Fans go crazy over ‘second tier’ sports

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Fans raced to see their favorite runners up close while others watched the race on the large-screen TV set up near the awards podium.

Fans sprinted to see their favorite runners up close Monday at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind., while others watched the race on the large-screen TV set up near the awards podium.

Oregon’s Galen Rupp, who trailed for the first 5 kilometers, outkicked Liberty’s Sam Chelanga in the final 200 meters to win his first NCAA Cross Country Championship on Monday in Terre Haute, Ind., finishing the 10K race in 29 minutes, 3.2 seconds.

And Texas Tech’s Sally Kipyego held off two challengers to win an unprecedented third straight women’s title, clocking in at 19:28.1 for the 6K race on a cold and blustery afternoon.

Meanwhile, in Louisville on Sunday, Maryland defeated Wake Forest 4-2 to capture its third NCAA field hockey title in four years.

Neither championship received much attention from the mainstream press.

Maryland's field hockey players warm-up before the NCAA semifinals last Saturday.

Maryland's players warm up before Saturday's NCAA field hockey semifinal against Iowa in Louisville.

Field hockey, admittedly, remains a more regional game played more in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. Besides Maryland, Wake Forest, Syracuse and Iowa reached the field four. Iowa (1986) and Michigan (2001) are the only two non-Eastern schools to win national titles in 28 seasons. Old Dominion has nine titles, followed by Maryland (with six), North Carolina (5) and Wake Forest (3). In the semifinals, fans braved temps in the low 20s that numbed feet, froze fingers and sent many to the bathrooms to warm-up during intermissions on a night in which both semifinal games required at least one overtime.

Those who watched the cross country championships Monday, though, were even more fanatical. Winds, which gusted at least 20 mph, did not prevent some young male fans from going topless. One high schooler ran across the course wearing only a red cape, while a few others painted their bodies in their respective school colors. Still, others wore shorts while those of us covering the event bundled in layers of shirt and jackets and hid our hands under our sleeves. “Yes, I’m a wuss,” one veteran journalist told me. “But I’m also too old to care.”

That Rupp ran the entire race in short emerald-green vinyl shorts was not a shocker. (Although I’m not sure how the biting icy winds did not scrape the painted-on Texas Tech logo from Kipyego’s right cheek.) The shocker for those who have not attended a big cross country race – that several hundred fans wuld be running all over a 240-acre facility to catch a glimpse of runners cycling through a two-loop course. Unlike other fans, most cross-country fans do not sit idly and watch. Instead, they run across open fields to get a spot along a fence to watch packs of runners race past, cheering and hollering for their favorites. Then, they run off to a new spot until everybody is filed four or six deep along fences at the finish line. Cross-country fans definitely have game.

Today, many of these fans probably also have pneumonia, or at least the sniffles, from having endured below-freezing winds. I’m sure getting a cold is worth every goose bump for most of them, including the young kid who stood speechless when Oregon runner Luke Puskedra walked out of the media tent. Puskedra paused and walked over to the boy, who was clutching a program. “So you want Galen’s signature?” he asked. “Come with me and we can get it.”

For the record, Oregon won its second successive men’s team title, beating runner-up Iona (the lower score wins), while Washington beat second-place Oregon (79-131) for the women’s title.

But there was very little record of either of these NCAA championships in the national media. The Associated Press filed fewer than 170 words on the field hockey championship. AP filed a little more than that for te cross country championships. Newspapers such as the Washington Post and USA Today did not send a reporter to the event, instead using the AP stories. The Syracuse Post-Standard briefed the event for the field hockey semifinals when the Orange lost 3-2 in overtime.

Some newspapers did cover the field hockey championships in more depth. The Baltimore Sun sent a stringer, the Louisville Courier-Journal’s correspondent did a fine job covering an event in their backyard, and Michael Katz of the Diamondback, the student-run newspaper for the University of Maryland, wrote a pretty good gamer on the title game as well. This championship received scant coverage during a weekend when Oklahoma knocked off Texas Tech, the Tennessee Titans lost their first NFL game and many big-time programs played in college basketball events. As staffs and news hole diminishes, events like this will receive far less coverage in the mainstream media.

That’s where new media opportunities open up. In Terre Haute, journalists packed the media rooms for the NCAA cross country championships. At least a dozen reporters attended the pre-race press conference on Sunday afternoon. Then, several dozen people packed the press tent for the post-race men’s conference Monday afternoon, many of whom were reporters from niche publications.

Fans literally sprinted from spot to spot in order to follow the runners through the two races.

Fans literally sprinted from spot to spot in order to follow the runners through the two races.

A few daily newspapers covered the cross country championships. The Terre Haute Tribune-Star’s Craig Pearson did an excellent job covering an event in his backyard by filing three solid stories after the race, including a short piece on a local runner who finished 196th.

But niche pubs, for the most part, dominated coverage. Runner’s World, a monthly magazine, regularly covers events like this on its news section and in a fine blog written by Peter Gambaccini. In addition, Flotrack offered dozens of pre- and post-race video interviews. You can also get more solid cross country coverage from runnersweb.com and trackshark.com, which sent two journalists to the championships – one to take videos and another to record words. Trackshark also features blogs from runners, something more and more athletes are doing (some, like a Maryland field hockey player, do this on their own.)

How long will it be before most mainstream news publications cease to cover events like this at all? Or until sports gets even more fragmented? Daily newspapers are creating more and more blogs to focus on specific sports, to offer news on local college and professional teams, and to more intensely report on prep sports. Where does that leave sports like field hockey, cross country or lacrosse? Coverage in prep roundups or college sports blogs. The serious fan will have to look elsewhere.

Cross-country fans in cities like Washington, D.C., Birmingham. Ala., and Phoenix, Ariz., did not get much beyond a short roundup from AP – or less in print. USA Today covered the event, filing a 200-plus word story that ran on the bottom of page 5C. Fans did not fare much better in some towns in Oregon and Washington where teams won championships.

The void will be filled by online publications willing to devote resources to a sport that receives little attention elsewhere. You may want to snag a beat covering these sports yourself because you never know where your career will lead. Someday, you may be chasing down Olympians like Rupp and Kipyego, offering stories to a growing (and fanatical) readership.

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