PRO RUNNER DAVID TORRENCE – “Don’t Blame Elite Athletes for State of the Sport”

Reaction to the Competitor Group’s decision to discontinue much of their elite athlete program at their Rock `n` Roll Series events in the United States continues to come in. Even now, nearly four weeks after the decision became public, pro athlete David Torrence has reacted to a quote in the comments’ section of my post “Dumbing Down, Slowing Down” by Competitor Group maven, John “The Penquin” Bingham.  In the following column posted on LetsRun.com today, Torrence fires back at Bingham’s assertion that pro runners don’t show sufficient interest in the back-of-the-pack masses, thereby maintaining the distance between them.  A 1998 grad of U.C. Berkeley, David has won four National Championships, one indoors at 3000 meters, and three straight Road Mile Championships (2009-2011).

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3:52 miler David Torrence

3:52 miler David Torrence

My name is David Torrence. I am a Professional Track Athlete and Road Racer.  I’ve run in front of packed sold-out stadiums, and in front of empty bleachers. I’ve run in Road races with 10,000 participants, and some with 10 total.

Upon reading the recent discussion on Competitor/RnR events, the value of elites, popularity of the sport, etc…something has struck a chord with me. Specifically with what John Bingham said in the comments section of Toni Reavis’ blog “Dumbing Down, Slowing Down”

Bingham wrote, “I invite ANY winner of ANY race to join me (cheering on finishers) instead of rushing back to their hotel after the awards ceremony. I guarantee that the first ‘elite’ to show even a LITTLE interest in the rest of the pack will become a hero overnight.” (bold my emphasis)

Well John, that comment… how can I put this politely… really frustrated me.

Show even a little interest in the rest of the pack? Guarantee overnight fame?

I have signed autographs in Zagreb, Croatia, t-shirts/hats/shoes in Eagle Rock, CA. In Falmouth, the day after racing the track mile, I voluntarily chose to jog the road 12km with the “rest of the pack” to interact and chat and cheer people on. I have driven myself at 4am to Fresno and sat for hours giving out and signing hundreds of autograph cards with personal messages to HS runners at the CA XC state meet. I have co-created my OWN track club to reach out to the community with greater numbers and unity. I have put on my OWN race (BAXC) where we paired up the average casual runners with the elites and had a scored meet. I recently went to Compton to kick off a weekly run event that the Mayor created for her community that lacks a strong running culture, and jogged 2miles with the youth of the city. I signed autographs and interacted with fans so quickly after my race in Stockholm, for so long, and standing so still (due to the stairs) that my body was unable to clear the lactic acid like it normally does, and I vomited during my cool down for the first time in my entire running career.

Am I an international phenomenon? Am I a national hero? Do people even recognize me on the trails in my own CITY where I train and live 6months out of the year? No, no, and no.

The blaming of the elites HAS to stop.

Are there some who don’t give back and selfishly head back to the hotel room? Yes. But in my experience, they are far and few between.

The vast majority are NOT jerks. They are people just like you. And are honestly some of the nicest/humblest people I’ve ever met. I feel honored to be a part of the professional running community.

But what more do you want us to do? What more CAN we do? Why aren’t NBA, NFL, MLB, Tennis, NASCAR, professionals held to this same standard of fan interaction?

Who are the ones that are creating this disconnect between the Elites and the casual runners?

I’ll tell you what is to blame: Television.

TV has done the absolute WORST job of promoting our sport and our elite athletes, and to put it simply: make us look cool. Every race is scripted to the point that the announcers only really know the top 5 seeds (2-3 in track), and if a lesser known athlete is leading and/or wins…he/she is often ignored completely, or mistaken to be one of the athletes that is on their sheet of paper. Track and Road Races are broadcasted the EXACT same way they have been broadcasted for DECADES. There has been very little innovation, very little creativity, very little drive to try and make it more entertaining on the screen.

