The lack of interest in competitive running is a direct result of the complete failure of the USATF to market the sport in an effective way. Track is hardly televised and when it is, the broadcast is absolutely horrendous. Uninformed announcers, cutting to commercial break at critical moments of a race…it’s pretty much a how to guide on how NOT to run a successful broadcast. Compare a track broadcast to an NFL, NBA or MLB game and you will see what I’m talking about.
Another problem with distance running is that having swagger or any personality is discouraged and in many cases will land you a DQ. Do they think this will make the sport more popular?
Compare this to something people are actually excited about like the NFL playoffs. I live in New England so the big talk this week is about New England quarterback Tom Brady taking on the Denver Broncos rookie QB Tim Tebow. Tebow is constantly mocked in the media for being outspoken about his religious beliefs. This type of discussion keeps people interested in the game, even if they have never played football in their lives. It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with Tebow and his religious beliefs, the point is – it’s this type of controversy that keeps people coming back for me. This is also interesting because the favorite to win the Olympic trials, Ryan Hall, is also mocked for his religious beliefs, only you wouldn’t know it unless you visit a running specific website, and even there you will have to check the message board as the main articles will rarely touch the subject.
Why? Simple. The marketing machine behind running in the U.S. is 100% focused on getting you to participate in a race and 0% focused on getting you to watch a race. I’m not saying this is a bad thing as It encourages people to get active and be participants so that’s good. It would be extremely difficult to charge a spectator fee for a marathon, but it’s easy to charge a participant fee. That’s why all of the marketing efforts go towards getting people to run the race, not watch the race.
It seems to make sense until you realize that marketing the top runners would, in itself encourage more people to run. How many kids pick up a basketball because they want to be like Lebron James? How many kids pick up a football because they want to be like Tom Brady? The marketing folks at the NBA and NFL fully understand that by hyping up the best athletes they will create a tremendous amount of interest in the sport itself. That’s why Tom Brady and Lebron James are swimming in cash, yet Nick Symmonds has to sell ad space on twitter.
Another challenge is the way the seasons are set up, in the sense that in running there really is no professional “season” to speak of. People get attached to the NFL, NBA and MLB because they can follow “their” team and “their” players over the course of a season. The excitement builds, growing stronger in the playoffs and reaches a pinnacle in the championship game or series. In track and road races there are a bunch of random races, some of them have “championship” attached to the name, some have “classic” but nothing really gels together to form a cohesive season. There aren’t even really teams. Sure there are grassroots running clubs that do a great job on the local scene fostering competition. I’m not saying nobody is trying here, just that the main organizations have been a complete failure in generating interest in the sport of running at the elite level. No teams, no interesting characters, no storylines and no trash talk.
Not that there is anything wrong with that. I don’t care that nobody cares about running. This post is not meant to be a rant on why anybody “should” care about running. I just find it fascinating that running is so popular in other parts of the world but not here in the U.S.
I’ve brought this up with people before and most people are under the impression that running is not popular because it’s boring. I don’t think that’s the reason. If broadcast correctly a track meet is incredibly exciting. 5,000 meter on the track going around, cut to pole vaulter trying to clear some gargantuan height, cut to long jumper flying through the air, back to the 5,000m with a lap to go. Definitely more exciting than golf and people watch that. Golf has characters that people either love, or love to hate. That’s what keeps them watching.
In fact, people watch tons of boring crap on t.v. so I really don’t think that is the reason. I can guarantee that if someone put on a track meet with famous athletes from other sports people would watch and enjoy it. Imagine a few top NFL running backs up against a few NBA guards in a 100 or 200. Sprinkle some track athletes in there and you have tons of trash talking and excitement.
Basically, people will watch whatever has the best marketing, the best storylines, the best charecters, and the most personal meaning for them. This is another reason the NFL, NBA, and MLB have completely obliterated the USATF in the marketing department. I live near Boston so I’m a Celtics, Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins fan. How could I not be a fan of the BOSTON Celtics when I live in Boston? Yet in running we have a bunch of random runners running for random teams that nobody has any personal connection to whatsoever.
This post might seem harsh but consider this: The upcoming Olympic trials race is not being televised. There isn’t even a live internet stream. So even the 1,000 or so people who might actually be interested in watching the race can’t do so unless they travel to the event. It’s hard to build interest in the sport when the biggest race in 4 years isn’t even covered. Oh well, at least the Patriots are playing that day and that broadcast shouldn’t be hard to find. I’m sure any business with a T.V. will have the game playing. And to be clear, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m saying kudos to the NFL for doing a great job marketing and providing exceptional entertainment value to the fans.
What are your thoughts? Am I missing something? Why has interest in the sport of running declined so rapidly while participation in the activity has increased?