It’s a global sport; this isn’t a little sport anymore.
– Bill Rodgers at the Boston Marathon, 21 April 2014

Meb & Shalane

(source: boston.com)

John Skipper
President, ESPN Inc. and Co-Chairman, Disney Media Networks
Bristol, CT 06010

Dear Mr. Skipper,

Did you see THAT?

Did you step out of your thrice-daily NFL draft meetings in time to catch the Boston Marathon on Monday?  Did you see one of our country’s all-time great marathoners, Meb Keflezighi, not only keep the race close near the end but actually win it, the first time an American has captured Boston since 1983?  And did you see him show more heart in 2 hours, 8 minutes and 37 seconds than my rudder-less Dallas Cowboys team has shown in the past 15 seasons?

Did you happen to catch Shalane Flanagan’s act on the women’s side?  The rhythmic bouncing of her blonde ponytail gracefully leading the pack for the first 18+ miles?  And did you watch as she made it clear from the opening gun that she was in it to win it, fearlessly setting a blistering early pace that would ultimately betray her, before having to settle for a heart-breaking seventh-place finish?  Never mind that her personal-best finish of 2:22:02 was the fastest time ever for an American woman in Boston, and would have won the race in 12 of the past 13 years.

To say that emotions were running high out on the course on Monday would be like saying that the sinking of the Titanic was peculiar.

True, I like to jab at ESPN now and again here on the blog for your unapologetic disinterest in the sport of running. Despite your network’s claim-in-the-name to being an Entertainment and Sports Programming Network, I certainly don’t come to you for my marathon updates on race day.  On the other hand, I know I can always count on you for timely updates on NASCAR, golf, soccer, boxing, poker, lacrosse, mixed martial arts, the Bassmaster Classic and even the Scripps National Spelling Bee.  Marathoning, though?  Not so much.  Last year on Patriots’ Day, for example, WNBA draft coverage on ESPN.com trumped the Boston Marathon, before two horrifying explosions forced you to confront both Boston and the running community in a way you never could have imagined.

But now, on the heels of your coverage of last year’s bombings and Monday’s defiant resurgence, you have the opportunity and the resources to change all that.  If you haven’t noticed, our country is in the midst of another running boom that makes that of the Bill Rodgers/Frank Shorter era look like the Geico lizard walking next to Godzilla.  According to Running USA, in 2012 alone over 15.5 million runners crossed the finish line in a U.S. running event, including 487,000 marathoners.  Since 2000 the number of race finishers in the U.S.has increased by 80%, and female representation has increased from 42% to an all-time high of 56% in 2012.  Simply put, people like to run.

Running USA's chart of running event finishers 1990-2012

(source: Running USA)

Granted, people also like to sit and watch enormously gifted talents like Lebron James, Peyton Manning and a steroid-infused Barry Bonds perform acts of freakish athletic prowess.  But anywhere there are athletes wearing team jerseys and brandishing over-the-top contracts, there also exists a fan base with an inevitable sense of detachment fueled by the sobering recognition that I could never in a million lifetimes do what they’re doing.  I may – and in fact I do – love watching David Ortiz hit a baseball.  But once I reached junior high and my Mr. Magoo-like eyesight and unexceptional hand-eye coordination kicked in, my own career as a baseball player was effectively over.

Running, though, is different.  Imagine stepping up to the plate in the World Series.  Or sinking a clutch three-pointer in the NBA Finals.  Or throwing a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.  Chances are, unless you win either the genetic lottery or a role in a Bud Light commercial, ain’t none of these ever going to happen for you.

But imagine running on the same course, and at the same time, as some of the greatest and most highly trained athletes in the world.  And now stop imagining, because not only is this a possibility, it’s a given.  Because that’s what the Boston Marathon and the other World Marathon Majors (Berlin, Chicago, London, New York and Tokyo) are all about.

With its singular qualifying standards, Boston in particular is the Super Bowl, World Series and World Cup of running all rolled into one – an event where decidedly non-elite competitors can run with (though not quite alongside) elite athletes like Meb and Shalane, whose huge hearts reflect more than just their cardiovascular fitness.

I’m guessing more people would rather tune in to your network to hear 50K American record holder Josh Cox break down the elite field for Boston, than spend two minutes trying to decipher Barry Melrose‘s hockey talk and figure out what he has growing out of his skull.  Admittedly I’m a hockey fan, and few sporting events rival the Stanley Cup playoffs for sheer drama, but Barry showing up on my TV is the mute button’s immediate cue to do its thing.

