At the beginning of this cyclocross season, I think CXHairs blogfather Bill Schieken did a good job of asking the question, “What is American cyclocross?”
I like to jokingly refer to Bill as our benevolent CXHairs blog overlord, or something to that effect, but joking titles really belie what he brings to the greater cyclocross media ecosystem.
As a law-talking guy, one thing Bill excels at is asking questions. Yes, some of them really make you people angry from time to time, but on par, I think he does a brilliant job fostering discussion in our community about the sport we love.
On Tuesday, the benevolent supplicator (I looked that up in the thesaurus, so sue me) was at it again, asking folks what they want to see in the vaunted NATIONAL CYCLOCROSS SERIES we always seem to come back to.
As a follow-up, he posed this question:
We have joked about Svenergy —the cyclocross equivalent of synergy —on The Media Pit podcast, and unwittingly, Bill provided the Svenergy I needed to get a blog idea out of a deep rut.
<Brief Aside> I hope it is apparent from the outside, but Bill has assembled some of the top talent in cycling media to collaborate at CXHairs.com, and I think we would all agree we have upped our respective games while collaborating with one another, as this example shows.
I think cyclocross is lucky to have this group of people producing #content in their free time, and if you enjoy it and are not already a member of the Wide Angle Podium, please consider becoming a member. You would be amazed how motivating a small bit of financial support can be for a rag-tag bunch of hobby-bloggers. </End Brief Aside>
I alluded to this on an episode of The Media Pit, but I have been workshopping a post about engagement and how we need more of it in cyclocross. The genesis of the idea was seeing the 365-day circus surrounding the NBA and how every slight and rumor becoming news-worthy makes the league an omnipresent part of the American sports landscape.
Despite having a premise, I was admittedly stuck. I even had words—like 2,000 of them!—but they felt listless and uninspired. Enter Bill and an incredibly timely bit of Svenergy.
Here is where I landed:
I think the problem we have in cyclocross with respect to interest, money, and opportunities, is one of “That’s nice” versus “That’s Interesting!”
Perhaps poorly, I will now attempt to explain.
They say write what you know, and I can think of no better illustrative example of “That’s nice” than my tenure as editor of Cyclocross Magazine. For better or worse, the publication’s philosophy has been to take a relatively neutral approach to covering cyclocross and not really rocking the boat in any direction, save a controversial story or two every year.
As editor, I put myself squarely in that philosophical niche, writing what I thought were some good feature stories, doing a ton of interviews, and banging out like a bajillion bike profiles. Meanwhile, I would watch stories published at other publications get shared and shared and praised and praised on social media on a regular basis.
Occasionally I would write something really good and tell myself, “Alright, this is the one everyone is going to share on social media and get excited about.” Needless to say, folks never got excited.
I mean, what are you supposed to say about a 4,000-word feature story about an athlete? You know what people said? “That’s nice.” They enjoyed reading it and then went about doing literally anything else. It took over a full year at the position before I even accepted that people actually read the stuff I was writing.
The problem is “That’s nice,” will attract the interest of the small number of the folks truly interested in the sport, but not necessarily the larger cycling audience interested in something “interesting.” If folks are not compelled to engage with content, offer their opinions about issues, and share stories with others, there is really no reason to expect the sport to grow beyond a subset of folks we know is a passionate, but shrinking, group of people.
The opposite of “That’s nice,” is “That’s Interesting!” Things that are interesting get us engaged, get us talking, and help build that oh-so-elusive quality of #hype.
Whatever your feelings are about the GREAT GRAVEL BOOM, there is no question that gravel participation is growing and more importantly, gravel content draws engagement. The interest in the Dirty Kanza 200 the last 2 years I covered it was literally palpable, and even if people are doing it only to post snark, they are reading and sharing content from Gravel News, GRVL News, and Grav Grav Tips.
Sponsors, curious bystanders, money, they are all drawn to things that are interesting, that have a buzz. No, I am not saying people are going to start attending cyclocross races here in the U.S. like they do in Belgium, but to start, there is an audience of people who like cycling who are potential fans of cyclocross if they find reasons to say, “That’s Interesting!”
Domestic Cyclocross’ “That’s nice” Dilemma
I talked about my former publication’s “That’s nice” problem as an example, but I think the entire domestic cyclocross system suffers from a similar problem.
Up front, I have to say that I absolutely love the cyclocross athletes, managers, mechanics, photographers, announcers, and everyone else I have gotten to meet as a member of the Media Pit. I enjoyed every interview I did and was always impressed by how great athletes were as competitors and more importantly, as people.
And if I am being honest, I think that is a big contributor to the “That’s nice,” vibe of North American cyclocross.
As an example, the week-in, week-out battles this season between Kerry “Call Me Kenny” Werner and Curtis “Still Needs a Nickname” White were truly epic, in like the actual meaning of the word. This season gave us two elite competitors at the top of their respective games leaving everything out on the course and pushing each other to new competitive levels.
Here is the rub. Kerry Werner is one of the nicest, most genuine humans you will ever meet. Curtis White is one of the nicest, most genuine humans you will ever meet. So you know what the reaction was if Kerry won? “That’s nice.” And if Curtis won? “That’s nice.”
With the races by and large not broadcast, save some yeoman’s word from our benevolent blogfather, interest in their battles was largely confined to the small number of folks who are truly into following domestic cyclocross racing. Otherwise, the reaction from those who even tangentially cared seemed to generally be, “That’s nice.”
