I met Peter Abraham while he was the 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 and the storytelling 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.
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, organizer, and participant. 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.