Distance Running in Crisis: Some Initial Thoughts

My new goal for the next several months is to write more and procrastinate less. My original intention when I started this blog was to examine running from the perspective of a masters runner to sort out the best ways of getting fitter, faster, and, ultimately, to have more fun. I also wanted to explore running as a cultural phenomenon and use my historical training to make some interventions into running’s greater meanings.

During the last several months, various commentators have blogged and published articles arguing that the sport of running is in crisis. My intial read on this was that crisis sells newspapers and helps to generates blog traffic. Closer examination, however, reveals that there do appear to be some valid arguments that point to larger problems concerning the popularity of running as a spectator sport. Over the next several weeks, I am going to examine some of these problems and offer some solutions.

The first crisis that I am going to tackle has been lurking since at least the early 1990s: spectator interest, so the argument goes, in the sport of distance running as been undermined by a lack of competitiveness among U.S. distance runners at the international level, as well as in domestic marathons such as New York, Boston, and Chicago. This has resulted in less support for U.S. distance running as the financial backers of the sport have perceived less marketing potential in supporting elite athletes. Several months ago, for example, the Competitor Group very publicly ended appearance fees for elite athletes running in their Rock ’n’ Roll race series in the United States. Subsequent discussion made it clear that the private equity firm Calera Capital that owns Competitor Group, Inc. (CGI), believed that having elite runners at its events didn’t actually recruit participants and that they could make plenty of money by providing everyday fitness runners with an entertainment experience, as well as a destination. Why this came as a surprise to anyone is rather astonishing – CGI is first and foremost a media company designed to generate maximum web traffic and sell advertising. The development of elite runners seems to have been a side effect of their business model. Why did they pay large appearance fees for several well-known runners, such as Kara Goucher and Ryan Hall, to run in their races in the past? The argument is that the participation of elite athletes in CGI events are necessary to convince the media that these races are competitive “real” events that they should cover. Media coverage, in turn, generates excitement and interest that attracts regular fitness runners to submit their race applications and pay their entry fees. There aren’t a whole lot of events that a “hobby” athlete can compete in with the elite professionals of their sport. That was the idea behind CGI’s model of high appearance fees for a few name elites combined with generally small prize purses. It would also appear that high appearance fees combined with low prizes helped to restrict the domination of African distance runners that has occurred at the major city marathons during the last several decades. What would happen, however, if someone within Calera Capital or CGI questioned this business model? This did happen with the announcement that CGI was ending appearance fees for elite athletes at most of its Rock ‘n’ Roll race series events.

I think it is clear that with the increasing popularity of color runs, obstacle course runs, and the ballooning of haphazardly organized charity 5Ks –– all “races” in which competition is secondary to “having fun” (like racing isn’t fun!), merely finishing (an accomplishment, of course, for first time racers not to be scoffed at – my first five miler when I was in sixth grade seemed very long and my big goal was to finish without walking), or establishing real, face-to-face community in an increasingly depersonalized society –– allowed CGI to wonder if elite athletes were really all that necessary. There is plenty of evidence that even serious runners aren’t influenced to join a specific race because of elite participation. Toni Reavis provides a great example of a woman qualifying for the Boston Marathon who could have cared less about whether there were running elites in her race or not: “I wouldn’t even know if there were elite runners at the Rock `n` Roll Marathon,” she said of the race where she ran her old PR 4:18.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/16/dumbing-down-slowing-down/) The question remains, however, how CGI’s new approach to the Rock ‘n’ Roll series will affect their bottom line. Will media coverage decline when there aren’t any stories of elite competition on which to focus? Will declining coverage undermine the number of race entries? Will cities be less amenable to closing roads for a race that will garner only a minimum of media interest? These questions, of course, remain to be answered. It might turn out that elites do provide some intangibles that contribute to an event’s prestige and help to spur necessary race entries.

Days after CGI cut elite athlete appearance fees, CEO Scott Dickey explained that the Rock ’n’ Roll series had always been more about the regular back of the pack runner and was “more about the lifestyle than the sport.” (http://www.runnersworld.com/races/rock-n-roll-series-significantly-lessens-elite-program) Dickey’s quotation is instructive. One of the problems that distance running in the United States faces is the separation between lifestyle and sport. It reminds me of the dilemma that the North American Soccer League confronted during the late-1970s and early-1980s. Soccer-boosters couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that although there was a soccer “boom” occurring at the club level (It appeared that every girl and boy in the United States between the ages of seven and fourteen was on a local team.) and widespread interest in the game, the NASL was mired in financial issues that could be partially traced to a lack of fan interest. The public was just not watching soccer – either at the stadiums or on television. The lack of television viewership was a serious problem, as advertising revenue suffered and the NASL television contracts paled in comparison to the money that professional football and baseball commanded. At the time, observers explained this as a symptom of the seeming impossibility of televising a soccer game with commercials (a problem subsequently easily solved), although it is evident in hindsight that those who played soccer may have been more interested in doing it than watching it. Rather than inside viewing, they were outside playing. You can probably see where I am going with this analogy. Running is essentially an individualistic sport of singular accomplishment. Most participants in a typical road race will not be contending for an overall victory. There are, however, personal triumphs –– completing the distance without walking, setting a personal best, raising money for a charitable cause, getting healthier by training for a race –– that make it appealing to each participant in specific, personal ways. This is one of running’s strengths as a mass-participation sport, but it is also a weakness, particularly when it comes to marketing the sport at an elite, professional level. The majority of the sport’s participants have goals and definitions of success within the sport that are only tangentially related to the sport’s elite level.

