Why Elite Rowing will Never be Popular in the U.S.

We have so many great stories in rowing.

As a currently competing elite athlete and Olympic rower for Team USA, I follow National Team selection events and competitions, and generally stay up to speed with what’s going on with rowing nationally as well as internationally, closer than the average enthusiast. That’s not a hard thing to claim considering our sport has such a small and niche following, and media interest and coverage falls somewhere well below Texas high school (American) football. That statement is not meant to be hyperbole…Friday Night Lights y’all.

The rise of digital media over the last decade has made virtually every sport or recreational activity accessible. Just about anything or anyone can build a brand and with the right message, cultivate a robust fanbase. I personally could sit and watch videos of pygmy goats bouncing around for hours. Somewhere, someone is making money as a pygmy goat influencer.

It’s not a novel idea that some sports are just more fan-friendly and will always drive better viewership than others. But there is a unique relationship between the media, sports, and people’s interest (and demand). A perfect example of how the influence of media alone dictated the direction of sports programming and viewership is ESPN’s X Games and the evolution of the Winter Olympic Games program and most recently, the Summer Olympic Games program (BMX park, skateboarding, and surfing have been added to the 2020 Summer Olympics, arguably in part due to their X Games viewership success).

The thing to remember about the X Games is that attendance isn’t actually that impressive. According to Statista, this year’s 2019 Winter X Games in Aspen drew 117K in attendance across a four-day event. To put that into perspective, that is far less than the number of attendees that the annual Head of the Charles regatta in Boston draws for only a two-day event. But attendance in sports isn’t where the money is. The real money is in the television and media coverage, viewership, ratings, etc. How many people are consuming the event and surrounding coverage via their phone, laptop or television? And on top of media rights, the value of marketing sponsorship deals that are driven by the reach and number of impressions of that coverage.

In today’s world of on-demand expectation and hyper-consumption, the quality and quantity of media coverage is truly what drives our interests. Good stories and great storytelling drive interest. This argument transcends sports. I never knew I loved pygmy goats so much until I saw them everywhere on the internet and I could see them doing everything from yoga to obstacle courses. So then I go down the rabbit hole of reading about them because low and behold, there were articles on top of all of the cute videos available for me to binge. Just like with adorable animals, I’ll also follow a great underdog or cinderella story, even if it is in a sport or between teams I really don’t care that much about. Because if it is a good story, I’m intrigued and become invested.

Truth be told, the sport of rowing will never experience the limelight that the NFL, NBA, NCAA college basketball (Go Hoos!) and college football enjoy, but there is a place for our sport, and I argue that it isn’t where we currently sit idly under the guise of “well, this is just how it has been and this is how it’s going to be.”

The organizations that manage and the few outlets that cover our sport are doing it wrong. They have failed us as athletes and as fans, and will continue to fail until things are done dramatically differently.

I have been involved with the sport of rowing as an athlete since 2010 when I picked up an oar for the first time (ironically, when I was working for ESPN…name-dropping here just to let you know I know a thing or two about this biz.) The coverage and exposure of rowing has stayed the same for nearly a decade. In fact, there used to be a big brand presenting sponsor for the World Championships (Samsung), but there hasn’t been a new one for several years now. Sure, domestically we now get to see rowing streamed on NBC Sports Network and the Olympic Channel, and hopefully this is a step, but there are so many other little steps that we can be doing better (or just doing at all) for even bigger bang to drive more interest and as a result, broader reach, stronger engagement, more impressions (and yes, if you’re following the rationale here, sponsorship and money!)

Last weekend was a big disappointment. Sunday, April 21st was Finals day of the 2019 USRowing Trials / Spring Speed Order I (the event title alone needs work…who in their right mind except for the rowing faithful knows what a Spring Speed Order is?) I digress. This was an important day. This was the day that the first tickets were punched for athletes to qualify themselves onto the 2019 Senior World Championship Team. This was an opportunity for some pretty amazing athletes to earn the privilege to compete for Team USA and fight to secure the United States a spot at next year’s 2020 Olympics in their respective events. Over 100 athletes competed in this regatta! There were Olympians. There were Olympic medalists. There was bad weather. There were upsets. There was drama.

This was also a rare, and perhaps the United States’ only and best opportunity to capitalize on the equivalent of New Zealand’s Mahe Drysdale vs. Robbie Manson men’s single rivalry. Google that phrase and a ton of hits come up. Well done, New Zealand.

