Monday, August 11, 2008

Improving TV Coverage of Cycling

So, what do you know? The Olympics are here, and NBC is actually broadcasting some of the cycling. Hip-hooray! It’s wonderful to finally see pro cyclists in some detail on the television screen, after following most of the international racing season on my Mac. On TV, there’s no jumpy “slide-show” video, no tinny audio, no tedious hours of poor commentating.


Even the Olympic coverage is annoyingly scant. And though NBC did go to the considerable trouble of creating a complicated Web site that lists exactly when every half hour of cycling would be broadcast, so far the schedule has been completely unreliable. It’ll get you watching on the right day of the week, but that’s it.

My wife and I have been discussing what it would take to get better TV coverage of cycling in the United States. What’s available now really just outright stinks. In order to watch the Giro D’Italia, I had to subscribe to an Italian-language cable station for the month of June – and I don’t speak Italian. (See a fun report on that experience here). The Giro is the second most popular bike race on the planet.

If I’d wanted to watch the Tour de France on TV, I’d have had to pay for a month of a new level of cable subscription-- $48.00 extra. I just finished grad school and am about to start a job in what I refer to as a “personally rewarding field.” (Translation: I’m a mental health counselor.) I watched the wrap-ups on the Web, streamed some of the free but mind-numbing live broadcasting from Eurosport, and tuned in to the excellent Daily Tour podcasts from the FredCast. But it just wasn't the same.

Why is it that I can watch bowling or poker any week I might want to, but not the three most important cycling races in the world, which have tens of millions of viewers elsewhere? Races that dominate European TV for weeks, and that sponsors spend gajillions of dollars on?

A first response might be, “Broadcasters have to sense a much bigger market in the U.S. than they do now. Money talks, and cycling just doesn’t have the same audience as baseball or even poker.” But I question that answer. Are Europeans genetically more inclined to cycling than we are? Their mania had to start somewhere! Early journalists knew that stage races made a terrific story, and conveyed that story in such a way that it sank deep into the local psyche. Did poker have a huge audience in the U.S. before channels started broadcasting it right and left? It all starts somewhere.

I remember reading somewhere that Americans have more recreational bikes per capita than nearly any other nation (don’t count China; that’s mainly commuting). That means we love to get on our bikes, right? On a given Saturday, I wager I’ll see way more people on the local bike trail than I will if I trundle down to the all the nearby bowling alleys that evening and count up folks rolling frames. How hard would it be to cultivate in those people an appreciation of a few of the finer points of racing, so that they would get hooked after watching some tastefully condensed coverage of a major road race?

The Tour of California is garnering more viewers and sponsors every year, and there’s even talk of it being respected as highly as some of the more prestigious European races. And then there are the countless classics themselves, in France, Belgium, beautiful places with storied terrain that make terrific videography.

Maybe this is all idealism, and it really couldn't happen that way. But I ask you, doesn't it seem entirely possible?

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