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.”