I’m a huge track fan, yet I haven’t actually watched a track meet on TV since the USATF Indoor Championships back in February.
This year I went to two of the meets I’d usually watch on TV, the Penn Relays and the NCAA Outdoor Championships. The two U.S. Diamond League meet broadcasts take place at amazingly inconvenient times, with Pre during the Ohio high school championships and the adidas Grand Prix while I was driving home from the NCAA. And I was on the road for a completely non-track-related activity during the USATF Championships weekend and only managed to see a few races at a sports bar.
Of course, I did watch just about every meet I could catch in an online version. Most of them were via Universal Sports, and were the IAAF’s world feed and announcers. They’re very good.
While I didn’t see any of the summer’s television broadcasts, I can’t say that I missed it. I’ve always said that track and field is an inherently interesting sport, and if you show it to people they’ll like it. NBC manages to make an interesting sport boring, because they steadfastly refuse to show us much of anything but track races of one lap or less (and ignore the “and field” part of the sport’s name).
Don’t get me wrong. I think Ato Boldon is great, the best sprint analyst there is, and that Dwight Stones and Lewis Johnson have much to offer (but are used in ways that don’t take best advantage of their talents). TV, however, is a producer’s medium, and the production on NBC (and ESPN) broadcasts of track and field just plain sucks. (I cannot comment on Universal Sports coverage, as I’ve never seen that TV channel.)
My brother is about as big a soccer fan as I am a track fan. I like soccer just enough to watch the World Cup and Confederations Cup when they come around, and likewise he watches track at the Worlds and other major competitions. These last few weeks were very frustrating for him, because he’s just beginning to appreciate how interesting track really is and how uninteresting NBC’s treatment of it is.
A few days ago he said he thought track on NBC was similar to the old Hee Haw show of the 70s and 80s. That show looked down on its audience, was done on the cheap, and had talented hosts in Buck Owens and Roy Clark whose abilities were hamstrung by the pickin’ and grinnin’ roles forced on them by the production suits. Hee Haw was popular, but it in comparison to the Grand Ole Opry it was almost insulting. (As my other brother once said, Hee Haw and Solid Gold were two shows to watch with the sound turned off.)
But that’s not really a good comparison, and my brother admitted as much in an e-mail. He came up with another comparison that really hit the nail on the head. It’s long, but it’s good.
Hey… I thought I’d expand some on the discussion we had the other day after watching more of NBC’s stone-age coverage this weekend. Yes, I’m glad that they show the worlds, and it probably could be worse (they’ve actually made baby steps by expanding Ato Bolden’s role and ditching Carol Lewis), but every time I watch my head just wants to explode because it’s so obvious that they just don’t give a damn, as long as they keep the Olympic rights.
This is the key point. NBC doesn’t care about track one bit. It broadcasts track more or less because it is (all but contractually) obligated to do so if it’s going to be the “Olympic Network”. The people in charge of doing things right, the producers and their higher-ups, literally couldn’t care less about the quality of coverage or in building an audience for non-Olympic track and field.
Bro goes on…
It dawned on me yesterday that perhaps the most apropos compasion with Hee Haw is the fact that the production model is exactly that outmoded. The whole thing (save for the sprints and the short hurdles) has the feel not of covering a sporting event, but of those highlight shows that were how fans saw a lot of stuff in the era predating ESPN and Sportscenter. In the ’60s and early ’70s, that’s how college football got disseminated (when only one game a week on the tube nationally was the norm). On Sunday morning you’d get a package of highlights narrated by Bill Flemming, and Lindsay Nelson would announce a highlight review of the Notre Dame game in the sort of manner that’s now mainly seen on coaches’ shows. Or think of This Week in Baseball… that’s exactly what it feels like when the coverage of Jesse Williams’ and Dwight Phillips’ gold medals is reduced to coverage of one jump out of the competition in something they baldly label “Field Report,” complete with a cheesy graphic. Yes, it’s tape-delay coverage, but they might as well label it the “World Championship highlight show,” like ABC/ESPN does with their compressed tape-delay coverage of the British Open in the late afternoon on Sunday.
