Monday, October 29, 2007

The Voice of a 7:30 Apologist

True story: I went to see The Darjeeling Limited last night (very average, and I'm generally a big Wes Anderson fan), at the AMC theater just west of Times Square. Walking through Times Square (also known as Satan's Asshole), the streets were packed (nothing new) and everyone was standing stock-still and staring up at the buildings (unfortunately, also nothing new). What struck me, though, was that everyone was standing there staring in the same direction: they were watching a giant monitor broadcasting some sort of live classical music performance. OMG! Times Square! They have TELEVISION there! That's right: everyone was standing around watching TV.

Meanwhile, the buzz/outrage has been quite fervent over at Letsrun. While I suppose some of the complaints about the planning/marketing of the Trials are semi-well-founded, I think it's a little early to get our knickers all in a twist. Yes, 7:30 is an EARLY start. Yes, it makes it impossible for West Coasters to tune in at a natural waking hour. And folks in NJ and Connecticut have a heck of a commute on their hands. But I think it is a little lazy of critics to simply assume the NYRR, as experienced a race-management organization as you can find, picked that start time via a late-night game of Yahtzee while in a collective haze of Jack Daniels and mai thais.

You have to stop and think: why 7:30? Find out just that, after the jump.

7:30am. There has to be SOME reason, and it ain't avoiding the heat. Well, there are two obvious ones: to get on The Today Show, and to be able to run through Midtown, including Times Square. Is it worth it to have the entire event so early just for that? Well, at face value, those five minutes, that one pre-Central Park mile probably make it seem like it a middling plan, at best. But I think it's worth a closer look.

Why did I mention my experience in Times Square last night? The point is this: the tourists in Times Square will stop and watching ANYTHING. They stopped and watched television, hardly a brand-spankin'-new technology at the ripe age of 100+ years old. There will be plenty of people in Times Square at 7:30 next Saturday. Speaking from personal experience, I'm pretty sure there will be plenty of people outside The Today Show studios near the starting line, at 7:30. Plenty of people in the neighborhood around Rockefeller Center. I don't think this is a terrible scenario - there will be barricades on the streets. A police caravan. Maybe even a truck of some sort playing music and trying to fire up the crowd. OF COURSE the tourists out and about in Midtown are going to stop and watch all along the first few miles of the course.

So here's what you'll have:

-- The 5 Million people who normally tune into Today but would not otherwise watch the Trials on TV will be watching the start and early portion of the race. Yes, 5 million.
-- The first mile of the route will be passing some of the most recognizable landmarks in the United States, with tourists lining the barricades throughout.

What sort of message does this send to those 5 million viewers, even if only for five minutes? That this is a huge event. That distance running in America is (can be?) a marquee sporting event. A spectacle. Slap the word "Olympic" on the event, to boot, and I think you will make quite an impression on those viewers. Then you cross your fingers and pray that some of those folks will bounce over to NBCsports.com to watch the stream because they were intrigued. And if the availability of the stream isn't mentioned on The Today Show that morning, and during the early coverage, I would be absolutely shocked. (FWIW, I do think, this is where things break down, because you're asking the viewer to make a special effort AND to do something they might not be used to doing - watching a TV show streamed online)

So no, 7:30 is not conducive to the quote-unquote "casual fan of elite running" to attend the marathon. But: have we ever established that such a person even exists? Would New Yorkers be coming out of the woodwork to watch a small number of elite marathons compete, if it were 10am? 1pm? Would casual fans be tuning in? There is really no precedent to show that such would be is the case. You have diehard fans, you have runners, and you have everybody else, and the early start time, believe it or not, is squarely aimed at notching the biggest possible viewership from the "everybody else."

After being carried by tourists over the first mile, once in the park, you will have the die-hards out in force. However, the numbers here remain to be seen. After one crit-loop is done we're looking at about about 8:15am. Maybe a volume of Sunday marathoners begin to trickle out for their shake-out run. Another loop, 8:40. Friendship Run participants start showing up. Another loop, 9:05. Tourists have begun to show up in Central Park at this hour, not to mention plenty of walkers/joggers who, again, should, in theory, be disposed to stop and watch. Thus begins the final loop.

In that little breakdown - diehards, runners, hoi polloi - there lies the real question mark in all of this: are all those folks who are in town to run NYC on Sunday going to attend the Trials on Saturday? This is, I believe, what the NYRR is banking on. They have scheduled the International Friendship run for 9am that morning -- I imagine, in an effort to get a few thousand people into Central Park: people of a demographic we all imagine should be predisposed to watch a marathon, if anyone is. Whether this tack succeeds or fails depends on how many people will be willing to curtail their sleep two nights before their own marathon to get up at 7am and watch the Trials. A dicey proposition at best, if you ask me. Personally, I expect we won't see significant numbers straggling over to the course until 8:30 or 9. But this is where the whole project, as a spectator event, will succeed or fail.

If things break right, if the weather is as beautiful as it can be in New York at this time of year and people want to be outdoors, this could be a spectacular event. Still, I'm not so naive to expect that it will be -- there are a couple of MAJOR "ifs" in there, between the number of diehards in NYC (I think this number has probably been vastly overestimated by the NYRR) or who are willing to travel to NYC , and the number of Sunday marathoners who will turn up. But if the planners' plans come to fruition, the start will come off like a NYC-sized spectacle... and the finish of the race will be viewed by a crowd that has steadily grown into an impressive mob.

Treu: it might not play out that way. But I just don't see a way that a better scenario could be guaranteed.

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