Hellickson Family of Hinckley, Oh. awaiting arrival of Katey
Hellickson Family of Hinckley, Oh. awaiting arrival of Katey

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.

Boston crowd cheers Meb's win
Boston crowd cheers Meb’s win

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?

Today, “The Kenyans” are a brand, and a strong one, but not individual Kenyans who get lost in the endless shuffle  of it all. There is no hierarchy, no uniformity within the distinction. There is no competitive branding, because there is no competitive structure.

Getting back to the Hellickson family in Ohio, the age-old questions confronting the sport of running are: how to build an audience? How to keep one? How can a race incorporate fans like the Hellicksons who are there to watch one runner finish, and create a tie-in to the elite competition up front?

Why couldn’t an event link an everyday runner, like Katey Hellickson who ran 4:26:18, with one of the elite athletes? Then pit that team against several other similarly combined teams of elites and locals that gets paid off when the local athletes finish. The partnership wouldn’t change the fundamental nature of the pro’s race, but it would mean the payoff would depend on how well his/her local partner ran. It might give the local fans a reason to get and stay involved. It might make the elite athletes come back out to watch their local partner finish.

Running USA CEO Rich Harshbarger (left) holds finish line tape with Cleveland exec. director Jack Staph
Running USA CEO Rich Harshbarger (left) holds finish line tape with Cleveland exec. director Jack Staph

Rich Harshbarger, the new CEO of Running USA, was in Cleveland as a guest of executive director, and RUSA board member, Jack Staph. For 19 years Rich was a newspaper executive with Gannett whose portfolio included the Detroit Free Press and its eponymous marathon.

“The first thing I did when I took over the marathon was kill the elite athlete program,” Rich told me in Cleveland. “When I looked at it I asked, why are we spending all this money on travel and hotels and prizes? With the tax issues it was just one big headache.”

Since Rich didn’t come from a running background, he had no bias on way or the other. What he had was a Masters of Science degree in Integrated Marketing Communications from Northwestern University and a Bachelors of Science Degree in Journalism from the University of Kansas. His was purely a business decision, and from a business standpoint anonymous elite athletes did not deliver value for compensation.

Harshbarger has only been CEO at Running USA for 90 days. While he is still getting his footing, he has also begun traveling to member events where he has begun to see how an elite athlete program can be an asset if it is leveraged properly, if it has a competitive narrative other than citius.

Running needs its competitions to once again have perceivable meaning to the general public. It cannot remain anonymous based on time alone.

A virtual competition linking local runners with the invited elites might be one way of making that connection – and its business model — viable again.


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