While announcing at the finish line of last weekend’s 37th Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon, Half, and 10K I began chatting with the Hellickson family from Hinckley, Ohio who were awaiting their daughter, Katey, who was running the marathon. With their signs and enthusiasm the Hellicksons rooted for all the runners who came across the line, and it got me to thinking.
Endlessly we’ve been told that running is a participation-based sport rather than spectator-friendly one. But those who grew up in the first running boom know full well that running had a tremendous spectator base when local heroes were the stars of the sport. Only through the last 25 years and the East African domination have we lost that thread of interest.
Rather than individual brands like Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar, we’ve been fed an endless string of East Africans who are staged anonymously to run against the clock with the aid of pace setters. But rooting for a time rather than a person is inherently less meaningful and appealing.
We saw how impactful a rooting interest can be with Meb Keflezighi’s win at the Boston Marathon in April. And though he didn’t perform up to hopes, look at the buzz Mo Farah generated for the Virgin Money London Marathon the week before that.
Citius, altius, fortius is all well and good, but any sport has to begin with who-ius, who are you rooting for, not what are you rooting for.
If Boston had been a paced time-trial there is no way Meb would have won. And if London had not been a time-trial you wonder how differently Mo might have fared. In that sense, straight up competition allows the improbable to become possible. But more than that, the sport needs to pit Him versus Him, Her versus Her, Them versus Them. Make it personal. Wrap the audience up in the who of it all, not the what.
We see this in boxing all the time. Many of the premier lighter weight division boxers hail from Latin America. While they speak no English, it doesn’t deter the sport from generating pay-per-view interest, because the promoters actively market mano a mano competitions. And while golf is full of stats like who hits the ball farthest, the only real stat is who won the tournament? (more…)