THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PROMOTING AND DIRECTING

Interest in this Friday’s Standard Charter Dubai Marathon continues to mount, though it has little to do with competition. Instead, the focus is almost entirely centered on one man, Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele, whose stated goal is to break the marathon world record set in 2014 by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya at 2:02:57.  While the marathon record is almost always the object at the annual BMW Berlin Marathon, where the last six men’s records have been run, the sport rarely finds athletes willing to boldly predict their intentions with a gaudy Trump-like flourish. Not sure if it’s chicken or egg, whether the unpredictability of the marathon itself, or the nature of the men and women who ply their trade in that game tend to deliver an endless series of “Only God knows” answers to “how do you think you’ll do?” questions.  (Maybe it’s just bad questions, too). 

In any case, building fan interest under such circumstances has become increasingly difficult in a more crowded sports landscape that features more and more charismatic characters with Facebook Live accounts, tattoo tapestries, and multi-million dollar prize purses.  When the top first prize in marathoning is Dubai’s $200,000, it doesn’t break through as having relative importance in the greater realm of pro sports.  And if you don’t have  an Olympic gold medal or a World Championship on the line, what else do you have to generate interest other than money?

But fan interest, like the stock market, is an iffy proposition. Hard to read. Hard to presume or presage.  Yet there are some who are better than others at gauging what might pique the public interest. 

Promotion Game

Promotion Game

“We like making fights people are interested in,” UFC president Dana White told Colin Cowherd on his Friday Jan. 13 show in response to the public interest in a possible Floyd Mayweather v Conor McGregor match between the undefeated boxer and the current mixed marshal arts fan fave. “We like putting on entertainment events, whatever.  As long as the people who buy the pay-per-view or bought the tickets are excited with what happened that night, how do you lose?”

That’s the attitude a showman has, the desire to please the paying customer. The question I have is where are those characters in the running game?  Because there is a big difference between a meet director and a meet promoter.  Continue reading

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EDINBURGH XC WHIPS MAN U IN TV RATINGS

Hawkins and Korir duel in Holyrood Park

Hawkins and Korir duel in Holyrood Park

So the (semi) big news as reported in Athletics Weekly was that last weekend’s Great Edinburgh XCountry International Challenge beat vaunted Manchester United football in the TV ratings game in Great Britain. “Wow!” exclaimed some, “who says running is boring on TV?!”

OK, let’s all slow down here for a second and take a closer look.  What are the lessons to be gleaned from this somewhat startling data?  Does this ratings shocker actually speak to the relative merits of football versus running as a TV product?  Or, does it give prima facie evidence of how vitally important it is that an emotional connection be established when trying to sell a sport? Whether we are talking about a sport, a politician, a business, or even a Brexit vote, you name it, the connective tissue linking each to public interest lies is the hearts and minds of the viewers. Continue reading

WHO HAS TO FIGHT THE LAW?

i_fought_the_law_by_norealityallowedWhile the clock tells no lies, neither does it ask any questions. Instead it merely records our passing in cold indifference. And so in athletics’ ongoing fight to rid itself of the scourge of fraudulent performance the question arises, where does the responsibility for actually giving a damn lie? And, is drug testing in and of itself enough to achieve the goal?

I ask because based on the evidence of continued PED use, and the institutional corruption that allowed and benefited from it, one might conclude that the intended deterrence has not been achieved, and that some other stick or carrot may be required.

That thought was brought to mind yesterday while watching Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions appear at his confirmation hearing before Congress as Attorney General designate.  During one exchange Senator Sessions said the following in response to whether fraudulent speech is protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution:

“Fraudulent speech, if it amounts to an attempt to obtain a thing of value for the person making the fraudulent speech, is absolutely fraud, and can be prosecuted.”

In the case of performance-enhancing drug use the intent is specifically ‘to obtain a thing of value’, i.e. race prize money. Therefore, when a WADA doping control officer goes over the doping control official record at time of testing, a negative declaration by the tested athlete becomes, in fact, a form of speech, and therefore should be considered a prosecutable offense if subsequent testing produces a positive finding of drug use. The same ask-and-answer should be required of appropriate coaches, managers, and federation officials, as each category has been found complicit in past PED distribution. No accusations, mind you, simply covering bases. Continue reading

GEEKING ON KENENISA’S NUMBERS

2014 Paris Marathon champion Kenenisa Bekele

2016 Berlin Marathon champion Kenenisa Bekele

On January 20th Ethiopia’s triple Olympic track gold medalist Kenenisa Bekele will start the sixth marathon of his career at the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon.  Coming off a near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin last fall in his last start there are indications that the great Ethiopian track and cross country runner may have his sights set on the current marathon world record of 2:02:57, set by Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto in Berlin 2014.

Now I am one of those journalists who has consistently lobbied for a greater concentration on competition over time, but since this is what is on offer, I thought I would take a deeper dive into the probabilities of a new world record, using the past as prologue.

Though I have heard some faint murmurs from Addis Ababa that the political climate in Ethiopia is affecting some people’s ability to train freely – the troubles are in line with Olympic silver medalist Feyisa Lelisa’s anti-government protest at the Rio Olympics and his subsequent move to the U.S to seek asylum  –  let us assume for this study that all is well with Bekele’s preparations, and that he will arrive in Dubai in top form.

On April 6, 2014 Kenenisa Bekele ran his marathon debut in Paris, France.  Against a less than competitive field the 31 year-old won by over 2 ½ minutes, stopped the timer at 2:05:03, which was a course record, sixth fastest debut in history, and fastest first-time marathon ever by a man over 30.

