Why Road Racing Can Suck to Watch

Two Sundays ago I spent a chilly (nay, freezing) morning riding in the lead vehicle at the NYC Half, and before my phone shut down due to the arctic temperatures halfway through the race I realized, for maybe the umpteenth time, why road racing is such a hard sell as a spectator sport, even on TV.

Geoffrey Mutai easily wins the  2014 NYC Half. (PhotoRun/NYRR)

Geoffrey Mutai easily wins the 2014 NYC Half. (PhotoRun/NYRR)

For the first five miles of the race a large pack, fronted by America’s Meb Keflezighi, ran together through Central Parkl, but the focus was on the showdown between Kenya’s Geoffrey Mutai and Mo Farah of Great Britain, who are scheduled to duel over twice the distance in London next month.

Then, coming down the hill just below the old Tavern on the Green, which Mutai had ascended in the opposite direction in his 2011 and 2013 NYCM wins, there was a brief tangle of legs. Farah went down, hitting the pavement hard, and Mutai, whether in reaction or by coincidence, put the racing hammer down, dropping the pace from 4:45 to 4:30 for the next three miles.

By the time he’d made the turn on the West Side Highway Mutai was 30 meters clear of second place, and that margin only grew as he essentially time trialed the rest of the way down to the Battery. He looked as though he might have been out for a tempo run back home in Kenya, and it was about as exciting to watch – in short, not very much.

That’s one of the main differences between running and almost any other sport – the perceived degree of difficulty between the elites and the masses, and even among the elites themselves. To be sure, Geoffrey Mutai running sub-5 minute miles looks different than Joe Jogger at double that pace, but only in a matter of degree. More to the point, the only way to differentiate an elite’s 4:50 mile from one 30 seconds faster is by looking at a stopwatch, or observing the disintegration of the lead pack.

In contrast, there’s an easily observable difference in ability between a weekend duffer and Phil Mickelson, or Derek Jeter and a beer league softball player. They’re playing the same sport, but in name only. Watch a pro making a no-look behind the back pass while driving the paint or drilling a slap shot through the five hole from the blue line, and there isn’t the tiniest iota of doubt they’re performing on an entirely distinct plane, if not a completely different planet.

And that incredible skill level is why while a runaway road race may be just one step above watching this season’s grass grow, even a blowout game can bring the crowd to its feet with a thundering slam dunk or one-handed touchdown grab, whether it’s by the losing or winning team. And that differential is perhaps magnified on TV.

Don’t believe it? Try this experiment.

Turn off the sound when you’re next watching a sporting event on TV, maybe one of this weekend’s NCAA basketball tournament games. You can achieve the same effect if you’re in a sports bar and aren’t close enough to hear the announcers. While you might not know the players’ names or what their game stats are, you can still enjoy the nuances of the game and revel in the SportsCenter-worthy plays you’re sure to see. Try the same thing with a road race? Email me if you can get to five minutes without wanting to see what’s on another channel.

Is there a solution to this problem? Frankly, I don’t think so. I’ve sat through hundreds of hours of road race broadcasts, sometimes as part of my job, sometimes as a busman’s holiday, and if 20 percent of that time proved even mildly exciting that was a lot.

To be sure, road racing can provide its share of thrills – Desi Davila’s near miss at winning Boston in 2011 being the most recent that comes to mind – but that seems to be the exception more than the rule.

If you want edge of your seat, adrenaline-pumping excitement, almost any other sport will trump road racing. It’s like trying to  compare Downton Abbey with Breaking Bad.

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