Gevvie Stone, veteran National Team member, 2016 Olympic silver medalist, and one of the most successful single scullers to come through the modern American rowing system is in the midst of her comeback. Kara Kohler, 2012 Olympic bronze medalist in the W4x and newest young gun in the single has proven speed and with an impressive performance in her first year competing internationally in the single, nearly medaled at last year’s 2018 World Championships. The HYPE that could have been built up around this matchup (dare I say, budding rivalry?) to drive interest in this event, in our sport, and in future events ended as only a hope that died a quiet death in my heart.

With all of the great storylines that could have been told with last week’s USRowing Trials / Spring Speed Order I, none were told or if they were, they weren’t told well.

USRowing (the National Governing Body of our sport) does a great job of putting out very basic press releases around these kinds of events. I do like information. You know what I like more? Stories. The give-me-chills, give-me-anxiety and make-me-sweat, sports stories. Whether or not it is the responsibility of the NGB to put out these kinds of stories could be up for debate, but somebody has to lead the way in at least getting the stories told.

Where was the build-up of how Kohler and Stone went 1-2 in the Time Trial? Kohler setting the fastest time in the semis, but oh yeah, did we mention Gevvie has been the Olympic women’s single twice and won an Olympic silver medal in 2016!? Remind me what happened the last time they met up in a race? Give me stats. Give me context. Give me a reason to choose a side and feel invested in this bizarre, but-I-think-I-can-relate, rowing thing.

What about the return of the 2017 World Championship silver medalist lightweight double sculls athletes, Michelle Sechser and Emily Schmeig competing head to head in singles? OH and is that Concept2 American women’s lightweight record holder, Christine Cavallo!? Where is 2017 LW1x bronze medalist and 2018 LW2x silver medalist, Mary Jones? Half of the 2018 W4x is competing here. What about the Women’s Double? (Shameless plug.) Told in the right way, top men’s sculler John Graves not making the men’s single final could be rowing’s version of 1-seed Virginia losing to 16-seed UMBC in last year’s 2018 NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament. Maybe not, but make me believe this was a huge upset and that I should feel some kind of way about it. There were also just some weird and interesting things that happened throughout the regatta–like the top 4 placing athletes from the men’s single time trial didn’t even make the final. Why should I care about any of this? Because the media coverage just told me to care and told me in such a compelling way that even if I’m not a rower, I can relate to this great sports saga that I’ve been pulled into and want to keep following, and maybe even I’ll come back for Trials II, III, IV and V (which is actually a thing this year) to see what happens for these athletes. This is what we call cultivating and growing an audience.

With the right kind of storytelling, you can convince people of what to be excited about and why they should be excited about it. This is the phenomenon around the Olympics. Outside of the couple of weeks during the Winter Olympic Games, most Americans do not care about curling or bobsled. But man, do we become experts and enthusiasts when the television coverage and social media tells us to be excited about these two sports we have barely watched and understand very little about. “But it’s exciting! Did you know that this athlete has already been to two Olympics and hasn’t won a gold medal yet? She’s going for gold! Look at that sweeping form. Best I’ve seen all week. I’m enthralled!!” And don’t even get me started with swimming (which is one of the highest rated Summer Olympics events). “I don’t pay attention to the sport for 1,446 days, but right now and for the next two weeks, it is so damn exciting to watch people go from wall to wall under water.”

It’s not rocket science. Tell good stories, provide compelling content, and people will actually find our sport interesting.

As of 9pm EDT Sunday night after the finals and publishing of this post today, last week’s disappointing USRowing Trials I coverage from top (American) rowing outlets included:

USRowing

  • Twitter: 5 tweets from Sunday promoting start times and a link to the heat sheets/results on HereNow. No link to any livestream on YouTube, Facebook Live or “follow this hashtag for live tweeting of the racing!” promotion. But don’t worry, there was a basic press release published.
  • Facebook: A solid spread of the same content found on Twitter and Instagram. No Facebook livestream of any portion of the race.
  • Instagram: Plenty of pictures from the regatta.
  • YouTube: No livestream but some post-Finals racing interviews with W1x winner, Kara Kohler and M1x winner, Michael Knippen. If only there was some race footage to go with those interviews.
  • Website: Press releases from the week of racing.

