoyment doesn't hinge on whether a quarterback threw for 302 yards or 287 (serious track fans, the sort who don't need distances to accompany times, will often be disappointed at a 13:05 but impressed by a 12:58 in a professional race).

Flotrack gets it. Although I don't get it at all, their countdown rankings of NCAA cross country is exactly the sort of thing we need. It's incomprehensible to someone who doesn't really know the teams and the athletes, just as NCAA basketball previews are incomprehensible to me, but by creating a story where teams aren't just teams, but they take on personalities and characteristics, they're creating a product for fans to watch. A few race promoters get it at major marathons, such as Boston and New York, where even casual runners will watch because the course is interesting, even though the times are comparatively slow and the very best runners might not even show up.

What's sad, though, is that it falls on Flotrack or on fans who take a great moment and capture it on Youtube to create the sports's stories. The organizing bodies are next to useless, with the IAAF's dreary website boldly daring even the serious fan to try and take an interest in the sport. Most accounts of the sport, with some exceptions, simply tell you what happened. It would be like a recap of the first Patriots-Giants Super Bowl simply noting that the Giants beat the Patriots to win the Super Bowl and explaining the events of the game, giving barely any attention what was at stake for the Patriots or how improbable the Giants' victory was. That sort of ineptitude, applied to what is basically the NFL Combine, is why the very fact that track has any fans at all is in spite of the sport.

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