The Virgin Money London Marathon announced its 2015 professional men’s field today, and the gathering is already making salivary glands water among the faithful world-wide. But though it is already being dubbed “Greatest Field in History” – and how many times have we heard that before? – what I found most appealing about the roll-out was how binary the London organizers made it.
While former London Marathon champion and course record holder Emmanuel Mutai has also been signed, along with 2014 Chicago king Eliud Kipchoge, and the redoubtable Keninise Bekele of Ethiopia, any one of whom might well expect to see his name up on a race marquee, notwithstanding the presence of those other stars, it’s the current and former marathon world record holders who are primarily being touted. This is a welcome sign of marketing savvy, and takes a page from how boxing promotes it’s major fights.
Like running boxing requires weeks, if not months, of rigorous preparation for a single competition. And while the international stars of boxing, like running, often rise from impoverished backgrounds where education may be in short supply, boxing has found ways to overcome its communications shortcoming by doing a superior job in marketing its top competitors to its fan base.
As a television product, foot racing has always had a difficult time engaging a sporting audience. First of all, it isn’t episodic like boxing with a new round every three minutes, or feature a play, a pitch, a shot every 30-seconds like many team sports do. Instead, running is a building drama that takes time to develop and resolve. But in today’s helter-skelter world, time is the one commodity people are least willing to invest in a sport that features relatively anonymous athletes competing for rather modest prizes.
How often have we heard, “running is boring”, and then watched coverage that proved the point? Well, with “boring” as an accepted predicate, it is no wonder that TV producers shift their focus, splitting precious editorial time among professional men’s and women’s races, the wheelchair competitions, as well as the thousands of back-of-the pack participants and on-course spectators who offer a rich stew of charity fund-raising story lines and ready personalities. However, by taking a scatter-shot rather than rifling approach, TV has often frustrated hard-core fans who only want to see the competition.
Without a large participation base to fall back on, boxing has to no choice but to focus attention on its prime combatants. And in recent years it has found an innovative tool to build fan interest via pre-fight build up shows.
Leading up to the May 2007 Floyd Mayweather versus Oscar De La Hoya light-middleweight title fight in Las Vegas, HBO produced a first-of-its kind series, titled De La Hoya-Mayweather 24/7. The four-part series took viewers inside the rigors of each fighter’s training camp and personal lives as a prelude to the ring showdown. The shows aired on the final three Sundays of April, with the fourth installment airing on Thursday, May 3, two days before the fight.
Originally meant to be a one-off, the success of the first 24/7 led to an ongoing series that brought renewed interest to a sport that had been losing fans to the fast-growing, viewer-friendly sport of mixed martial arts.
Following HBO’s success, Showtime introduced its own version of 24/7 called All Access, while for last November’s Chris Algieri versus Manny Pacquiao fight in Macao, China, HBO premiered another entry into the audience development schedule called Under The Lights hosted by well-regarded boxing analyst Max Kellerman.
While running isn’t the binary competition that boxing is, as we see in London 2015 the elite fields at most of the Abbott World Marathon Majors do come down to a power duo, or three-some, which make up the star power of that particular race. Yet before even the World Marathon Majors, there is little to no build up to the pro races to foster interest in the battles ahead. Instead, the coverage is predictably event rather than competition focused. The first look most viewers get of the leading contenders comes the morning of the race just prior to the starting gun.
With an audience essentially being introduced to a pack of mysterious, enigmatic athletes who had been sequestered half a world away for three months in isolated training camps, the chances of creating a rooting interest with the general public has proven all but impossible.
When people I don’t know hear that I broadcast running events for a living, they have one of two responses: “lucky bloke doesn’t have to work for a living”, and/or “what do you say, they are just running?”
That is the light in which foot racing has allowed itself to be portrayed. Yet there are many who remember when foot racing was considered an exciting sport, and yearn for a time when it might be once again. So bravo, London, for not only the quality of your field, but for the sagacity of your roll out. Now if we can only get a camera crew over to Iten…