You can do this, ESPN!  It’s not like you have a shortage of time and space to fill, with your ridiculously extended family of networks – including ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Films, ESPNews, ESPNU, ESPN Brazil, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN Plus, the Longhorn Network and the SEC Network.  ESPN2’s current five-year contract to broadcast the New York City Marathon is a step in the right direction, but it’s only one step.  And I understand that NBC currently televises four of the other five world marathon majors on their obscure affiliate Universal Sports Network – but they seem unwilling to give endurance running the exposure it deserves, to promote it front and center rather than book-ending each marathon telecast by true fringe sports like cycling and rugby.  Remind me again, how many Americans competed in a rugby match last year?

Not only that, but ESPN’s budget would allow the network the luxury of buying video equipment that won’t glitch right in the middle of the marathon action (thanks Universal, for that decidedly below-average feed of the women’s race on Monday).

Maybe you’ll argue that running isn’t enough of an American sport, since we don’t restrict participation to North America-based teams while still labeling the championship a “World” Series.  But geographical borders in professional sports are now more perception than reality anyway – just look to the wealth of Latin American and Asian talent on Major League Baseball rosters, or to the influx of European players in the National Basketball Association.  Even the born-and-bred-here National Football League has kicked around the idea of putting a team in London.

Hockey, golf, tennis, even that spelling bee I mentioned – sporting competitions are increasingly global events played out on international stages.  And with 90 countries represented at Monday’s Boston Marathon (compared to 32 in this year’s FIFA World Cup), the marathon embraces the international stage like no other sport.

Maybe, too, you’ll point to the recent dominance of the sport by Kenyan and Ethiopian runners, in which case you’d be absolutely right – before Monday, East Africans had won every Boston Marathon since 1991.  But Meb’s victory shows that America can still compete on running’s biggest stages, as does the inclusion of two other American men – Nicholas Arciniaga and Jeffrey Eggleston – among this year’s top ten finishers.  Likewise, Jason Hartmann finished fourth here in each of the past two years.  And let’s not forget that American Desi Linden (née Davila), the Boston 2011 women’s runner-up, lost that race by two seconds.

Top American men

Jason Hartmann runs to a fourth-place finish at last year’s Boston Marathon (left); Nicholas Arciniaga celebrates a win at the 2013 Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon (center); Jeffrey Eggleston breaks the tape at the 2011 Pittsburgh Marathon (right)

So then given our nation’s wealth of athletic talent and resources, coupled with ESPN’s clout and ability to educate a vast and impressionable audience from a young age, there’s no reason to think the future of endurance running in this country can’t be dazzlingly bright.

Plus, as parental and scientific concerns about concussions continue to escalate, we’ll soon need somewhere to divert all the talented young’uns who might otherwise turn their attention to football.

Your network’s capacity to reach and inspire new generations of endurance athletes would be just the beginning.  At the same time, you’d be motivating the average couch potato/weekend warrior to open their mind to self-improvement, and to try their hand feet at a sport for which the necessary equipment is genetically provided (with the exception of shoes and hopefully shorts), the obstacles to participation are minimal, and the venue lies right outside their door. Tuning into the Boston or Chicago or London Marathon and watching thousands of runners, some with physiques not unlike their own, compete in the same arena as the elites may get them thinking that maybe, just maybe, running isn’t as bad for their knees and other joints as they’ve been led to believe.

And unlike team sports, running knows no age limits.  Just ask Fauja Singh, the 103-year-old “Turbaned Tornado” who lives in Britain and who ran his first marathon at age 89 before retiring from the sport at age 102.  Wikipedia lists Singh’s occupation as “Marathon runner”.  “The first 20 miles are not difficult,” Singh says of the marathon.  “As for last six miles, I run while talking to God.”

Even my Mom, who hasn’t run a day in her life, found herself tuning back into the Universal Sports Network yesterday to catch a re-broadcast of last weekend’s Rotterdam Marathon.  Nothing reinforces for me the awesome power of running more than reading an email from Mom with the name “Kipchoge” spelled and used correctly.

Taking my argument for ESPN’s involvement in the sport a step further, I envision Meb and Shalane as the “Tiger Woods(es) of running” – minus the surly personality, overturned SUV and sensationalized divorce.  What Tiger did (however unintentionally) in attracting a whole new generation to the sport of golf, they could very well do for running.  And in the ongoing battle against childhood obesity, I’d wager that reaching that target audience through a couple of world-class athletes on a high-profile sports network would nicely complement the First Lady’s own “Just say no to fat kids” campaign.

