Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Cycling as a "premiere sport"

Michael Barry writes in his diary "Cycling is a small minded sport that has yet to realize it's true potential internationally-with the right structure, organizations and marketing it can easily become a premier sport throughout the North America and throughout the world, as it was in the early part of the 20th century."

I thoroughly enjoyed the coverage of the Amgen Tour of California. It was an exciting sporting event. But we should come to grips with what it means to be a "premier sport." Both those words have important implications, and together, they set the bar very high indeed.

Many people think "sport" itself is merely entertainment. But sport enjoys special status in society - we value sporting events very differently than other entertainment. Where will you see governments giving special fiscal support to build movie theaters or video rental stores? Governments are persuaded to build sport stadiums for private owners. It seems that "higher, stronger, faster" appeals very deeply to our humanity - we value competition in a very special way. We want to see competition, but when distractions intervene, we become dubious. We don't really know if what we are seeing is competition or fiction. If it turns out to have been fiction, the consumer feels cheated, and will not be a repeat customer. What do sports consumers want to see? Acts of heroic proportions in the arena? Fantastic feats of athletic prowess? Comebacks testing the mettle of the competitors will and commitment, both before, during and after the event? It is all there in cycling. And even better, I know of no other sport that is just *beautiful* to watch. How can you not be moved by the scenery these races take place in? Sure, it's cool to stand on the 50 yard line in a stadium, or at the free throw line in an arena, and bask in the glory of sport, but I can't imagine actually catching a 50 yard pass for a TD nor making a 3 point shot when it counts. I can imagine a vacation in the Alps, and I can almost feel what a cold beer would taste like while enjoying a mountaintop view after 22 switchbacks.

How can we be sure? Paying customers need have to have assurance what we are seeing is sport, not fiction, before we invest the time in "consuming" the sporting event. No consumer wants to feel that they did not get what they paid for, and certainly no sponsor wishes to have their valuable name associated with duplicitous behavior. All this is obvious, but does not solely refer to anti-doping efforts. To the casual observer, cycling looks like an individual sport. Practically everyone has some concept of getting on a bike and racing against a clock. But what few have experience with is the tactics involved in using others energy to go faster. The team aspects of the sport, the tactics, and the preparation involved is just as, if not more, intriguing. If you think about it, watching someone pedal a bike is hardly entertaining, or even interesting. By comparison, consider the obstacles other very successful sports have faced in becoming "premiere" sports: Baseball suffers from long periods of inaction, yet continues to draw huge crows that can't even discern the strike zone from their bleacher seats. Basketball has esoteric rules that are difficult for the casual spectator to even understand, much less observe even on instant replay. Hockey has "secret rules" about enforcement and fighting. American football celebrates otherwise obese men in a spectacle that more closely resembles Roman gladiatorial games. One of North America's fastest growing sports, NASCAR racing, doesn't even appear to be exercise, much less sport (and we can have a whole separate discussion about NASCAR's recent scrape with the 'if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'" culture.) Isn't watching a golf tournament much like watching other go for a walk in the park? (A spectacular park, for sure, but where's the strategy in golf? And why isn't there a championship pinball network?)

Taking the analogy further, what stands in the way of cycling becoming a premiere sport? Perhaps most significantly is it's "consumability" or presentation to the customer. For sure, there is excitement in seeing a bicycle race live - in a time trial, or perhaps watching the peloton on a steep hill section. Indeed, these could be good fun themselves: who wouldn't relish spending time in the sunshine with a picnic as riders cruise past? But as a sporting event, how entertaining is watching a pack of riders whiz by? Sadly, not very. Michael Barry's comment about cycling "in the early part of the 20th century" seems to refer to the popularity of track type racing. Indeed, track racing is entertaining and consumable - perhaps it is the event in cycling that still retains this advantage. (Fairly, other events such as cyclocross and criterium racing have much in common with the track consumabiity.) But again, where is the visceral beauty of aVelodrome as compared to the backdrop of a summer's country landscape?

To be a premiere sport, cycling needs to capitalize on what it does best: presentation of the preparation, tactics and commitment involved with the backdrop that is integral to this beautiful sport. What better way that through technological presentation via television and internet portal? The organizers of the Amgen Tour of California developed a Race Tracker with the aid of one of the team sponsors, CSC. It was marvelous, albeit still not mature technology. It made for an interactive and engaging experience even the most casual sports fan could appreciate. The audio commentary was insightful. And the video links, even if a bit scratchy, still conveyed the beauty of the spectacle. Television has the capability to go one step further: high definition. I have to say I begin to salivate at the mere suggestion of seeing live grand tour, or even a major stage race like Paris-Nice or AToC) coverage in HD. Could this be the benchmark indicator of when we can call cycling a "premiere sport?"

Michael's diary is wonderful. He captures the essence of his sport, and conveys it in a way fans can appreciate and enjoy. He hits the nail on the head when he observes that the power struggles of the governing bodies do nothing to increase the entertainment value of professional cycling. Is it really too much to ask for someone to recognize the power of a coordinated effort to advance the sport's appeal? Blaming the dopers and cheaters is mere avoidance of the bigger picture.

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