It seems like an even better comparison is to how CBS used to package their coverage of the Tour de France back in the mid-’80s when Greg Lemond was the big American cyclist. Phil Liggett did the narration, as he does now, but it was much less compelling than what we’ve grown used to since a fledgling cable outfit (the Outdoor Life Network, since bought out and rebranded as Versus) with oodles of time to fill bid for the complete coverage. Ato Bolden, Dwight Stones, and Lewis Johnson could all bring the same knowledge and passion as the Tour de France crew, but instead – like Roy Clark and Buck Owens, who were actually very talented and proficient musicians – they’re hamstrung by the pickin’ ‘n grinnin’ roles the NBC production model forces them into. Instead of being used like Cris Collinsworth, Lewis Johnson is being used primarily as track’s Erin Andrews, and Dwight Stones is about as visible as Rob Stone (and his expertise is used about that frequently)… and that’s without getting into the whole issue of how outmoded their camera angles/production are. It’s really becoming apparent with their use of some of the world feed, but of course you’re only seeing limited glimpses of the trackside camera or the metric-based graphics on the jump pits. (They did seem to use it more frequently today, particularly trackside camera angles during the 5K, though of course you still got the first two laps/last two laps “highlight” coverage.) Take a look at how NBC’s camera coverage of the Triple Crown horse races has evolved – and without the world feed footage, you don’t get the sense that they would do the same thing with their track coverage… even when it doesn’t involve significant production costs. Bottom line… they just don’t want to bother thinking about how to do it better because they just don’t care.
Thinking of the Tour de France leads to another thing… maybe the way to blow up the model of track coverage and re-invent it is to think of Diamond League track coverage in an analogous way to OLN/Versus’s TDF coverage. Get it all on there, don’t think of ratings or packaging it to “appeal” to a mass audience, but let them see the inherent drama in all its glory… and in its native habitat. Then folks would begin to appreciate things that right now they might think of as completely foreign. The analogy that comes to mind there is from the Rocky Horror Picture Show, when Brad Majors goofily refers to the Time Warp as “folk dancing.” The classic example is the fact that if you just watched American network coverage, you’d have no earthly idea why in the middle of the third lap of the distance race – you know, the one before they cut away to commercial and then the bell lap – you start hearing rhythmic clapping from the crowd. Of course, track doesn’t have the TDF’s gorgeous scenery, but it does have the world’s best athletes in enormously simple yet fascinating events – the very definition of the word athletic.
But of course, as far as NBC is concerned, if the race takes more than a minute and an American isn’t a competitor, nobody cares. It’s antithetical to the model that Roone Arledge used to make ABC’s Wide World of Sports as well as their Olympic coverage so compelling. Yes, Wide World had its share of cheesy but entertaining stuff (barrel jumping and arm… er, “wrist-wrestling”), but they also had no reservation about making stars out of great stories and characters whatever their nationality. The list is endless – the Russian weightlifter Vassily Alexiyev, the Austrian skier Franz Klammer (the Olympic moment I remember from the ’70s is his kamikaze downhill run in the Innsbruck Olympics while veteran commentator Bob Beattie went completely nuts a la Gus Johnson), even Arnold Schwarzenegger for god’s sake (he first came on the radar for the general public through Wide World of Sports’ coverage of Mr. Olympia contests, even before the movie Pumping Iron came out). Of course, that was in the ’70s, before Reagan, the Iran hostage crisis, and the Miracle on Ice completely wrecked network suits’ idea of what would sell to the public. Once they drank the rah-rah kool-aid, we were doomed (sigh).
Anyway, back to track… if NBC wants to keep the Olympics and respect track, they should work a hell of a lot harder to get wider carriage for Universal Sports (easier said than done, but it should at least be on expanded sports tiers), and when Versus gets rebranded as NBC Sports, the Worlds (and all of Olympic track coverage) should be live on there rather than relegated to a third-tier platform. Maybe than America’s gold medalists, as well as outstanding performers and compelling personalities from around the world (Valerie Adams, David Rudisha, etc.) wouldn’t be completely anonymous to the viewing audience. After all, while the CBS’ highlights coverage made America marginally aware of Greg Lemond and Miguel Indurain, without the expanded OLN/Versus coverage, would Lance Armstrong have been as big a star (even allowing for the cancer angle)? Maybe that’s a USATF issue to pursue, but right now even the Worlds and Olympics coverage is getting the strict time-buy treatment, and with a Hee Haw production model based on quick cuts and yuks, and about as current as that. Without changes, track will be about as hard to find as Hee Haw reruns (yoiu have to go to the RFD cable network).
