RunblogRun Editorial: The Sorry State of Running Television Coverage, by Peter Abraham, note by Larry Eder

| 4 Comments
geneti rain, by rich cruse-large.jpgMarkus Geneti, 2011 Honda LA Marathon, photo by Rich Cruse/LA Marathon

I met Peter Abraham while he was creative director at the LA Marathon. I spent the Honda La Marathon watching the coverage and updating the marathon live via twitter.

I was very impressed with the coverage and
the level of interest from the running community in every part of the Honda LA Marathon digital experience.

The actual marathon coverage, as well as the story telling, were excellent, and Toni Reavis was in rare form. In truth, the coverage grabbed the interest of the viewer because they remembered Peter Abraham's mantra: TV is trying to  tell a story.

I asked Peter to opine on the state of TV for our sport, and here is what he sent. I would love to hear your comments, please use the contact form on runblogrun.com

RunBlogRun Editorial


The Sorry State of Running Television Coverage


As someone who lives at the intersection of running and media, I'm always interested to see how the sport of competitive running is communicated to the world.  I've recently taken in running races as a spectator, as an organizer, and as a participant, and over my three years as Creative Director at the Los Angeles Marathon, I developed an acute sensitivity to the storytelling IQ of the running business.  I worked hard to up our communications game and get our community engaged with the event.  Let's face it, storytelling is the single most important aspect of event communications.  Whether it's the Super Bowl, the Olympics, or a televised marathon, it's all about creating compelling stories.

I'm consistently disappointed at the level of storytelling when I watch televised running events.   It's analogous to the time I spend with young professional athletes I mentor on branding and media.  Most athletes mistakenly believe that their results will "speak for themselves."  Nothing could be further from the truth.  It's up to me to break it to them that the public doesn't care whether they run 1:44.8 or 1:45.3 for the 800.  What people want is the story.  Fans want to hang their hat on an emotional hook, to get excited, and to connect with the athlete.  Times and PRs don't achieve that goal.  

I feel like I need to have the same discussion with the organizers of televised marathons and track and field events.  These folks believe that just showing "the race" will get viewers interested in the broadcast and the sport.  Untrue.  Who gets enthused by coverage that starts 2 seconds before the gun goes off and ends the second the tape is broken?  And that 10-second post-race interview with the winner doesn't count either.  I've got one word for event organizers: Boring.  This lack of storytelling will never broaden the sport's appeal beyond the die-hards.  On one hand, participation in running is booming around the world -- it's never been more popular, and our potential audience is as big as it's ever been.  On the other hand, the abysmal communications capability of those in charge is actually driving the broader public away from our sport.

The recent USA Outdoor Track & Field National Championships at Hayward Field serve as Exhibit A: TV coverage opened with a few quick establishing shots of the stadium, and then it was directly into the starting blocks of the first event.  That's it...no background, no lead up, no athlete bios, no drama!  Telling stories in this setting isn't rocket science; it just takes effort.  For instance, take the Roone Arledge/Wide World of Sports/Up Close and Personal technique:  The broadcast cuts away to a brief background segment just before the event starts.  That way, when you come back to the start of the event, you feel emotionally connected to at least one of the athletes.  Storytelling 101.  Again, not complicated, but it does take planning and effort.  Are we in the running business so lacking in time, energy, and imagination that we can't figure this out?

In my last year at the LA Marathon I worked hard to build storytelling into our television broadcast.  In consultation with our announcer, Toni Reavis, and our production company, IMG, we spent 6 weeks before the broadcast shooting background segments with elite athletes (Wesley Korir), celebrities (Red Hot Chili Peppers' bassist Flea), and a charity runner (Sam Panino, running the full marathon on one leg).  During the broadcast we could cut away as needed to the background segments in order to give depth and dimension to the race coverage.  

This lack of storytelling capability is symptomatic of a larger problem in our sport:  communications and media expertise are not valued at the management level.  I could write a similar story about the state of interactive and social media communications within the running event community.  The sad fact is, we've fallen way off the back of the race.  If sports broadcasting were a 10,000, we'd be limping to the finish, having been lapped by the field of other sports.