If it’s sponsorships and advertising revenue you’re worried about, I can promise you that runners love their gear, apparel, fitness gadgets and nutritional supplements like no other demographic.  Running USA’s “State of the Sport” report from June 2013 concluded that the running industry is thriving despite a still-sluggish economy.  And since marathoners don’t wear team uniforms during races (the Olympics being a notable exception), the potential advertising opportunities for elites to run with their sponsor’s logo(s) emblazoned across their chest is a no-brainer.

Plus, with your network placing a premium on the “cool” factor of the one-name superstar (Lebron, Kobe, Papi), humble and articulate athletes like Meb and Shalane should integrate seamlessly into the ESPN marketing machine.

Dopey Challenge

There’s nothing dopier or more challenging than trying to run 48.6 miles in a green frock and floppy purple hat (source: rundisney.com)

As a Disney subsidiary, you’ve experienced first-hand the enormous growth of your parent company’s own running events in recent years.  Every new race event offered by the geniuses at Disney, despite increasingly exorbitant price tags, reaches capacity before you can say “Steamboat Willie”.  One of Disney’s most popular events, for example, the Dopey Challenge, allows participants to run a 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon through the Disney World theme parks in the span of four days, along the way collecting six different medals at the seemingly goofy price of $10.90 PER MILE (thanks to Dan for crunching these numbers and providing this perspective).

Now then, can I interest you in a series of ESPN-produced running events?  The timing couldn’t be better, particularly in light of the explosive popularity of adventure racing in this country.

So then Mr. Skipper, it’s time for your network to step up and ride the Meb wave – after all, it’s a strategy that’s certainly working for Skechers.  Clearly ESPN and the sport of running have a lot to offer each other.  I’d be happy to lend my expertise and consulting services to an ESPN race series, or to help a fledgling ESPN Running network get off the ground, starting with my recommendations for compelling programming opportunities.  If you’re interested, feel free to reach me through the Comments section of the blog.

In the meantime, since I have your attention, can we please talk about Barry Melrose’s hair…?

Best regards,

Mike Sohaskey, PhD
Boston Marathon hopeful

Advertisements
Comments
  1. Dan says:

    Reblogged this on Dan's Marathon and commented:
    Spot-on reflections on the state of the sport and how the popular sports network has not caught on.

  2. Dan says:

    Despite this post having an inevitable tone of frustration, it’s above all else a love letter to the sport. In a perfect world, Mr. Skipper would this and through your impassioned plea, realize what a potential boon to the network a marathon show could be. But ESPN is merely the top of the chain — all other networks seem to disregard the sport as a hobby of the unhinged, occasionally turning to them only when something monumental (or in last year’s case, tragic) happens.

    Even Monday’s dedicated coverage was far from perfect. You mentioned the feed problems, but they also had an Ethiopian flag behind Rita Jeptoo’s mug when they were breaking down her stats AND showed Meb’s hometown as “Asmara, Eritrea.” Come on, we’re better than this.

    I suppose it’s all part of the narrative. Football, basketball and baseball (hell, let’s throw hockey in there too) aren’t just sports for diehard fans, they’re a lifestyle on their own. They have history, amazing statistics, an adoring fanbase and hundreds of excuses to get people together. But obviously, the same applies to long distance running — so where’s our due? A very simple way to look at this is how East Africans refer to their sport: Marathon, without an article. This might be a product of ESL or odd translation, but I really like how it sounds.

    Marathon is difficult. Marathon is unpredictable.

    It sort of imbues the sport with its own mystique, as if it weren’t just a sport but a state of mind, like Peace or Madness. Maybe this deserves a post all of its own, but it’s worth noting here for how profoundly it can affect people.

    Anyway, great write-up as usual. Hope it reaches the right people and they click through to my show idea. Huge profits to follow.

    • Mike says:

      You’re absolutely right that ESPN simply sits at the top of the sports programming food chain… though I’d like to believe they’ve not become so complacent that they’ve lost all interest in being proactive, instead choosing to let smaller, hungrier fish lead them to their next meal. Because if that’s the case, we could be waiting a long time for the sport of running to get its due.

      Ha, that’s a pretty strong sign that your network could care more about the event it’s covering – you screw up the home country of both the defending champion and your own country’s greatest marathoner. Glad I missed the very beginning of the race, I built up enough anxiety watching Shalane and Meb run without front-loading my stress.

      Intriguing thoughts on Marathon, the sport. Hey, if it worked for Mark Zuckerberg, maybe dropping “the” before the name could do for marathoning what it did for Facebook? Seriously, although genetics play an undeniable role, there are clearly other, more nuanced reasons why East Africans now dominate the sport, and I think you touched on a major one. Look forward to that future post!

