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November 24, 2015 | Issue 2
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the morning shakeout by mario fraioli

Welcome to Issue 2 of The Morning Shakeout. I’m stoked you’re a subscriber!

Here are two questions I’ve been pondering this past week:

For a good time, can you just add beer?

No doubt you’ve seen the popular internet meme, “For a good time, just add beer.” 

Now—more than ever—that recipe applies to multiple corners of the running world. 

Want to bump numbers at your running store’s weekly group run? Supply free beer afterward. 

Better yet, end it at the new brewery in town and make the first round a freebie. 

Need to make your local road race more appealing? Host an awesome beer garden a few yards from the finish line. Runners and non-runners alike will show up and even buy a ticket for entry if necessary. 

Want to get people to pay attention to track and field? Just add beer

Last week, Lewis Kent—who many of you have likely never heard of prior to reading this sentence—became the first beer miler to secure a major footwear sponsorship when he signed a two year-deal with Brooks Running. 

Why should anyone care? So what if he can run 4 laps and pound an equal number of beers in 4 minutes and 51 seconds. That’s not really track and field, you might argue. But please consider the following points:

The “sport” is gaining mainstream traction. Whether you consider the beer mile “sport” or spectacle, pounding four beers while running four laps of the track as fast as you can is not a new thing. But since James Nielsen became the first person on record to break the 5-minute barrier in April 2014, it’s been all the rage. What used to be an underground event contested with your buddies on a dark high school track has turned into a made-for-the-internet event that takes place in broad daylight and has spurned two global “championship” events complete with an increasing amount of prize money and even some mainstream media coverage on ESPN. And now, a little over a year after Nielsen’s barrier breaking run—which has over 1.5 million views on Youtube—a major footwear sponsor has entered the game and signed one of its top stars to a contract. That is not an insignificant development! 

The casual sports fan is interested in it. Following the announcement of Kent’s deal with Brooks last week, ESPN sports business reporter Darren Rovell posted this Twitter poll asking his 769,000 followers if they’d rather watch a world record in the beer mile or a world record in the standard mile. The results were overwhelmingly in favor of the beer mile—80 percent to 20, with 8,256 people voting. Yes, that is a relatively small sample size, but here’s why track and field athletes, administrators, fans and other key stakeholders should care: It’s evidence that our sport is struggling to gain fans, exposure and excitement outside of its own inner circle. And even those who do have an association with the sport aren’t filling stadiums and spiking viewer ratings. Yes, the sports of track and road racing are hurt by reports of widespread doping and public mistrust but an even greater issue is a lack of innovation in how it’s packaged and presented to a general public who can’t relate to a bunch of super fit, relatively unknown people racing around a track or down a road at ungodly speeds. This isn’t anything that hasn’t already been written elsewhere before, but the quick attention the beer mile has garnered outside of the insular world of track and road racing traditionalists is eye-opening.

So where am I going with this? 

Lauren Fleshman Tweeted out a great article a week or so ago written by three-time Olympian and former world-record holder Willie Banks for AthleteBiz. Prior to the 1981 European track season, Banks learned from meet director Andy Norman that there would be no triple jumps contested at any of meets that year. The reasoning behind that decision—while no doubt unpopular amongst the athletes—was eye-opening to Banks. 

“Andy looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I will not have the triple jump because the triple jump doesn’t put butts in the seats!’” Banks recalled. “Furthermore, ‘why should I bring you in and pay you when no one is coming to the meet to watch you? Now get out of my face!’”

In many ways, not much has changed in the past 34 years. Track and road racing—for all the participatory growth in the latter—are still having a hard time putting butts in the seats and getting people to watch live broadcasts, whether on TV or online. Why?

A big part of it is a lack of entertainment value. Look, I’ve been involved in track and road racing since 1997, and I can appreciate a dramatic race or a fierce duel when I see one, but I’m part of a minority of people who soak this shit up because I’m a huge nerd who follows the sport. Banks, as he quickly came to realize, was in the entertainment business. His job was to put butts in the seats. 

There are a few athletes that realize this but there are more who still don’t. Compound that with a lack of originality in how the sport itself is packaged and presented to the general public and it’s no wonder track and road racing continue to struggle. 

The beer mile—while it will never be an Olympic event—provides a unique entertainment value and is perceived as accessible or interesting to the casual observer. Regardless of what the t-shirt says—beer isn’t the solution to all of life’s problems (or in this case, all of track’s problems)—but it’s helped provide a glimpse at what providing entertainment value can do for the sport’s visibility and appeal.  

Brooks has realized this, and I don’t think it will be long before other running brands realize it, and perhaps most importantly, before non-endemic advertisers (in the case of the beer mile, brewing companies, which have $$ to spend) realize it too. If track and field, along with its top stars, can attract this kind of outside interest on a widespread level (more non-endemic media coverage, more fans and more sponsorship), the sport itself will be better appreciated and taken seriously by the general public.  

