Pure, unadulterated racing that takes place in an intimate, spectator-friendly venue with teams of runners battling it out in front of rabid fans for every last point sounds pretty damn appealing, right? Too bad this exciting discipline I’m describing is practically extinct at the professional level.
The World Cross Country Championships were held over the weekend in Uganda and, somewhat unsurprisingly, most all of the races were dominated by East African nations. It should also come as no surprise that the event got next to no media attention outside of the results and race recaps being posted to the IAAF’s website and some on-site coverage from the BroJos at letsrun.com.
“A rousing display of un-rabbitted distance running at its finest,” letsrun.com‘s Robert Johnson wrote of the senior men’s race, in which Kenyan Geoffrey Kamworor repeated as champion after Ugandan Joshua Cheptegei absolutely imploded less than half a mile from the finish line. Yet, despite this “rousing display” and drama-filled finish, no one seemed to notice, or care, and that’s too bad. Why? Because outside of the world championships, which now take place every other year and have become increasingly watered down in recent editions, cross country carries less and less importance for many of the world’s top runners, which means it generates less attention from fans and media.
But, by creating more interest and incentive amongst the athletes (which would require some investment from sponsors and a little innovation on the part of organizers), cross country could (and quite frankly, should) be competitive running’s most marketable discipline. The racing itself is just so damn exciting, with top road racers and track athletes going head-to-head over odd distances in an untamed environment. And unlike track or marathoning, which at the end of the day are primarily individual endeavors and one-off events, cross country is a team sport at its core with a built-in seasonality to it that’s made the sport successful amongst high school, college and club teams here in the U.S. and elsewhere worldwide. Why is the team aspect so important? As an athlete, you may be having an off-day, but knowing that your team is depending on you for points carries with it a completely different level of importance. As a fan, team loyalty carries with it a longer shelf life than being interested in a bunch of individual athletes. Superstars retire after every season—teams establish fanbases that last for generations. For media broadcasting and covering the sport, the events themselves are incredibly spectator and attention-span friendly. The team and seasonal aspect of cross country lends to interesting and ever-evolving storylines, which keeps fans hooked from start to finish during an event and also makes them more apt to follow what’s going on from race to race throughout the season. And as a sponsor, I imagine it’s easier and more effective to merchandise and market around teams and increase your brand’s exposure when the athletes (or events) you’re sponsoring are racing (or happening) on a more consistent basis in front of fans who are deeply interested and highly engaged.
Listen to the crowd—i.e. hometown fans—go crazy for Cheptegei as he boldly leads the race (then watch him stagger home after he completely ran out of gas with less than half a mile to go), and again as they celebrate wildly when Jacob Cheplimo won the junior men’s event. It sounds like the damn World Cup. Tune into this post-race interview with American Stephanie Bruce, where she excitedly talks about being in a sprint finish with a girl from Uganda and the team implications that carried with it, or Scott Fauble’s admission that “the whole thing was hard—there wasn’t any part of it where I felt anything even resembling relaxed.” I’ve seen similar scenes play out and heard the same sentiments shared at other cross-country events where team pride was on the line and I’m telling you, more people would be into the sport if it were prioritized, packaged and presented more effectively.
Look, I’m well aware that cross country isn’t going to save competitive distance running but it could be used as an effective vehicle for breathing new energy into a sport that desperately needs it at the professional level. Let’s not allow it to die.
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