The Good, The Bad And The Ugly From Last Year’s New York City Marathon Broadcast on ESPN2

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by Robert Johnson
October 29, 2014

Later today there is a teleconference with ESPN SportsCenter anchors and TCS New York City Marathon co-hosts Hannah Storm and John Anderson and reporter Rob Powers to talk about the coverage of this year’s race.

In case you forgot, last year the New York City Marathon was covered live nationally for the first time in 25 years by ESPN.

Yesterday, as a long-time and vocal critic of marathon television coverage, I took the time to watch ESPN’s coverage of the 2013 race to see how it was (they only showed portions of it in the media room last year – they switch between feeds – so I only saw part of it last year).

Here are my thoughts.

Since it’s easy to be a critic, I’ll start with praise and then move on to areas of improvement.

Overall, I thought the coverage was pretty good. Compared to, say, the local broadcast of the Chicago Marathon from a few weeks ago, which had me pulling my hair out and wanting to turn the computer off, the difference was stark. The resources put into the broadcast by ESPN were vast and that showed.

For once, a marathon broadcast actually used the following common-sense tactics:

1) Regular use of a split screen. It drives fans nuts when they miss key action because of some report about the weather or report from someone with a fan at mile 15. The split screen largely solves that and ESPN used it regularly. Also, considering there are two elite sporting events going on at once – the men’s race and women’s race – it’s a necessity. ESPN realized this and used the split screen a ton.

2) Realized that the reporters on motorcycles (or some sort of small vehicle) with the lead runners should know better than anyone what is actually going on. Juli Benson and Toni Reavis were covering the elite women’s and men’s races respectively from this vantage point and both were very good and used regularly.

Reavis was amazing. His description of Geoffrey Mutai‘s move for victory was great broadcasting. In some ways, it took me back 15 years when I’d get chills hearing the Tour de France broadcasters get excited when the doper Lance Armstrong made a move in the TDF.

There’s no comparing Benson and Reavis to say Lewis Johnson who regularly used to get a similar assignment in Boston. Benson and Reavis are much better.

3) Overall I thought all of the commentators were pretty good (the YouTube version of the race doesn’t have Hannah Storm so I can’t comment on her). Former high jumper John Anderson did a spectacular job leading the broadcast for someone who had never covered a marathon before. All week, it was clear he was doing his homework talking to the elites and it showed. Rookie of the year for sure! He was quite good.

Years ago, when Carrie Tollefson (who was in the booth during the race) started broadcasting, I honestly thought, “This isn’t going to work out. You need more than a pretty face to be a good broadcaster.” But she’s really worked at her craft and is vastly improved. At the end of the men’s wheelchair race as they were battling for the line, I loved her “Hurts so good” line. Perhaps she’s the weakest link when compared the others but she’s gotten pretty good.

And there is no need to praise Tim Hutchings (in the booth during the race) as I always praise him but he was good as usual. He instantly got the analysis right, for example adding right away that it was a huge surprise that Lusapho April and Julius Lomerinyang were finishing third and fourth, and also instantly realizing that when Stanley Biwott showed up in fifth, he’d absolutely staggered home as he’d been battling Geoffrey Mutai for the win miles before.

When watching bad broadcasts, there normally are regular cringe-worthy moments. Not so on this one. Sure there were mistakes – Tollefson once was talking about the wind in Manhattan when the pictures were showing the flags being still –  but another broadcaster realized the mistake and corrected it. And to be fair, the wind must have been gusting as near the finish I saw a flag whipping.

Mistakes are part of being human. Incompetence is inexcusable and all too common on marathon broadcasts, but not on this show. I’d go further – mistakes should happen if commentators are following the race live with passion, almost as fans.

4) This isn’t PC, but ESPN deserved kudos for not spending much time on the wheelchair racers. Yes, American Tatyana McFadden got a decent amount of time as she completed the Grand Slam, and I’m fine with that. But ESPN thankfully didn’t miss key parts of the men’s or women’s races to show you the wheelchairs. They showed a tape of the finish. Thank you.

The wheelchair racers are inspiring for sure but it’s not elite sport in the same sense of running. The best marathoners are the best of millions of runners on the globe. The best wheelchair racers are the best of, what, a few thousand wheelchair racers at most? There were more than 44,000 marathon finishers in New York – just 66 in the wheelchair division.