And for those who say “well, running just doesn’t lend itself to entertainment on the big screen”. That is just a lazy response. Running is amazingly exciting, IF YOU KNOW WHAT IS GOING ON. If you are educated enough to know the splits, the moves, the surges, the falls, etc. Every NASCAR race has almost half the screen filled with stats of speed, position, name, etc. Without it, it’s just cars going in circles. Which is exactly how running is broadcast.

EDUCATE the public. Create BETTER TV broadcasts, and don’t just SETTLE for how things have always been done. As great as it is that Running gets on TV, I honestly believe that every time a meet/race is aired, we LOSE fans who tune in and think “gosh, this is the most boring thing ever.”

Take some CHANCES for crying out loud.

Secondly, (this is for track specifically) create a better in person meet experience. All the dead time, the lack of focus, the lack of ANY attempt to entertain fans between races and events, has created meets that lose any energy that it gains from amazing performances. If you go to any NBA or NFL game, every timeout, quarter break, or play review is CONSTANTLY filled with some sort of fan interaction. Be it cheerleaders, t-shirt bazookas, fan contests, cameras that pan to the fans. Just silly games to keep people engaged.

For road races, create a Fan-Zone like Brendan Reilly mentioned where people can interact with the elites. Or organize cooldowns with the elites and the fans that wish to join.

I sincerely wish that USATF would hire somebody that manages the in-house experience of NBA games, and have them bring their recommendations, expertise, and know-how to the USATF championships, and make a meet that for ONCE is entertaining for the casual fan that knows nothing about track.

If we can accomplish these feats, then we will have made serious headway. But what is holding us back? Who else is holding us back? Is it money? Is it meet management?

I don’t know those answers, but I can tell you who are not the problem: elites.

– David Torrence

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Thank you, David.  I can tell you from first hand experience the problem with TV and running.  The sport isn’t big enough, nor does it generate a large enough audience to warrant technological innovations in its coverage.  Secondly, American TV producers and general assignment sports anchors are generally not track or road running fans.  As such, they don’t follow the sport closely, don’t know the players or history, and are, in fact, somewhat afraid of a sport that is non-episodic, has no violence, nor a ball or teams to follow.  Accordingly, they tend to fall back on human interest stories and the spectacle, or, in track and field, stay with the shortest races possible.

I have literally had a producer tell me during a marathon broadcast, “Toni, not so many numbers. Remember, you are broadcasting to your maiden aunt.” Imagine any other sporting event where the broadcaster is told to use fewer numbers in describing their sport.  This is the world in which we find ourselves, and it is one of the challenges that lies before us.

In any case, this blog encourages all athletes (whether fast or slow), fans (those that remain), and, yes, Rock `n` Rollers, too, to contribute to the conversation, but in a respectful tone.  Conversations such as these will lay the road bed which the sport can utilize at this crossroads moment to re-pave the road ahead.

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11 thoughts on “PRO RUNNER DAVID TORRENCE – “Don’t Blame Elite Athletes for State of the Sport”

  1. I’ve been a television news and sports producer for 30 plus years. The producer who got into your ear and told you to broadcast for your aunt doesn’t know the audience. Your aunt’s not watching, but running fans like me are. Stupid!

  2. Kudos to Mr. Torrence, not just for his effort, but for the wide variety of efforts he’s involved in. The real key to all this is not a dogged hunt for who’s to blame, but a broad search for new solutions and new ways forward. Being willing to try anything and everything is a big part of that. Toni, I’ve seen you throw out a few ideas here and there as well.

    To return to a column of mine about a year ago ( http://www.runnersworld.com/rt-columns/grandstand-view-what-it-we-want ) , what’s the specific problem here? Competitor said, in essence, that they didn’t see a value proposition in having an elite field. There’s been a lot of finger-pointing looking for a cause there, but that’s really irrelevant. How do we prove to race organizers – and, more pertinently, SPONSORS – that there is value, perhaps even measurable dollars-and-cents value, in having an elite field? If we can’t prove it, how can we change things so we can?