The problem, therefore, is how to turn runners into devoted fans of the sport of distance running. One of the underlying subtexts of this question addresses the issue of competitiveness. A recent inflammatory article, “The Slowest Generation: Younger Athletes Are Racing With Less Concern About Time,” by Kevin Helliker, writing for The Wall Street Journal, argued that along with the mass-participation ethos of road racing there was an “embrace of mediocrity” as younger runners just didn’t seem to be all that interested in getting faster or even competing. (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) Instead of recognizing the likelihood that increasing marathon times reflect the healthy influx of less experienced runners participating in the sport in record numbers, he draws the conclusion, instead, that this is indicative of a more general competitive malaise among Americans. Helliker goes on to quote the ubiquitous Toni Reavis: “This is emblematic of the state of America’s competitiveness, and should be a concern to us all.” This crisis of competitiveness sounds similar to the crisis of masculinity that commentators identified at the beginning of the twentieth century that was subsequently “solved” by Teddy Roosevelt taking sparring lessons in the White House and sending U.S. troops to Central and South America on a regular basis during the twentieth century. It is a stretch, however, to equate increasing road race times with a crisis in competitiveness –– especially the competitiveness of professional runners –– when there is plenty of evidence to indicate that U.S. professionals are actually getting more competitive. I’ll defer this discussion for a later blog.

This lack of competitiveness that Helliker and Reavis identify, however, could be quite useful in understanding why runners don’t become fans of the sport. I think they reach the wrong conclusions about “competitiveness.” Rather than leading to mediocrity at the professional level, disinterest in competition among everyday fitness runners leads to a lack of desire to become fans of the sport. Just because you love running and it has become part of your “lifestyle” does not mean that you are an active participant in the “sport” of running. I’m not sure if inculcating a new, more competitive ethos in the average road race participant is possible or even desirable (I think there are some signs that over competitiveness and a complete focus on racing could sour some people on the more community-oriented aspects of the sport.) as a way to increase fan interest in distance running. It is possible, for instance, that we are conflating two separate issues. There is, however, another possible intervention, that could generate interest among the general public in the sport and that is by revamping the sport itself by making it more media and fan friendly. How to go about doing this is a topic that deserves several blog entries. I am going to initially focus on one reform suggested by journalists such as Toni Reavis and Running Times columnist Parker Morse. This is the adoption of team competition for distance running to overcome the fact that the competitiveness of the sport at the international level precludes –– except in rare instances (Morse points out that Bill Rodgers is intimately associated with the Boston Marathon and Greta Waitz with New York) –– the association of an individual athlete with a specific marathon. This lack of consistency undermines fans’ desire to follow distance running. The solution is to cultivate running teams similar to other professional sports teams, that spectators could follow over time and to which they could develop loyalty.

One of Reavis’ ideas, earlier foreshadowed by Morse in his Running Times’ column, “In Search of Continuity: Why teams would work better than records to build our sport” (http://www.runnersworld.com/rt-columns/search-continuity), is to develop running teams that would represent cities. Reavis briefly describes this team-based response as a way to popularize track and field, as well as road racing, in his blog of September 28, 2013, entitled, “Team-Based Competitions Rather Than Individuals.” (http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/28/team-based-competitions-rather-than-individuals/#more-8363) The individual runner would be incorporated within the identity of a team. This is a good idea since one of the problems with distance running is that top runners often get injured and drop out before the race even starts, thus hampering the ability of spectators to follow a specific athlete on a regular basis. Team competition might lessen some of this disappointment by fostering spectator loyalty with a city-identified team. True baseball fans, for instance, don’t stop following, or, more importantly, watching the Boston Red Sox because Dustin Pedroia has spent the last two weeks on injured reserve. They also didn’t stop following the Red Sox when Yaz retired. The idea is that fan loyalty and interest, as well as continued viewership, will increase when the public identifies more strongly with a team than a specific individual on the team. Ultimately, then, the development of team competition based on cities will overcome the fan loyalty pitfalls associated with a sport in which individual accomplishment is often the only indicator of professional success. The team competition model also allows us to avoid thinking that the only way to solve the spectator problem is to make everyday fitness runners more competitive and that somehow this will make them more interested in watching specific athletes. The city team model has a lot to offer and deserves to be realistically assessed and, hopefully, implemented.

If you have stayed with me so far, I can say that this is merely the beginning of my ongoing examination of the crises associated with the sport of distance running. Next time, I’m going to discuss the unanticipated results of professionalization on the sport.

Just completed the Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon on October 13, 2013

Just completed the Hudson Mohawk Half Marathon on October 13, 2013

In other news, I’m still a fan of my Hoka One One Bondi Bs, although the sole wear really needs to be improved. My training is going well and I have started to finally heed the advice about running my recovery and long runs much more slowly – 9:30-10:00 minute per mile pace. I definitely feel better the next day and I am confident that I will be able to use this strategy to boost my mileage. My last race was the USATF Adirondack Cross Country Championships where I ran several seconds under twenty minutes. I good result for me, since I really didn’t see myself breaking twenty on the Saratoga Cross Country course anytime soon.

Finally, as part of my efforts to spend more time writing, move to the next level of blogging, and attract more readers, I have installed a PayPal donation button. My intention is to keep my blog clean and free from advertising links, but raise some funds to help with coffee and beer expenditures. I would be much appreciative of any support – thanks.