At the time I thought it would be interesting to look ahead by looking back (NUMBERING UP BEKELE’S MARATHON DEBUT).  After all, record performances are the links that allow fans to compare and contrast athletes of different eras in much the same way baseball fans compare stats across time (at least until the steroid era kind of ruined that –  Oops, do we have more in common with baseball than we realize?)

Anyway, I decided the best way to compare Kenenisa’s potential in the marathon would be to judge his marathon debut and projected career personal best (PB) against other former track record holders who subsequently moved up to great success in the marathon. Accordingly, I saw Kenya’s Paul Tergat and Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie, as the canaries in this very high quality coal mine, as both pre-dated Bekele as world record holders at 5000 & 10,000 meters on the track before adding the marathon record to their resumes.

After Bekele’s near-world record 2:03:03 win in Berlin in September 2016, I thought it might be fun to see how those projections from 2014 have played out so far. Continue reading

BEKELE SIGNS ON TO DUBAI & LONDON

Bekele finishing 3rd in London 2016 signs on for 2017

Much of what push back there’s been against the three Sub-2 Hour marathon projects concerns their focus on time rather than competition.  Now comes word came that Ethiopian superstar Kenenisa Bekele has signed on to the April 23rd Virgin London Marathon, just days after being announced to run the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon on January 20th in what is likely a world record attempt.  Hmmm.

Now a cynic might conclude that with defending London and Olympic champion Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya, along with former Boston champ Lelisa Desisa of Ethiopia signed on to this spring’s Nike Project Breaking2 (at an as yet undisclosed location), London’s major name (if not two) has been stripped from the event marquee.  So, notwithstanding Bekele’s Dubai appearance 13 weeks earlier, London needed a big name to build its 2017 race around.  You can bet this isn’t the scenario the Abbott World Marathons Majors had in mind when they put together their series ten years ago.

But as the paydays of the marathon have continued to spread (if not actually grow), and the World Marathon Majors series title now paying off as a five-year $100,000 annuity rather than a one-fell-swoop $500,000 (because of Rita Jeptoo and Lilya Shobokhova stealing three Majors’ titles via drug disqualifications), we’ve begun to see more and more top athletes stretch their wings and challenge the old assumptions and the old-line events. Not only are the old warhorses like Bekele willing to squeeze more into less in terms of rest and recovery, youthful runners who might once have gone to the track ovals in Europe are now running marathons like they were halves.

With a marathon training cycle of 12 weeks, give or take, and a full recovery assigned one month, conventional wisdom has long held that two per year was the way to best schedule a top marathon career — with exceptions made for an Olympic year, where athletes were willing to compromise their fall effort for a shot at Olympic glory (World Championship not so much).  The original five Abbott World Marathon Majors built their series upon this convention. But racing is not simply an exercise in trophy collection, it’s a business opportunity with only so many years available to stake your claims.  Athletes like 22 year-old Lemi Berhanu Hayle is a prime example. Continue reading

CORRECTING THE RECORD(S)

track-startGive them this, the IAAF, heretofore one of the premier La Cosa Nostras of international sporting organizations, has at least begun to honestly wrestle with the scourges of performance-enhancing drug abuse and bribe-fueled corruption that have brought their sport into such worldwide disrepute and public disregard.

And so we see where an open letter to IAAF head Sebastian Coe from Gianni Merlo, president of the International Sports Press Association (AIPS) suggesting that the sports’ record book be scrapped and a new one be opened, received a thoughtful public response from the home office in Monaco.

A clean break from the old records isn’t a bad idea, given who knows how many of those marks were achieved on the level. But rather than just erasing the current books, here’s another way of achieving the same goal by turning the record book pages back a bit. Continue reading

2016 INTO 2017

OK, we closed the books on the 2016 campaign, which was a bit of a momentous year both in the sport and around the wider world.  Now we move on into 2017, which is an odd year, but at the same time it remains all pink and fresh and unsullied. That won’t last for long, of course, but at present we are all once again full of potential and optimism.  As always there will be lots of ups and more than a few downs over the next 12 months, but as a grizzled curmudgeon there were a few lingering thoughts that rattled around year’s closing.  So here we go with a few random considerations.

#1.

nyc-crowd-first-avenue

Come on 2017! You can do it!

I know they mean well, but don’t you sometimes wish bad things on the good people standing on the sidelines while they blithely cheer on passing runners?  Yeah, they can be a godsend, but late in the race when things have gone sour, and you just want to be invisible and get the darn thing finished, that one-cheer-fits-all lack of effort, I mean, depending on your state of affairs, can’t they sometimes just make the long journey that much more arduous?

First of all, the only reason races like the six Abbott World Marathon Majors have crowds the size they do is because their courses run past peoples’ houses.  It’s not like folks drove to the game; they just walked outside.  And with races starting so early to avoid upsetting even more of the driving public, you run through entire neighborhoods where half the people are standing out there in their pajamas, scratching their private parts, drinking coffee while mumbling encouragement with half-chewed cheese Danish hanging from their yap.

And if you have already gone about 20 miles, you’ve burned through your glycogen stores, lost all contact with endorphins, have sore feet, achy legs, bad breath, and the formation of a chip on your shoulder the size of Rhode Island.  So when some normal in PJs yells out, “you only have six more miles left”, thinking they’re being part of your effort, what they don’t realize is if there was a gun handy, and you could reach it, you’d shoot yourself in the head (and maybe them as you fell).

Don’t be telling me I’ve got six more miles to go! That’s like Moses telling the Israelites, “Suck it up! You’ve only got the Sinai left to cross to get home from Egypt.”  Not helpful. Continue reading