Can Road Racing Ever Make for Good TV?

When the ING New York City Marathon takes over the streets of the Big Apple Sunday, one year after the race was cancelled in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, runners from Idaho to Arizona will be able to watch it on TV for the first time in two decades.

ESPN SportsCenter anchors John Anderson and Hannah Storm will handle play-by-play duties for the first national broadcast of the New York City Marathon in 20 years.

ESPN SportsCenter anchors John Anderson and Hannah Storm will handle play-by-play duties for the first national broadcast of the New York City Marathon in 20 years.

After years of coverage on one of the local network affiliates, and some nascent attempts at webcasting, the marathon takes to the national airwaves (or technically, cables) when ESPN makes its first foray into major road race coverage with a  three and a half hour broadcast of the race on ESPN2. The coverage will be led by SportsCenter anchors Hannah Storm and John Anderson, the latter a former high jumper at Missouri who ran his first and only marathon in New York in 2010.

As one might expect from the leader in sports broadcasting, ESPN plans to introduce some technological innovations that should make this return to nationwide coverage memorable. Most notable is videoing the race in High Definition, which should make the sweat and effort on the leaders’ faces all the more dramatic (and can you imagine if there’s some in-stride vomiting action, a la Bob Kempainen at the 1996 Olympic Trials?).

But no matter how revealing the HD camerawork is, no matter how fast or close the elite races are, or how exciting Storm and Anderson can make them seem, ESPN, even if it’s the giant in sports coverage, faces one significant challenge that no amount of technology has been able to overcome thus far. To wit: 99 percent of the time, road racing, especially over the marathon distance, makes for rather dull TV.

Part of that is because most high level marathons these days have become like NBA games: all the significant action occurs in the last five minutes (or miles). The rest is all prologue. Perhaps the only time that changes is if the leaders are on record pace, in which case it becomes solely a race against the clock more than against the other competitors, and 99 times out of a hundred, the clock wins, leaving viewers disappointed that the winning time was “only” in the 2:05 range.

But whether the race evolves into a time trial or a tactical mano-a-mano contest, the lead participants essentially spend the entire time repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other for 26.2 miles, admittedly at a more rapid pace than most of us could manage for just a lap or two of our local track.

Compare road racing to other sports with similarly extended and somewhat repetitive frames of action. Golf, which is perhaps the slowest sport on two legs, nonetheless provides an almost infinite variety of shots over the course of 18 holes, multiplied by dozens of players. Tennis might provide a better comparison, as many of the points in a match are contested within seemingly indistinguishable rallies, and yet each one of them serves as a mini contest within a contest, building blocks that lead to the concluding crescendo of game, set, match.

I suppose the closest analogy would be another kind of racing, that done with extremely fast cars. Very similar in that we watch hundreds of laps, with occasional, or sometimes frequent, lead changes, resulting in a battle of attrition (mechanical, as opposed to running’s physical) decided by the slimmest of margins.

But what ultimately sets auto racing apart from running as a spectator sport is that it provides a sense of the magnitude of differentiation between the average and elite participants (assuming that such a thing as an average driver exists). While we know intellectually that the leaders of a marathon are running far faster than we ever could, we don’t feel that; aside from the slightly quicker leg turnover and almost emaciated physiques of the leaders, it’s hard to tell the difference between 5-minute miles and 7s or 8s unless you see them side by side. In contrast, there’s no way you’d confuse one of Jeff Gordon’s laps at Daytona with even your fastest freeway speeding – the separation is like a chasm.

Perhaps ESPN’s HD cinematography, multiple cameras, and other technological wizardry will finally be able convey this difference between the elite and the average participants in the marathon, making for compelling imagery and storylines for Anderson and Storm to embellish with intelligent and restrained commentary. But otherwise, Sunday’s broadcast of the marathon will simply show what we’ve seen many time before: a bunch of skinny men and women from East Africa, doing the same thing, albeit at a faster pace, that the rest of us do most weekends ourselves.

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