So how will this happen? Stakeholders need to continue thinking outside the box of the traditional track meet or road race—both of which are typically one-off affairs that take entirely way too long to complete—and dream up unique and interesting events that do a better job of providing entertainment value for fans and potential sponsors to get behind. And the athletes themselves need to embrace these changes as business opportunities to better professionalize the sport in which they hope to make a living.  

There is precedent for outside-the-box ideas—in 1908, Johnny Hayes of the U.S. and Dorando Pietri of Italy sold out the Madison Square Garden for a mano-a-mano indoor marathon, a rematch of the 1908 Olympic Marathon where Pietri was disqualified; more recently, in 1997, Donovan Bailey and Michael Johnson lined up for a 1-on-1 150m race to settle the “world’s fastest man” argument, and despite Johnson pulling up lame due to injury, the event put 30,000 in the Skydome stands, a half-million dollar appearance fee in each athlete’s pockets and a million dollars to Bailey’s and account for winning—and now in the third millennium, there are contemporary events such as the HOKA Distance Classic and Sir Walter Miler event, along with other “festivals of miles,” that are breaking the mold and heading in the right direction in order to generate excitement and more interest in the sport and the athletes who compete in it. New teams are being formed and domestic racing circuits are being talked about, but there’s still more that needs to be done. In the meantime, just add beer and enjoy the show. 

“No one comes to watch a track meet,” Banks revealed. “People come to watch something interesting. If you are interesting, you are a value to the track meet, track and field in general and the world of sports.”

Should UltraRunning’s rankings be taken seriously?

UltraRunning magazine launched their UltraRunning Race Series last week, an annual ranking system of the top ultrarunners in North America. Per their website, the series “utilizes a complex formula that considers many factors in scoring the performance of every ultrarunner in every ultra race in North America.”

Novel idea, right? Except when it’s not. Complex formulas neither excite nor make sense to me. The UltraRunning Race Series system awards points for your best performance over four classic ultra distances—50K, 50 miles, 100K and 100 miles—but it also rewards those who races more frequently over a wider range of distances. If you race often over 50 miles and 100K, but don’t run many (or any) 50Ks or 100-mile races, you get hosed by the formula. 

Further, rankings of this sort cannot be objectified, especially in a fast-growing sport with so many variables that just aren’t easily quantifiable. Admittedly, it’s a beautiful mess. 

The last—and perhaps most important—element at play here (or not at play, actually) is that the ranking system does not recognize performances outside of North America. Now riddle me this: How can you truly rank North America’s top ultrarunners—both elite and ages-groupers, many of whom target 1-2 international events a year, if not more—when some of their best results don’t factor into the ranking system?

David Laney’s podium finishes at the IAU World Championships and UTMB? They don’t count. Zach Miller’s CCC win? No dice. Magdalena Boulet’s runner-up finish at CCC? Your silver is no good here. Sorry! Dylan Bowman’s wins at Tarawera 100K and Northface Australia? Nice job, but stay stateside next year and you might have a shot. Camille Herron’s 100K world title? World titles are apparently meaningless unless achieved on North American soil. 

Anyway, you get the point. Now, the UltraRunning Race Series isn’t the only ultra-ranking system out there (ITRA has international rankings, blogger Jason Friedman created a formula-based national ranking system that seems much more well-rounded to me, and I’m sure there are a few others I’m missing), but it begs the question: Is the goal of the UltraRunning Race Series rankings to provide a comprehensive, respected ranking system of North America’s best ultrarunners or is to provide a platform for giving away two golden tickets to Western States and a bunch of swag from series sponsors? I can’t answer those questions, but I’m having a hard time taking this particular ranking system seriously, and I know I’m not the only one.

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure there’s a perfect one, but for starters, non-North American races need to be considered for inclusion in order to legitimatize the ranking system and the formula needs to be refined so it doesn’t penalize (or flat out disqualify) runners who race infrequently over certain distances. Also—and this may be far-fetched—but I think there needs to be a human panel to flesh out any obvious or unforeseen oversights not accounted for in the formula. Just my 42 cents. 

A few more things from around the web worth checking out when you have time:

IAAF Fires Back At Criticism. If IAAF's explanation regarding a “unique strategic opportunity” for giving Eugene the world championships in 2021 doesn’t scream BS, please correct me. 
+ Dear Seb Coe. "Put everyone on notice—athletes, coaches, agents, federations, sponsors—that you’re serious about cleaning up the sport."
+ Shhhh. Great NPR TED Radio Hour podcast on finding quiet in our busy lives. Listening to John Francis talk about what he learned from 17 years of silence was fascinating.
+ The middle is a hard place to be.
"The middle is a hard place to be in today’s digital media economy, where many advertisers are obsessed with reaching as big an audience as possible (and preferably not one with Gawker’s brand safety issues)."
+ Hunter S. Thompson's life advice. This is worth reading once a week. The whole thing is gold, but this is perhaps my favorite line: "But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life."

That’s it for this week. Would love to hear your thoughts. Please share them with me by replying directly to this email or hitting me up on the Twitter

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mario

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