In another bit of unplanned Svenergy, the Slow Ride Boys recently did a bit titled A Cycling Royal Rumble, where they mused that cycling needs more heels—those characters we love to hate.
Their example was cheering against Denise Betsema during her return from a doping suspension, and to butt into their bailiwick, I do not really care about road racing, but I can at least get interested in the Spring Classics by hoping Quick-Step doesn’t win again and the Tour by hating on Chris Froome and Team Ineos.
Never underestimate the power of disgust and hate in sports. I frequently give up on NFL football in September, because Chicago Bears fan, but come the playoffs, darn right I am watching in the hopes Tom Brady and the Patriots go down in flames. Same is true of the national holiday that breaks out every year when Duke loses in the NCAA Tournament. Hate is sadly a strong motivator for sports fans.
(Probably) Fortunately, the villain angle is out for domestic cyclocross. The athletes are too good of people, and frankly, the community is too small for real villains to be part of our ecosystem.
I think, however, the Slow Ride Boys were onto something with their professional wrestling example that might work. In professional wrestling, every wrestler plays a role as a character and every week’s show has its angle. There are heels and good guys, feuds and grudges, and those dynamics play out via the
play-acting wrestling the athletes do in the ring.
Since this post was inspired by the NBA, it is worth pointing out how off-the-court drama can lead to transcendent action on the court. It is no secret that Portland’s Damian Lillard kinda sorta hates Russell Westbrook, so when Dame got the chance to end Westbrook’s season in the playoffs last year, he did it in the absolute coldest way possible. Interesting, that was.
Sure, nothing beats an honest-to-goodness interpersonal feud like the IserBEEF, but I think athletes, teams, the media, fans all working together and playing the roles of characters in the domestic cyclocross narrative could make things more interesting during the week in social and traditional media and on the weekends when they are racing.
Take, for example, the epic duels between Kenny and Curtis this season. One potential storyline was the one-on-three battle of Kerry against the Cannondale p/b CyclocrossWorld juggernaut of Curtis, Stephen Hyde, and Lane Maher. In many races, Werner had to not only out-race White, but also deal with top-level teamwork from Hyde and Maher helping out their teammate.
This is all complete spitballing, but what if Werner used his vlog or an interview at CXHairs to call out White for taking advantage of his teammates’ help? What if fans chose sides and cheered for the scrappy underdog Werner or the big green machine and then started outwardly supporting one or the other at races? What is Stu Thorne gave an interview saying he didn’t think Werner was good enough for a spot on his team? What if White asked Cyclocross Magazine for an interview and guaranteed a win at Pan-Ams?
Even if it is mostly made up, creating drama off the course then makes the great racing on the course that much more compelling. Instead of saying, “That’s nice” when Werner wins Pan-Ams, folks might say, “That’s Interesting!” when White gives a post-race interview implying he should have won and will definitely win Nationals.
To give credit where it is due, one athlete who has not been afraid to put herself out there and stir things up a bit in an interesting way is Rebecca Fahringer.
As Fahringer explained on the latest episode of The Media Pit (coming soon!), while giving a talk at MontanaCrossCamp over the summer, Fahringer told the young women during a classroom session that her goal was to beat Katie Compton at Nationals in Tacoma. This was with Compton sitting in the room. Needless to say, I was interested!
She repeated the claim somewhat publically while we were bantering on Twitter about Galloping Gertie, the nickname given to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge when it was first built. The rest of the season would show Fahringer was not afraid of the social media spotlight, so imagine the buzz it would have generated if she called her shot and got her claim about beating the all-time great in headline form.
The BeckSTAR then kept us talking about TapeGate for a solid week by sticking up for her teammate Werner and drew the literal jeers of some European cyclocross fans by being outspoken about the perceived light punishment given to Denise Betsema after testing positive for steroids. On the latter point, there were Dutch fans who literally slid into her Twitter mentions and DMs to gloat that Betsema finished better than her, and on the abovementioned latest episode of The Media Pit, she told us fans were booing her at races. Her outspokenness got people interested in her racing, which at the end of the day is not a bad thing.
Some folks reading my somewhat out-there suggestions may be saying, “Well, I appreciate great racing without the drama. We just need a National Series [or enter your pet solution to North American Cyclocross here].”
I can assure you that Google Analytics and Facebook metrics suggest you are in a decided minority even among just the people who consume cyclocross content. You are a niche of a niche of a niche.
If we want a National Cyclocross Series, if we want sponsors who can support athletes to stay in the sport, if we want cyclocross to be more relevant in the cycling world, we need to do something to move from “That’s nice” to “That’s Interesting!” Interest and engagement lead to more buzz, which leads to more sponsors, which leads to more opportunities for racers and fans.
Is the wrestling-but-for-cyclocross suggestion the solution? Probably not. But in the modern print and social media ecosystem, money and interest are driven by engagement, and right now, domestic cyclocross is really wanting for that level of interest. I feel like there has to be more the cyclocross community can do to get people talking about the sport and its action on and off the course.
It will, however, take a village. Maybe the casual fan can start a fan page for your favorite rider. For athletes, maybe it is time to do like the days of yore and coordinate schedules and maybe even talk storylines for the coming season. I know us resident Media Pitters will certainly be discussing ways to embrace our inner hobby-bloggers and stir things up as next season approaches.
What we are doing now is not really achieving the results we want, so I am all ears for different suggestions. Of course, provided they make me say, “That’s Interesting!” more than “That’s nice.”