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.
This was the sad and wasteful message learned in the Vietnam War. It wasn’t the body counts or the patches of land that were won in battle that decided the outcome. No, it was the immeasurably more valuable terrain within the hearts and minds of the people in both countries that had the U.S. pulling out of Saigon in a mad scramble in 1975. If an audience feels engaged or connected to the principals involved, and the stakes on offer, they will watch, even if the entertainment value of the enterprise itself is secondarily considered of any value.
Remember Bobby Fischer? Did the American public watch the 1972 World Chess Championships in Reykjavik, Iceland because they were enthralled by the myriad but subtle strategies of chess? Have Americans ever watched another Chess World Champs in similar numbers? Or did they watch because they saw an American (lacking in social graces though he was) with a chance at making history on their behalf against a hated rival?
Last weekend Man U began the start of their FA Cup defense with a 4-0 shutout over Reading. According to United’s website the Reds came into the match unbeaten in the last 24 FA Cup meetings with second-tier sides, while having won 11 and drawn seven over the last 19 meetings against the Royals, with their lone loss dating to January 1927. It seemed hardly a compelling match based on that information.
But the Brits were quite interested to see if their quadruple Olympic track champion Mo Farah could exact revenge for last year’s loss to American giant-killer Garrett Heath as Heath sought his fourth straight Edinburgh International title over the closed loops of Holyrood Park. What they got instead was their man Callum Hawkins boldly front-running in a pounding duel against America’s Leonard Korir as first Mo, then Garrett fell from contention. The message seems clear: the power and allure of having a home team to root for in a high-stakes competition can not be underestimated, nor can it be adequately substituted for in its absence.
Next Friday (Jan. 20) triple Olympic track champion Kenenisa Bekele of Ethiopia will assault the marathon world record at the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon. For people interested in the sport of distance running it will be a race worth watching with keen interest. But only the Ethiopian people and friends of Kenenisa will be emotionally connected to the outcome. That is the under-lying message running should take away from last weekend in Scotland.