ESPN is in the business of covering elite sporting events. They know this and thus covered the wheelchair racers appropriately for the most part.

5) ESPN didn’t ruin coverage of the men’s race by interrupting the finish of the men’s race with some post-race interview that could wait.

Thank you.

Ok, enough with the praise. How can ESPN/NYC get better? There definitely are some significant areas of improvement needed. My praise fest above comes largely from the fact that I watched the telecast yesterday basically a year after the race, and I knew the outcome of the race. As portions of it were being shown in the media room last year – they showed ESPN unless they went to commercial or did a human interest story – it was driving me nuts. So much so, I went into ALL CAP MODE to vent on the messageboard.

Here are my complaints.

1)  Even the mighty ESPN missed covering the breaks in all of the races live.

Now, I’ve long said it’s a given in every single marathon telecast I watch that the one thing that really is the race – the break after halfway – is somehow consistently missed and never covered live. In terms of the men’s race, ESPN had a good excuse. Geoffrey Mutai made his bid to break up the main pack at almost the same point that Jeptoo was passing Deba. So it was bad luck. Thank god for the split screen.

But later in the race, Mutai broke Stanley Biwott and that wasn’t covered right away. They got to Reavis pretty quickly but a little slower than ideal. They also missed Jeptoo taking off from the chase pack.

I know the easy solution to this. The men’s and women’s races need to a) start farther apart (ideally one would finish when the other one was at halfway) and/or b) the men should start before the women. I’ve gone on about this for years. It makes zero sense to have the races ending so close to each other. The races started 30 minutes apart and thus finished about 13 minutes apart. That’s just stupid.

Start the men first. If I were in charge, I’d start them 45 minutes before the women. Then they are finishing roughly an hour before the women. But even if you keep them 30 minutes apart, the elite men will finish more than 45 minutes before the women. One race needs to be before the 30km mark when the other once finishes.

Starting the women first just is asking for a disastrous television coverage as one race will be ending when a break is being made in the other.

2) There was very little concept of time or pace in the race. Please list mile by mile splits.

Don’t misunderstand me, I hate it when races focus on a slow pace or how it’s not record pace. That’s why I prefer a non-rabbited race like New York.

But on the ESPN telecast, there was almost no concept of pace at all. Occasionally, we’d hear a mile split from Benson or Reavis but it was NEVER shown on the screen. There also was no real discussion of what pace the runners were on. In the first 30 minutes of the women’s race, I think we heard one split. I also found it amazing that neither race showed the runners at halfway.

To me, a NYC Marathon broadcast needs to a) show them at halfway (at least give us the splits); b) show them coming into Manhattan; and c) show them coming into Central Park.

I said in the middle of last year’s race that a fan had a better concept of what was truly going on – particularly in the women’s race – by reading the LetsRun.com messageboard than by watching ESPN and I stand by it.

The New York City Marathon has chip timing at every single mile. How hard is it to put the mile split up on the screen? I’ve seen it done by the BBC in London but not consistently.

Something like this

Mile 10- 4:49
Mile 11 – 5:02
Mile 12- 5:15

With a break in the women’s race, it was imperative that ESPN show us the mile splits of the leading duo and then the chase pack/Priscah Jeptoo. Show us how the lead is growing/shrinking.

Once we heard that Priscah Jeptoo had gained 30 seconds in a mile but how hard is to show both of their splits?

Considering the chip timing lists every mile, ESPN should as well. Now I don’t know how hard it is to tie in a chip time to a broadcast (yes, I run a website but it’s an almost tech-free website). But it shouldn’t be that hard to get the last mile split on the board. We posted every mile ourselves on the messageboard by manually figuring it out and typing it up. It’s not too difficult. Subtract mile 19 from 20 and you’ve got the last mile split. Put the last 5 in the upper right hand corner.

On PTI, Toni Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon had their stat boy Tony Reali. If ESPN needs me to hide in the background and feed Tim Hutchings the splits each mile, I’ll volunteer for those duties this year. Give me a call or email me. I spent two hours re-watcing the outcome of a sporting event I’d already seen to try to make this better for the future. More importantly, if I’m your stat boy, I won’t have to do any actual post-race work for LetsRun.com and will be able to catch the Cowboys kickoff at 1 p.m. ET. Otherwise, I’ll be lucky to catch the second half.