After he told me his theory that NBC simply doesn’t care, I remembered that the Peacock had made a bid for the World Cup a few years back. I thought that FIFA had taken a pass, even though they turned down good money for it, and asked him about the details. Here’s what he told me, and it again seems to fit the theory that NBC wants the big international spectacles but doesn’t actually care about the sports themselves.
Re NBC and World Cup rights bidding… Chuck Blazer is the central figure in that story, and it’s one that has had huge implications for MLS. In 2006 when TV rights for the 2010 and 2014 World Cups went up for bid, NBC swooped in with a huge $350 million bid that dwarfed what ESPN/ABC was willing to pay, even though they had done a very good job with the previous four World Cups. (Remember when ESPN showed the games live from Korea in 2002 at ungodly hours? Those games included the Americans’ glorious upset of Portugal and their magical run to the quarterfinals – where they scared the bejeezus out of the Germans before losing a game that they probably ought to have won. One of the stadiums constructed for that event was in Daegu.)
But the big difference was that – even if in fits and starts – ESPN/ABC had been supportive of MLS and the U.S. national team, showing many nats games and some MLS games, always including the MLS Cup final; NBC, however, had no interest whatsoever in broadcasting any soccer other than the “event” of the World Cup… and rumor has it that the World Cup would have gotten the same tape-delay treatment as the Olympics. Blazer, who has been embroiled in the middle of the whole FIFA/CONCACAF ethics imbroglio the last few months (he’s the guy who turned in Jack Warner and bin Hammam for the Trinidad bribe-o-rama), realized that wouldn’t be good for soccer in America – and he used his position on FIFA’s Executive Committee and his considerable influence to persuade the ExCo to hold off on taking NBC’s offer because he thought he could come up with something better.
What Blazer eventually was able to cobble together combined some MLS rights with World Cup rights into a package that brought FIFA $75-100 million more – even though the lion’s share of those dollars came from Univision for the Spanish-language World Cup rights. (ESPN’s ratings exceeded expectations, but they’re dwarfed by the ratings Univision gets. Univision also makes hay broadcasting Mexican national team games.) But the key to the deal was that it was much, much better for soccer – and MLS – than the treatment NBC would have given it at the time. (Here’s a couple of good links: Bill Archer from Big Soccer discussing Blazer and an interesting Blazer profile from Sports Business Journal) Now, of course, it’s interesting how the worm has turned and with the rebranding of Versus as NBC Sports they’ve decided to come in with a serious bid and take over MLS broadcast rights from Fox Soccer Channel. (ESPN keeps their current deal; they’ll still do an MLS game of the week and get the first-choice national team games… Fox Soccer always got the nats’ leftovers or got CONCACAF rights [i.e. Gold Cup] that ESPN didn’t want to mess with.) Their idea is to have programming during the NHL offseason to fill up some of the time that hockey gets in the winter… it actually makes sense, though we’ll see how it actually works. The devil is in the details…
As the links indicate, Blazer is no saint – but having him there is a very good thing for American soccer, and it’s all relative… compared to the other thieves, he’s a very honorable character… And, though the mainstream media has yet to really pick up on it, MLS is a huge success story – the quality of play on the field is light-years better than it was a decade ago, and more importantly, it’s beginning to get a financial foothold. There’s plenty of evidence – lots of expansion the last few years (and VERY successful…. check out a Seattle Sounders home game the next time it’s on the tube; they’re drawing 35K per game and the passion is reminiscent of a European crowd), they’re bringing in great players from around the world as well as developing young American talent, and there are lots of extremely impressive soccer stadiums being built (if you haven’t seen any pix, check out KC’s new LiveStrong Park that opened this summer… it’s simply amazing; SI’s Grant Wahl had a full-out orgasm). There are many key figures who contributed to this, but at the top of the pyramid are Phil Anschutz (I detest his politics, but where soccer is concerned he’s doing the work of the angels) and Lamar Hunt, who bankrolled some serious losses in the early years; Don Garber (Doug Logan’s successor), who’s done a lot of good work as MLS commisioner; and Chuck Blazer, who by keeping NBC at bay until they were interested in soccer instead of just the World Cup, may have provided the key impetus to giving the league the exposure and cash infusion it needed to grow to the next level.
I believe that awful television coverage is the single biggest obstacle facing collegiate and professional track and field in this country. This is what we’re up against: broadcasters that don’t care, and a clueless national federation.