Row2K

  • Twitter: photo of the day on Sunday “Spring on the Charles” made me think of Boston. But Trials I was in Sarasota, Florida. There was actually NO Trials posting (entirely) from the entire week.
  • Facebook: Absolutely nothing.
  • Instagram: Nope.
  • Website: Wednesday practice and Thursday Time Trials photos were posted and a recap of Saturday’s race report (semifinals) from USRowing was buried in an RSS feed on Sunday night. The rest of the Trials photos were finally posted Tuesday afternoon.

Rowing News

  • Twitter: Most recent tweet was over two weeks old.
  • Facebook: Collegiate Coaches polls. Yesssss.
  • Instagram: Go Yale.
  • Website: I found an article on how to load the blade, safely.

Rowing Related

  • Twitter: Retweeted the USRowing congratulatory tweet to athletes Kara Kohler and Michael Knippen for winning the Women’s and Men’s 1x spots respectively.
  • Facebook: Nothing.
  • Instagram: If it’s not a men’s eight, is it really rowing?
  • Website: Not updated real-time, so check back in a couple of months.

I get it. Our sport is small and may always be small in numbers. But in a time where there is so much opportunity to make a space with even the smallest of things (pygmy goats are cute little suckers and some videos have accumulated over four million views), the coverage and promotion of rowing can easily and cheaply improve.

My point is this. We have to start doing things differently. We’re an old, traditional sport that needs to pivot and evolve with the times in order to survive–and that means our media outlets, rowing clubs and organizations, and USRowing have to do better. We all have to do better. I don’t expect primetime on ESPN2, but can’t we commit to putting all major regattas on Facebook live or YouTube? And please “hire” announcers who prepare for the race for more than five minutes beforehand and who understand how to make the sport exciting.

With the advancement of technology, it has become very affordable to produce live events in a respectable quality. Get an athlete or personality to live tweet at an event. Put thought into a dynamic coverage strategy and social media campaign that connects athletes to fans throughout the entire racing season. Let’s tell the stories in compelling ways, and not just regurgitate final times and placements. I can read a results sheet for that. Create some buzz and give people who aren’t obsessed with our sport a reason to be interested.

I’ll conclude with how I started this: We have plenty of great stories in rowing. We just need better storytellers.

And this…

 

 

 

9 thoughts on “Why Elite Rowing will Never be Popular in the U.S.

  1. Hope Shuler

    Megan, I subscribe to your blog because you were my contact at ESPN (one of the few to show me respect!) and when you left I was fascinated by your … STORY. That was eight (?) years ago and I’m still here cheering you on. But my point is that everything you say here is true. I know nothing about rowing but I follow you because I was so intrigued by you chasing this dream. So you are right in that people would be interested if they knew these stories and could be taught about the sport. Maybe I should apply at USRowing? 😉

  2. Joe Flynn

    1. Stories with pictures – This was the secret of Wide World of Sports that made ABC Sports.
    2. Hire Announcers who are prepared and can tell a story with pictures. You need this ASAP. Tokyo stories are being told NOW. Not in 2020.
    3. Rowing is beautiful. Racing is Brutal, Exciting, Thrilling. There is real drama and emotion if you know what to look for. Stories with Pictures Again.

  3. I have thought the same thing.. just didn’t articulate it like you did so well. I was actually in Florida visiting and would have come if I knew..
    We have a new ceo at usrowing.. meet with him?
    Maybe there’s not money but there will never be money if we don’t tell the stories.. got to start somewhere! Bravo for starting the conversation..

  4. Ben Heideveld

    The issue with Rowing at various:
    – you need compelling video. This was never possible, but now it is. Stunning video is possible from drones. Low flying drones at face altitude. 4K footage like it is shot from a launch is mesmerizing, because you see the faces cringe, the look of desperation or victory. So the change we need is FISA allowing regulated safe racing drones to be part of championships. This will likely require computer programs to steer up to four drones at least half automatically, between lanes 1&2, 3&4, 5&6 and from the back.
    -milk the fact that rowing is a rare multi-team sport, where up to six teams race bord on bord in the same race.
    – record a whole championship and let viewers binge watch.

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  7. Hannah Wayment-Steele

    TOTALLY agree with you. Was listening to your interview with Rebecca Caroe and was reflecting — I still think that the *most exciting form of racing ever* is the Cambridge/oxford bumps format that got me totally hooked as a newbie. The reason it came about is in order to race many teams on a narrow river. There’s palpable drama, there’s offense/defense strategies, there’s potential crashes — wouldn’t it be neat if we had bumps-style races on rivers in US city centers? I think it would be so fun!

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