      Thanks again for re-blogging this and for the thoughtful comment, Dan. I’m counting on the “huge profits” from your show’s runaway (pun intended) success to finance your European running vacation… it’s time to take Dan’s Marathon across the pond!

  3. Toni Reavis says:

    Seems frustration does have its channels. Nice job, Mike. I think we need a ball, some violence, and maybe some Barry Melrose wigs to make running shows work for ESPN.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks Toni, really appreciate your support… and I think you’re on to something here. Maybe we get ESPN’s attention with an “American Gladiators”-meets-marathoning type of show where runners use handheld water bottles as weapons to ward off pursuers, while earning bonus points dodging rubber projectiles fired by spectators from toy bazookas? You may have just inspired my next post…

  4. It would be easy for them to create an ESPN Running channel. Most of the infrastructure is already in place. Runners buy billions of dollars of gear, running is growing by leaps and bounds and our demographics are very favorable. This seems like a no brainer.

    • Mike says:

      It does, doesn’t it? I can’t quite put my finger on what – or more precisely, what $$$ – it will take for running to escape the “fringe” category in the minds of ESPN’s higher-ups. Right now, not only does the sport fall below WNBA, Lacrosse, Poker, Cricket, Rugby (Scrum), X Games, Bassmaster and espnW on the drop-down menu on ESPN’s home page, but it has to share the “Endurance Sports” category with an event that happens once every four years (i.e. the Olympics). It would all be offensive if it weren’t so absurd.

      Appreciate the support, Andy.

      ESPN home page

      • Maybe we could make 5 minute shorts of races we go to and post them on YouTube. Maybe someone is laready doing this?
        Might get there attention if it got a million hits. Just a thought.

  5. csohaskey says:

    As you know I never watch sports on TV. But for the Boston Marathon I make an exception. I didn’t bother to look at the schedule in advance because I just assumed that if I found ESPN on my TV, they would obviously have full Marathon coverage. It is, after all, The Marathon, not just a marathon, but THE Marathon. When it wasn’t on I panicked knowing that I now had probably 500 other channels to flip through until I found it.
    So I support you 100 percent in demanding more marathon coverage. Or perhaps (for the coaches out there) that should be 110%.
    Hey I would take it a step further and demand coverage of trail races. You have to admit TV coverage of some the big races would be beyond exciting. The courses are more interesting and challenging. Now that’s TV!

    • Mike says:

      Trail races could be another genre of televised fun (on the same ESPN Running channel). I decided to stick with road racing here, but imagine some of the performances you would see if an ESPN-savvy sponsor offered prize money for Western States or some of the other popular ultras.

      Unfortunately that quickly becomes a double-edged sword, since there’s already an outcry in the trail running community against the sport becoming too crowded and too commercialized. Somehow though, it feels like just a matter of time before camera crews are set up to film and interview runners coming through the Rucky Chucky crossing at mile 78….

      And maybe I did use that last example just to work your name into my reply.

  6. edrahl says:

    I have watched several Boston Marathons on TV, and they all have the same problem – cameramen who don’t keep the cameras on during the commercial breaks. Usually, they break off and then re-appear and the race leader for the past 12 miles isn’t on the screen any more. The commentators: “Where did Shalane go? I guess she is no longer leading the race.” And despite being runners themselves, they talk about Rita Jeptoo being ‘one of the taller runners.’ Five-five, WOW!!

    • Mike says:

      Ha, I’d forgotten about the Now-you-see-her-now-you-don’t Shalane coverage sometime after the 30K mark. When both your audience and commentators lose track of the woman who was leading the race for the first 18 miles, your could probably tighten up your camera work. I found myself trying to peek around the lead pack in search of that blonde ponytail, and the announcers sounded as confused as I was as to where she’d gone. Things they gotta change, and maybe the most frustrating part as you mentioned is that year after year, they never do. At least not for the better.

      Thanks, Emmett.

  7. Jen says:

    As you might predict, I completely agree with your argument. It does seem like a no brainer. However, talk to the pre-2012 Jen and she’d probably look at you like you had 5 heads if you suggested that watching a marathon was actually fun or exciting. Hopefully, the economic argument will drive some changes in televised races. As you say, we runners love our gear!

    • Mike says:

      It’s a good point, the lens through which non-runners view our sport – Dan nailed it above in his reference to the “hobby of the unhinged.” On the other hand, I do think there are enough of us on this side of the fence to make our voice heard above the doubters… and as you’ve so nicely chronicled on your own blog, running has the uncanny abililty to convert open-minded skeptics into diehard aficionados.

      Appreciate your thoughts, post-2012 Jen!

Don't hold that thought, set it free!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s