Here's how to get more media coverage for running - if you dare.

Something Larry Eder wrote over at RunBlogRun struck a nerve yesterday, the same one that Heather Romano struck that got me to write why Runners Will Never Have Parades a couple of weeks ago.

The piece that Larry wrote started with a discussion of Rita Jeptoo’s positive 'A' sample test when he was asked what his agenda was. He started by saying, quite appropriately, “In my mind, the agenda of the people who confirmed my story on Rita Jeptoo was a shared, sincere interest in cleaning up the sport. 

The article went on to discuss how to improve the sport by aggressively pursuing dopers and cleaning up suspicion that every major successful runner must be like Lance Armstrong, doping. It is grossly unfair to the majority of athletes out there who run clean and step with integrity to the line with to race.

It’s a very real problem, and Larry Eder is spot on that this is the top priority of the sport. He interjects a second agenda item that he ties back to the need to eliminate doping, that of the need to improve media coverage of the sport. His reason is that spectators need to  cheer for athletes they know are clean.

This segue to television made me wince.  Not because I disagree with him, not completely, but because there is a way to get what he wants – and none of us will like the answer.

Quoting Larry:

A reappraisal of the mediocre way in which many of our events are presented in the media is probably next on the list. We destroy any interest in young fans with our inability to provide them key events that are responsive on all media platforms. . . . Non-paid cable TV is key to providing Europe, Asia, Africa and especially the US with major athletic events. Streaming video is important, but terrestrial TV would gain a larger and wider audience and should be a beginning point for media coverage of our sport, not some add-on in 2014. 

Let’s start with the part that I don’t disagree with – I would love for more media coverage for the athletes. Hell, I write a blog that does nothing but write about local cross country and track. The traffic is minimal. A few of the kids that run get a kick out of the reports, parents that can’t get to the race send thank you’s, and everyone else couldn’t care less.  It would be great if the youngsters in my area got the same attention that sports with balls – football, basketball, baseball – get. It doesn’t happen because not enough people care. I keep writing it for those few who do - the same way I did with the books. 

Now for the parts that will rankle a few people. Television is an expensive medium to work with and non-paid television is an oxymoron. Somebody is paying for it, somehow. By asking for non-paid terrestrial coverage, we essentially are asking for a subsidy to the sport. I have a hard time believing that we’re the most special snowflakes that should get coverage, ahead of the other special snowflakes.

Football, to pick on the biggest of the elephants hogging the bandwidth, trades coverage for fans. Lots and lots of fans with lots of income they can be separated from.

Professional running athletes don’t have fans, because the average runner will opt a good run rather than  spend time watching someone else compete as a runner. People who run have heroes they look up to but that is a fundamentally different relationship than the average Seahawk fan has to Richard Sherman. The average Seahawk fan lives vicariously through the team because they don’t play the sport themselves. Runners don’t put themselves in the shoes of Ryan or Sarah Hall; they put on their own shoes and hit the trails.

So, the next question would be how to get the spectators, versus the doers, to watch?

The answer is you can’t, not the way the sport is configured now, mostly because the average running event is boring as hell to a non-runner. Everyone can see a touchdown. Very few can see a tactical change in pace of a few seconds along with a cover by the other runners in the lead pack. So marathon coverage breaks down to a hour and forty-five minutes of tedium, a timeout for a commercial in a sport that does not take time outs, and the inevitable missed break that happened while the network carrying the race tried to make some money. That’s about a scintillating as an chess match. Golf has more drama than the average marathon.

So, without a compelling drama, viewers won’t watch and television is a bust. The stories of the athletes are not enough. Every sport has compelling stories. We, as a sport, need the fans to care about what happens on the track or road or trail; and, pretty universally, they don’t.

They used to, though, a hundred and fifty years ago. Just as football and basketball started, pedestrianism began as a working class sport, along with foot racing. Athletes attracted a wide following, newspapers provided coverage, and fans showed up. Most of those events would be considered in the ultramarathon range of distances, but shorter foot races existed.

The spectators cheered for their champions, and jeered the challengers. Fist-fights would break out. The fans cared, mostly about their money, not the athlete, because they gambled on the outcomes. For them, the walkers were the equivalent of race horses, mounts to wager on, and cheer to the pole. Losers suffered vitriol from their backers.

With the gambling and the money came the corruption. This led to formation of the various amateur associations in the early part of the 20th century, both here and in England, and the eventual vilification of the professional over the pure in spirit amateur. As with everything, the major change was who got to make the money, shifting from the punters and walkers to the associations.

Gambling provides a driving force for the popularity of football, baseball, and basketball. It’s so entrenched that talking heads on ESPN talk about point spreads without considering the moral hazard of gambling.

(A quick aside – I have no problem with gambling. You want to gamble, nobody’s going to be able to stop you. For me, I figure there are two types of people that go to Vegas, losers and gamblers, and the only difference is their attitude when they walk in through the doors to the glitz and smoke. When they walk out, they’re all the same.)

Money acts as a very corrosive lubricant. Even as it smooths the path to popularity, it sets the seeds of the downfall. Look at USC and Reggie Bush, or, more recently, North Carolina and the paper classes that jeopardize their accreditation as a university. Gambling and scandals have been a part of the big three sports almost since their inception.

The sport of running already suffers from credibility problems. An athlete has a breakout performance and the first post up on will question what PED they used. Not IF the used, what. Rumors abound.

So I applaud the effort to clean up the sport. We need it and I’d like to see the effort extend past the professional level and to the collegiate and high school levels, too. Given the influence of steroids at those levels in other sports, we should act proactively to protect our young athletes at least as diligently as the top guns on the track and road.

If you want to become a popular spectator sport, though, weigh very carefully the cost. There is no way to build it as a spectator sport that does not include giving the viewer a cheering interest and the race simply isn’t enough to the casual observer. They need something else to connect to, something that holds them personally. With football, the fan bonds to the players on the field who blast the running back and knock the ball loose in a huge adrenaline rush. Basketball has the monster dunk and the dagger three. Baseball has individual duels on every pitch and homer waiting on a swing of the bat.

Perhaps someone smarter than me has an answer - there are plenty of you - on how to make people care enough to watch running. Our best fans go out for runs instead of watching someone else run. The answer needs to be something more than the “beauty of the sport” and drama at the break. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and drama is life with the boring parts left out; running, when you’re not doing it, has a lot of boring bits. Substituting something else – gambling – to generate the emotion strikes me as a poor remedy. 

Not that I’m much of a gambler, but I’m betting you won’t recognize the sport when shady money finishes with it.