  3. Why can’t we take the enormous participation in track & cross country in high schools and colleges and parlay it into a fan base that can elevate interest in the professional level?
    Also, look at the Seattle Sounders soccer club for a lesson in success (hint: Hollywood-style marketing)

  4. Toni, I’ve been to the last two Olympic Trials, as well as US Champs, and virtually all the athletes make a victory lap and sign autographs on the way. Also, NIKE has had athlete autograph signings as part of the Trials (I remember how long the line was for Kara Goucher, can’t say that people don’t know and/or love her). So us fans do know and love the elites. Further, it’s when we have announcers such as yourself behind the mike that we not only find further excitement in watching the races, but also knowledgeable feedback and more than a little humor and insight. Shoot, I’d watch a Mud Run if you were commentating it! It’s because you inform and understand and raise the bar.

  5. My wife and I are track and field and road race lovers. We’ve both competed and coached. Our idea of a great vacation is flying to NCAAs in Eugene, to the Stanford Invite, to a Notre Dame indoor meet, the KU Relays, or the Boston Marathon. We subscribe to T&FNews and Flotrack, and troll letsrun.com daily. I wrote a book about being a fanatical distance runner (Wannabe Distance God). We are hardcore fans and we are not alone. I’m nobody you’ve heard about, but I’ve reached out to many elites, past and present, via social media, and most have been very accessible and friendly. Helpful even. So I don’t blame the elites. I’m amazed by them. The more information I have about them, the more fun it is to watch them. When I’m not familiar with the athletes, the more information I have on the event the better it is for me (e.g., give me their pace, all their splits, their PRs, age, season best—everything—the more data the better). I don’t get this when I go to meets or watch a meet on TV. My angst rises as the TV program’s time limit gets eaten away and I won’t get to see the steeplechase, and by the end of the program I’m lucky to see the last lap of any event further than 1500 meters. It’s my dream to see the full final of every event (yes, that includes the men’s and women’s 5000 and 10,000—which I admit is unrealistic for TV, but I can still dream). When possible, have all the finals on a single day, and run the meet quickly. Give us as much information about the participants and how the event is unfolding as possible (track and roads). If fans such as my wife and I are getting bored, there’s little hope for less enthusiastic people who are casually sampling track and road racing. To summarize: more information about the athletes and how the event is unfolding, both verbal and printed, for track and road racing, and show the finals only, all of them, back-to-back with haste.

  6. Pingback: TEAM-BASED COMPETITIONS RATHER THAN INDIVIDUALS « Toni Reavis

  7. I love to watch any running events on broadcast television. I’d like to see someone(s), both technically savvy and enthusiastic for the sport, take on a one-website source for ALL broadcast running events. The site can include webcasts. It should be simple to use and unambiguous (easy to determine time-zone starts). It should be promoted on as many “running websites” as possible (like an advertisement) (with the idea that people running the various websites recognize the importance of exposure to the sport as a whole – with whatever trickle-down effects that might occur). Importantly, ALL broadcast organizations should be included – no exclusivity. If there’s a running event on the Big !0 Network – tell me about it. You could start just with US broadcasters/webcasters – and then move on from there, when appropriate. Everything along these lines that I’ve seen to date, is not sufficient or encompassing enough. Do whatever is necessary to promote the site, but promote the sport of running (roads, cross-country, T&F, Ironman’s, whatever). Thanks, and I appreciate the passion of Mr. Reavis and the many other commenters on this issue.

  8. Pro track teams that compete in a professional national track league woud be great. No one thought that there would be an audience for the WNBA, but the audience is growing year after year. It would be amazing to see the Detroit Flash compete against the Los Angeles Lightning in the National Track Championship with its newly drafted track athletes from LSU and Oregon, both teams with men and women athletes…track fans nationwide would tune in

  9. You are so cool! I do not suppose I have read a single thing like this before.
    So nice tto discover another peson with genuine thoughts
    on this topic. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This web site is
    oone thing that’s needed onn the web, someone with some originality!

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