Ultimately, it's not the responsibility of either television networks or production companies to fix the way we tell running stories.  Most running broadcasts are time buys, like rented airtime.  The onus is on those of us in management to understand and accept that compelling storytelling is the one surefire way to broaden the appeal of running.  Without that we're preaching to the converted and relegated to irrelevance.

Peter Abraham is the President of abrhm.com, a brand and content consultancy.

4 Comments | Leave a comment

The state of television coverage of running is indeed sorry, but it is for the exact opposite reason of that described by Peter Abraham. The problem is that running coverage has far too MUCH of the sensationalist crap he craves. The networks try way too hard to add elements to their coverage that just don't exist and the result is a contrived, amateurish spectacle more reminiscent of reality TV than athletic competition. Contrary to what the author believes, people don't care about Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea. There is a reason that the Superbowl has more viewers than the Pro Bowl. People don't tune into sports for soft news--to watch celebrities and have their hearts wrenched--that's what TLC is for. If someone is watching a sporting event, it is because they want to see elite performers showcase their remarkable athletic talents. I agree that running coverage needs to do a better job of storytelling, but I think the powers that be are going about it in the wrong way. Americans LOVE statistics: the cold hard numbers, the times and distances and heights. It is the job of the broadcasters to put those numbers in context, but as of right now, they don't. Get the dude from Sport Science out there to tell us exactly what it means to put a 16lbs shot 60ft through the air. Bring in Jim Ryun to talk about Lukas Verzbicas. But please, please don't devote precious airtime to Justin Gatlin in a pathetic attempt to turn his return from a doping ban into a marketable comeback (he was, at one point, directly compared to Michael Jordan and Ted Williams). When the networks cut away during the middle of a race to some Outside the Lines-style interview, or ostentatiously remind us that the very best athlete in the entire world stands to collect a whole $25,000 from Visa for ten weeks of effort, it does irreparable damage to the sport. If the commentators don't take running seriously, how do they expect the viewers to? Current track coverage trivializes the sport to the extent of being demeaning and offensive. Running is maybe the most popular sport in the world in terms of participation. In the quest to appeal to mainstream America--something that just isn't going to happen--the networks alienate millions of serious runners around the world--a loss that our beloved sport can ill afford.

The biggest problem with American television coverage of track and field (athletics) is that all meets, whether they be the Olympics or the Prefontaine Classic, are covered in exactly the same way even though the audiences are greatly different. The producers, primarily NBC, assume they are talking to a broad audience, i.e., an audience that is largely ignorant of track and field, and tries to package the coverage around the few showcase athletes they think the public may be aware of. While this might be understandable when covering track and field as part of the Olympics, is completely inappropriate for other meets which have a much smaller, and much more knowledgeable audience. As someone who loves track and field, I should find television coverage of an important track and field meet to be an enjoyable experience. However, watching a meet on American television usually leaves me exasperated and upset. I would invite someone to contrast the coverage of the next Diamond League meet by first watching the meet on the Internet (Universalsports.com - $2.99) and listening to the excellent commentary of Stewart Story and Tim Hutchings and then watch the same meet on Universal Sports television (NBC). The difference is like night and day. Hutchings and Story are knowledgeable, intelligent and articulate. They do not assume the last track meet you saw was Beijing 2008. The meet is covered in-depth and each event is given its due. The broadcast contains no condescending fluff pieces and the broadcasters manage to tell an interesting story within the context of the actual event taking place.

I think a broadcasters first priority is to meet the needs of its actual viewing audience. Unfortunately, this is not being done in the United States and track and field is suffering from a lack of compelling TV coverage.

Tom Bernhard

I completely agree. My husband is a world-class discus thrower and I am continually disappointed with not only the track coverage, but especially the field coverage of track meets televised in the US. The US broadcasters could take a cue from track and field coverage around the world that is far superior. If they actually show my husband, it is a result only. It is a slap in the face of world-class athletes to ignore their performances, much less mispronounce names left and right, which is a whole other issue. All in all, I keep hoping that the US broadcasters will finally get it right, but they keep failing. Here's to hoping!

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