(Editor’s update: Good news. In the teleconference this morning, ESPN said that the timing interface New York uses interfaces very well with their tv technology and they realize they should have had times up last year. They plan on making it a point of emphasis this year).

3) This isn’t NASCAR – don’t list time to the hundredth of a second.

ESPN did try to use technology and list the standings continuously on a scrolling bar at the top of the screen as shown below:

scrollingtime
One small problem:they listed the times to the hundredth of a second. That was very confusing. Looking at the screenshot above, you’d think that Tufa Demisse was 41 seconds behind Buzunesh Deba when in reality she was right with her.

Listing marathon times to the hundredth of a second is akin to listing baseball stats to the 5th decimal point. A batter hits .300; he doesn’t hit .30019.

4) How about a telestrator?

ESPN tried to use technology to help its broadcast – they had Google Maps for example (which didn’t work very well, if you are going to show us the leader, how about showing where the chase pack is?). At points, they used pointing arrows to ID runners. But they never used the arrow to ID runners in a pack – simply when they were by themselves or with only one other runner. What’s the point of that?

Get rid of the arrow and give us the telestrator for the pack

Get rid of the arrow and give us the telestrator for the pack

Here’s the solution. How about a telestrator so that Toni Reavis or Hutchings can circle the runner in the main pack? Repeatedly Reavis would talk about the runners in the pack but the viewer had no easy way to know which runner he was talking about. Let’s circle him or her in yellow.

I liked the visuals the helicopter shots provided (and think that’s also why they were using Google Maps). But is there some reason that the helicopter can’t show us the leaders and chase pack? It would have been great TV to see how big Deba’s lead was over the women’s chase pack.

(Editor’s note: Producer Steve Mayer said this morning they’ll be using GPS technology so it seems as if he realizes the Google Maps stuff didn’t work too well last year).

5) Reduce the hyperbole about how great NYC is.

Repeatedly the broadcasters overdid it on how important the New York City Marathon is. As Jeptoo approached the finish, John Anderson said the “most coveted title in sport will belong to Priscah Jepoo.”

Really?

Earlier in the race, Reavis or Hutchings had said outside out of the World Championships or Olympics, New York is the one people want on their CV (resume).

New York is great. for me, it’s definitely bigger than Worlds, but a win in London is more difficult. I’d argue (and think most would agree with me) that a win in London is what people would most want – I guess that’s debatable – but at least acknowledge the debate. Don’t act like London (or Boston) doesn’t exist.

But all in all it was a step in the right direction. The commentators were great. They really complemented each other well.

The key thing to work on is the concept of time. Don’t focus too much on pace. I couldn’t care less if it’s slow or fast. But let us know what it is. Let us know if they are speeding up and let us know how much a lead is growing/shrinking – mile by mile.

If you can’t figure out how to do it yourselves, at a minimum, open up your browser and the LetsRun.com messageboard will have you covered.

6) How about more info on the top Americans?

We here at LetsRun.com spend tons of time covering the top runners in the world, but we’ve got stats showing US fans are way into how US runners are doing. I used to think it was sad that an article on a 2:15 American would get more hits than an article on a 2:07 Kenyan, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized watching sports is mainly about rooting for or against teams. And in marathoning, the team easiest for the casual fan to follow is Team USA. So have a stat boy figure out who the top 3 Americans are and tell the fans that once ever half hour. Personally I don’t care too much but I bet the viewers would like an update.

7) How about a starting lineup?

The YouTube replay of the broadcast didn’t include pre-race stuff so I’m not sure what went on there. But given the fact that last night I was watching the telecast with the World Series in the background, it struck me as weird that there was never a full listing of the elites. At the start of the broadcast or in the opening miles, go through all of the elites real quick like how baseball broadcasts tell you who is playing where with the scorecard. ESPN did show the runners that NYC introduced running out but that was only a few people.


What do you think? You can watch the broadcast here. Then comment in our messageboard: A review of the ESPN broadcast of the 2013 NYC Marathon – Good News 2014 should be even better.

Below is last half mile or so. You see the broadcasters really working well together:


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