Modern media rocks! Curious? On the flip...
This is basically a love sonnet to new media, and how it's completely changed the Cycling fan experience. Don't say you weren't warned.
Old Media Kicking, Screaming
The sports blogosphere was lit up this past week by Bob Costas' HBO special on sports and media, which featured a panel on the effects of the internet on sport. During the panel, Buzz Bissinger, representing the old school, unleashed a profanity-laced tirade against the internet at poor Will Leitch of Deadspin.com, a popular, cheeky sports site. Bissinger spewed forth a torrent of fear, hatred and arrogance, pretty much confirming what bloggers think mainstream media thinks of us, and the show itself was a parade of misinformation from people, Costas on down, who should have asked their kids how the internet works before going live. But enough; plenty of others have already plucked this low-hanging fruit.
Within 24 hours, over at FireJoeMorgan.com, a sports media watchdog site run by Hollywood comedy writers, bloggers had unearthed a year-old piece by Bissinger declaring that the path to a long, successful pitching career in baseball generally requires 400 innings of minor league experience. No less than six different bloggers researched the issue, several different ways (pre-MLB innings of the durable guys, of the injured guys, recent pitchers, historical pitchers) and demonstrated that no correlation between minor league innings and durability existed, whatsoever. Bissinger just made it up, or heard it somewhere, and was too lazy to conduct any research.
A Few Short Generalizations About Blogs
However much bloated ego freaks like Bissinger and the media class continue tripping over blogs, they can't escape the fact that the internet has completely transformed the fan's ability to watch sports. In a short time, the internet has transformed a one-way conversation to a giant, sprawling, shared web of inputs and outputs, in which you can find everything you need or want to know about a sport. Old-school media remains a large part of the equation by supplying information that only professional reporting can yield, but anyone with a computer has far more information about the events themselves, from live video to statistics, to websites where people sift through it all and try to learn something. Sports isn't magic, so it's hardly surprising that the best websites and blogs have had a great deal of wisdom to add.
It's not that old media was or is bad at its job; the key to the new era is the simple equation that 1000 people looking at something will figure out more than 100 people would. Those 100 people remain thoroughly relevant; they just don't have a monopoly on relevance anymore.
The Cycling Experience
Compared to, say, the NFL, Cycling is a simple and accessible sport. Strategies and schemes are often pretty predictable and easy to spot. Success is measured in naked results, which themselves are good predictors of future results. The athletes' experience is one that millions of amateurs can relate to on some level. And anyone with a computer (or TV, in Europe) can get the most important information -- live race video -- from the same feed being broadcast to the team cars and media centers.
Reporters are still vital for the more private information swirling around the teams and organizations like the UCI -- who's healthy or not, what changes to the sport are being considered, etc. Veteran reporters and broadcast commentators add still more value with their seasoned eye and appreciation for some of the sport's (few) subtleties... like who's showing early signs of cracking in a race.
But we fans are armed with two items that, especially in America, give us infinitely more tools to understand the sport than ever before: live or stored race video, and statistical information.
Cycling.TV, putting aside the technical bugs, has given the American audience its first ever look at entire races other than the Tour, whose live broadcasts in the US only preceded Cycling.TV by a few years. [Same goes for Canada too, I'm guessing.] Now, we fans can see a race from the start of the interesting part to its conclusion, with little interruption. We can watch tactics evolve over the entirety of a race and understand how the moves that led up to the winning move were just as vital. And thanks to Versus' highlights shows, we can compare the old-style cropped version to the full product and understand how, in years past, we were missing almost the whole show. [I like VS, they deliver what the market will support, but still...]
The other big piece is data. I grew up in an era where "data" meant Winning Magazine's months-later publication of some minimal list of results. A few big-city magazine stores might carry Velo or other European pubs, but realistically speaking there was NOTHING available apart from headlines about a few top guys in a few races. No startlists. No comprehensive results from big races. Nothing from smaller races where riders, especially the younger guys, are honing their form. Understanding the sport then was like trying to understand all of America by watching the presidential election.
The internet, in the form of CyclingQuotient, has changed all that for me. On just this one site (of many, no doubt) you can get entire race results from every event of consequence. You can see team rosters from the last five years. For each rider, you can see five years' worth of events all on a single screen. From this, a lot of useful information is gleaned: how his season is structured, where he tends to focus his energies, what types of races are suitable, how significant any one result is (by looking, as one legend once said, at who he beat or lost to).
I have spent years following and learning about this sport, but only recently began to feel like I might get it, and largely through these two new media. Previously, journos would always tell us that Cycling is a team sport, but rarely would they elaborate on what that meant: how races are animated by the lieutenants, the worker bees, the specialists, the young up-and-coming talents... dozens of guys from across the spectrum and pay scale of the sport. No fault of theirs; such details would never have fit into the limited space on the page. But now, I can see these less prominent riders with my own eyes. I can get on the internet and see how their past results have predicted what I just saw. I can write a post about how Rein Taaramae, who I'd never heard of before, might hang onto his GC place in Romandie because he had some nice time trial results in his no-longer-obscure past.
This is meaningful to me. Cycling (riding and watching) is my one last big private indulgence in a life otherwise occupied by family (yay!) and work (um, yay). The modern era has brought me closer than I could have imagined to my favorite distraction from real life. These few new tools have rescued me from a life of barking ignorantly at my friends about guys they've never heard of, to being more like a real fan. So for that,Cycling.TV, CyclingQuotient, rider and team websites, other blogs, VeloNews.com, CyclingNews, and you guys... this is my way of saying thanks, and of celebrating the modern age.