Boston Marathon promoters don’t grasp seed of competition; TV feed misses race’s climax
It’s not like I’m a running guy. I only bumped into Boston Marathon coverage by accident.
But there I am with my late breakfast and NBC Sports is setting up a very compelling finish among American Galen Rupp and two competitors, shoulder to shoulder. They have about six of the 26 miles to go, Heartbreak Hill is approaching.
And then one of the trio drops back and it’s just two. And Rupp and Kenyan Geoffrey Kirui both look equally strong. For once, an American is really in the hunt for the biggest prize in marathon racing. And his direct competitor is from that paragon nation of distance running, absent from the winner’s circle for five years. What could happen here? OK, I’m in.
This is the way it is with niche sports for most of us. You need a moment of competition to draw you in and then you are living within the combatants, imagining their tactics, wondering who will move first and how.
For most of this time, we are in split-screen mode because the women’s very apparent champion is nearing the finish. (The elite women begin 28 minutes prior to the elite men to facilitate a smooth finish.) She is 30 seconds or more ahead of her nearest competitor with a couple of miles to go and it’s clearly over. No suspense here. Kenyan Edna Kiplagat will win in a jog.
As she does near the tape, understandably, the NBC Sports screen widens to full as Kiplagat eases down the final straight. She breaks the tape, is engulfed by the hugs of her family and coach.
But then, we do not recede back to split screen to see what’s going with that scintillating men’s finish. We see the second-place, then the third-place women’s finisher. Nothing about the men.
And then there is a commercial break. OK, well, someone surely is monitoring the men’s progress, I think. It must still be neck-and-neck three or four miles out. Rupp, the American from Oregon, is known for his strong 10,000-meter finish. He must be right there.
Well, uh, no. NBCSN returns from the break and suddenly there is Kirui with a 12-to-15-second lead. He’s busted off a 4:52 mile and is in the process of beginning another one that will clock a blistering 4:26.
It is clear that moment any sports viewer savors in a mano-a-mano battle – that one where the stronger, more savvy competitor seizes the initiative and executes a tactical and willful triumph – has passed. We didn’t even see it.
And now, the race is essentially over.
OK, you might laugh at me even getting upset over this. But these moments are why I watch sports, why I am sucked into sports I don’t even follow – the strategy and guile and audacity and tenacity and cool execution of the winner. How does he or she pull it off?
I’ve been enticed into watching the finish of the Boston Marathon live, which is the only way to view any sporting event, anticipating the climax of a play I cannot predict. And then the people in charge of delivering that finish completely drop the ball.
Why? Because they don’t understand why people watch sports. It’s the disconnect between fans and broadcast maestros like the infamous NBC executive producer Dick Ebersol who relentlessly promoted events rather than covering them. Who saturated coverage of “moments” – Kerri Strug being carried off the Olympic gymnastics mat by Bela Karolyi, the heartbroken crying, the triumphant hugging, medal-stand shots during the national anthem, John Tesh spouting florid gibberish – rather than the junctures where competitors win and lose.
Ebersol’s spawn have pervaded sports television. They are entertainment people who do not understand the blood and sweat and emotional tensile of those who compete. They only want to shoot the parade afterward.
Further, why am I getting so upset over an event I really don’t care about? You’re laughing and I understand. But to me, it’s the principle. It’s about the overrunning of steak by sizzle.
I don’t know who’s responsible for this specific instance, be it the Marathon itself controlling the feed or NBC Sports’ direction being negligent. But it doesn’t really matter.
I think it’s just another example of promoters of competition not understanding what they’re really selling.
Then again, maybe they understand their larger audience better than I do.
DAVID JONES: firstname.lastname@example.org