In his article covering the U.S. national soccer team’s unlikely win over the superpower Spanish side in the Confederation Cup, the New York Times’ George Vecsey addressed the details of that match, but also used it as a jumping-off point to discuss the state of U.S. soccer. In recounting the team’s journey to the win, Vecsey noted that the U.S. coach “was under attack in blogs in recent weeks. (Yapping about the coach is a great step forward for the United States.)”
Vecsey was talking about soccer in the U.S., of course, not cycling, but his seemingly innocuous little parenthetical hits at a much larger point that U.S. cycling fans might be advised to bear in mind. Over the past week or so, with the Tour de France looming on the horizon, there’s been an increasing amount of backlash to the saturation coverage of Astana’s internecine drama, Tom Boonen’s recreational pursuits, various court cases, and the UCI’s hamfisted approach to governance. “Enough!” the critics shout, “let’s talk about the sport, about the racing, about who‘s fast and who‘s not.” Sometimes, in my weaker and more purist moments, I find myself leaning the same way. After all, who’s not just a little tired of all dope, all the time, or, alternatively, all Armstrong all the time? But then I snap to my senses and remember that all that coverage of the various, seemingly peripheral issues of professional cycling, miscellaneous hero worship, scandals, and gratuitous pot-stirring included, is, as Vecsey put it, “a great step forward.”
Simply put, the fact that so much non-competition coverage of cycling is being produced, consumed, and discussed by the U.S. audience means that, to a certain extent, the sport has taken hold here. It means that the U.S. audience is no longer content to simply be told what happened out on the road, spoon fed who won or lost, how, and by how many seconds, all set to an insipid John Tesh soundtrack. They’ve long since learned the basics, and now, they want to know more about the personalities, about the business, and about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Why? Because it helps inform what they see when they watch the races or when they read the race coverage. And, maybe more importantly, it’s all that non-competition coverage that helps fuel, if not barroom banter, then at least post-ride coffee shop kvetching -- that “yapping about the coach” that shows that fans are involved and emotionally invested. And it’s that investment that makes professional sports appealing to sponsors, and, therefore, commercially viable.
If you look at what’s written about the two most successful “world sports” -- soccer and Formula 1 racing -- you’ll find that much of what’s reported in the vaunted pages of L’Equipe and La Gazzetta dello Sport isn’t about the nuts and bolts of what happened on the field or track; it’s about the various incidents and intrigues surrounding the sports. Was AC Milan involved in fixing matches? Will Ferrari really drop sponsorship of their legendary racing team next season? How many million pounds was that latest transfer in the English Premiership worth? Who was Ronaldo spotted cavorting on a Bali beach with? None of that stuff is really about sport, per se -- it’s not about who won or lost, or who made a great pass on the pitch or on the track. It's chatter, and a lot of times, it's trivial, or speculative, or overblown, just like some of the cycling coverage people complain about. But then again, in that respect, cycling could find worse company to be in if it's looking to sustain itself in the current economy.
Besides, there's frankly only so much you can write about the competition itself (trust me), and though some cycling fans might tell themselves otherwise, there’s only so much of “just the racing” that the public can read. Now, I’m not arguing that we really need that fifth article about Armstrong’s new girlfriend, that every time one teammate calls another an asshole needs to be reported and dissected, or that every hangnail Cadel Evans gets warrants a fresh interview. All I’m saying is, if you find yourself getting irritated by whatever you want to call this sort of reporting -- be it fluff, media hype, or muckraking -- you can also take comfort in the fact that, underneath it all, it’s a good sign for the sport, not some sort of death knell. After all, very few sports have ever died due to bad, excessive, or frivolous media coverage. They die because the fans don’t care.
Pretty quick one today, eh? We're hoping to get out an interview in two parts over the course of this week before the Tour de France frenzy kicks in this weekend. Stay tuned.