Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Toni Reavis must hate Chicago

This might be the most spectacularly short-sighted sports blog entry I've ever seen from an experienced observer. The core idea is not on the level of absurdity of, say, a Space Force, but it's grim. I'm treating it as 95 percent joke and 5 percent serious despite the pleas of its author, longtime running commentator Toni Reavis, to at least entertain the potential upsides.

Reavis is arguing that instead of putting together the loaded field they did, the Chicago organizers should have set it up so that the only two runners with a chance to win are Galen Rupp and Mo Farah. Why? Because no one who plans to watch cares about anyone else in the race, including "admittedly fast but anonymous extras who do nothing but steal the spotlight from the one thing that might get average people to stop and pay attention." Reavis presumably thinks that everyone in the audience who matters would be watching from either the U.S. or Britain.

Leave aside the absolute hilarity of the Chicago Marathon being willing to just ditch its entire elite men's elite field, and thereby cease being a World Marathon Major overnight, so that two guys -- who probably wouldn't agree to the scheme anyway -- could duke it out for two hours, sans competition. (Or don't leave it aside, since I wouldn't have brought it up at all if that's what I wanted you to do and am merely employing a standard rhetorical device here.) This is just a calamity of a parody of a good idea, something Donald Trump Jr. might say when high on bath salts if he knew anything about distance running.

For one thing, Reavis has been around long enough to understand that "ways to get average people to watch running" is some combination of white whale and unicorn. It's right up there with "ways to remove USATF's various sets of lips from Nike's ponderous glowing ass-cheeks." Even most dedicated mid-pack runners don't know who Rupp and Farah are, and if you told them, they wouldn't care. Wander around in public tomorrow in a non-running setting (an option I literally don't have) and ask every adult stranger you see who looks remotely like a sports aficionado who Galen Rupp and Mo Farah are, and don't allow yourself to go home until the total reaches ten. You'll be more exhausted at the end of this exercise than you would be if you just raced a marathon instead.

Everyday American sports fans are never, ever going to pay attention to marathon running or distance running in general. In the 1990s, the U.S. had a homegrown distance star who looked like a supermodel (and still sort of does) and went to multiple Olympics, and no one cared. Then that same athlete wound up the subject of a call-girl expose and still no one cared. The only thing that might attract everyday fans to watch distance events is the actual threat of violence or serious mayhem. (I have some ideas for that, but I tend to limit them to group-run discussions, and only then when I have a lot of dirt on everyone present.)

For another thing, and as a corollary, anyone who does have in interest in watching Rupp and Farah duke it out wants those others in the race, too. Reavis is either deluded or just returning from a considerable stint in the Asteroid Belt if he thinks no real diehard professional running fans wouldn't want to see Yuki Kawauchi, this year's Boston Marathon men's winner, in the race. And to suggest that allowing in the 2015 and 2016 Chicago winners (Rupp won it last year) is actually a compromise? Come on. Even people who really do just want to see a Rupp-Farah duel wouldn't object to the presence of other world-class runners in the mix. Hell, it's not like the Chicago organizers are planning on lining up Oprah Winfrey or Will Farrell at the front -- although if viewership were all that mattered, that's exactly what they'd do.

Finally, while I am no economist, I'm guessing that if the appearance fees and meaningful prize awards were eliminated for all but two chosen entrants, would the sponsorship dollars keep flowing in? It seems extremely unlikely. Title sponsor Bank of America (despite being a marvelously ramshackle institution in general) probably assumes it gets a better publicity return on its investment if the press release about the invited field includes a couple dozen names instead of two, both representing G7 countries. Essentially, no major sponsor would want a part of this subgimmick, and I bet that if BoA left, it would be for good and trying to recreate the pre-"duel" sponsorship conditions would be practically impossible.

I found a few other things I found wanting in this piece, but they're minor by comparison. The point is that even if Reavis's scenario miraculously came to pass, both Rupp and Farah ran under 2:04:00 separated by a single second at the tape, this would not attract more than a negligble number of new fans. People in general didn't care about pro running even before they had countless distractions like Netflix and MMA fights, and with these and other products competing for people's limited attention, there's just no way it's ever happening in the U.S. Not unless, that is, the rules of pro track and field and road running change so drastically that these is not recognizable as the same sports, or even recognized as legal thanks to the carnage that would be required.

Reavis pleads that "this suggestion is nothing more than a bid to engage the general public, not to assuage the hard-core," but what he's missing is that this is not a zero-sum game. Taking something from hardcore running fans in an effort to transfer it to not-yet-fans is pointless because hardcore running fans are the only fans running will ever have. And this would be true even if the idea itself were somehow a good one, which this one plainly isn't.

Maybe Reavis just isn't a fan of the Windy City in general. Reavis is a Boston guy (or to be specific, a Boston Marathon guy) and a lot of Boston mouthpieces can be pretty unapologetic and blunt when they start talking about ways to take other cities down a peg. Perhaps this is a more genteel version of the same.

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