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 Berlin 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. Even when the top first prize in marathoning is Dubai’s $200,000, it doesn’t break through to the general public 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.
“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 martial 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 about 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.
Athletics has staged itself the same way for more than a century, and there is a great value to consistency. But there is also a risk of complacency, too. The “we’ve always done it this way” mentality can lead to stagnation and disinterest. Add in the corrosive effects of PED use and institutional corruption and an audience can wither mighty fast.
Except for national championships and the like, where is it written that track meets or foot races have to be exactly the same at all times in all places? Does anyone ever ask, “what race do people want to see?” As opposed to “this is what we’ve got”?
Remember the 1996 150-meter match race staged in Toronto between Olympic 100-meter champion Donovan Bailey of Canada, and America’s 200-400-meter king Michael Johnson? It turned out to be a dud when MJ pulled up lame mid-race, but that promotion was sure a big hit. And the paydays for Bailey and Johnson turned out to be the biggest of their careers.
Could athletics stage itself as a card of match races, like fight cards?
What seems to be missing these days in the pre-race buildup to generate interest in the competition. Fields are released, but there is never a media blitz to develop public excitement because there is little presumed interest. What seems to be missing is the presence of the race promoter as a tub-thumping front-man, one who promotes the race itself, not just the event. In a recent article CHICAGO 2016, I wrote that marathoning hasn’t developed racers over the last generation, because of the way pacers have been utilized. Instead, athletes prepare to run a certain pace rather than learning to compete – and this is the likely scenario for Dubai this Friday. But the sport hasn’t developed race promoters in that time, either.
Boxing and UFC are not mass-participation sports, true, but in the worlds of the squared circle and octagon, the role of the promoter is every bit as important as that of the two antagonists in the ring, especially in the realm of pay-per-view promotion. No matter how great two fighters may be, you can’t put two counter punchers in the ring and expect an exciting fight, because there is no instigator. That is the role of the promoter, to match fighters whose instincts make for exciting combat.
A generation ago boxing had the wild-haired Don King and his rival Bob Arum as top promoters. Today, among others, Golden Boy Productions with Oscar de la Hoya, the former world champion, stands out. And look how Dana White sold UFC (Ultimate Fighting) for $4 billion in 2015 after buying it for just $2 million in 2001.
In the running’s boom years of the 1970s and `80s, race directors were chief-cook-and-bottle-washers, and events were mostly mom-and-pop operations. But as the events grew the directors saw the need for specialists to oversee certain aspects of their event. So did Fred Lebow bring in Allan Steinfeld to the New York Road Runners to handle the technical aspects of course preparation and oversight. So, too, did the Boston Athletic Association hire Dave McGillivray. And elite athlete coordinators are still utilized across the country, though their budgets are often restricted, and race portfolios limited, meaning they have to do the best they can with what little they have.
When the racing boom was at its height in the mid-1980s, however, there were a number of front-men who lent a Barnum & Bailey quality to race promotion, most prominently in the persons of Fred Lebow in New York, Bob Bright in Chicago, and Chris Brasher in London. Today, London’s one-time director and still athlete coordinator Dave Bedford has the personality to promote and the budget to stage an exciting race. New USATF president Vin Lananna has a showman’s flare, and in the old track days, Al Franken out in Los Angeles had a carnival barker’s sensibility.
“Al was a great meet promoter,” says the 1960s and `70s mile legend Jim Ryun. “But he had charisma, too. If he had a grocery store as a sponsor, he’d stage a 100-yard dash with guys pushing grocery carts, and the winner would get to keep the groceries. That kind of thing appealed to people.”
We see glimpses of such promotions at the Drake Relays presented by Hy-Vee, at the 2014 U.S. Nationals where the shot put competition was staged at the California State Capital, and the current sub-2 hour marathon projects, though still hazy in details, have generated fan interest of a sort. So perhaps it’s building.
With all the strife that is enveloping the sport, we seem to be on the cusp of going one of two ways, backward into oblivion, or ahead where instead of race directors simply ushering participants to a start line, we have race promoters, the people in the red cutaway jackets, top hats and black boots standing legs spread wide, blowing their whistle trying to lure crowds into the tent to see their exotic shows and wild feats of daring do. I, for one, would love to buy such a ticket. (Then, again, I have a press pass).