I was never alone as I churned through Manhattan, my pistoning arms propelling me around the park and then down the west side of the island during the 2017 New York City Half Marathon. When the hills of Central Park shot me out down 7th Ave. and into Times Square I may have had my head down, scouring the road for rough patches and staying low in the icy breeze, but the view of the immortal city that I was missing was being broadcast live for the rest of the world to enjoy. A small, wideangle camera mounted on the back of my racing frame beamed a livestream of my race to a receiver on motor scooter trailing closely behind me. The unit on the scooter relayed the video to the production team in their cozy truck at the finish line, who then invited to world to sit on my shoulder as I raced.
I may have had a poor race (in my eyes), but all anyone brought up after the race was how amazing the video looked. It was the first time that footage shot from a camera mounted to a racer was used in a live broadcast (ABC used the footage in both their local and international feeds of the race), and it was a HUGE success in the process of growing wheelchair racing through greater marketability.
As a relatively young sport--with its roots in the post-war rehabilitation of the 1950s and beginning to take its position as an elite level sport by the late 80s--wheelchair racing is still polishing its value proposition. What can we, as a sport and as athletes, offer that is unique, entertaining, and marketable? How can we carve out our corner of the professional sporting world?
There are very few truly "professional" wheelchair racers racing in the current circuit. While some exceptional talents have been able to leverage success on the field to sponsorship dollars off it, most full-time racers (those with no other significant income producing job outside of racing) are only able to support themselves through funding from government institutions. Most nations outside of the USA have some form of government funded sporting body that invests in Olympic and Paralympic sport. Athletes living in those nations receive varying levels of annual funding based on criteriaset out by their sporting institution. Nations will offer athletes annual stipends of $20-$70,000 based on the athlete's level of performance in return for that athlete representing their nation in certain competitions throughout the year. Many nations will also reward athletes with significant bonuses for landing on the podium in Olympic, Paralympic, and World Championship events, and an increasing number of nations are imposing parity in funding for Paralympians and Olympians.
This system is great for the choice few athletes who have done well at the most recent Olympics/Paralympics/World Championships, and will probably guarantee an acceptable minimum performance baseline into perpetuity. The Olympic sports that have been the most successful and prosperous for their participants, however, are typically the ones that remain relevant as professional sports outside of the four year cycle (with the obvious exception of gymnastics); sports that have figured how to survive in the open market of entertainment.
Track and Field is the most Olympic of Olympic sports, but the reason that Nike money keeps flowing during the three year interim between Games years is because of the Diamond League, an annual race circuit that gives athletes ample opportunity to fill stadiums, wow crowds, and survive as professional athletes.
For an established sport like Track and Field it is an easy task to create a professional venue for their athletes. People have loved watching athletes run, jump, and throw since the ancient games. Their value proposition is simple. Everyone on the planet has at some point in time tried to run, jump, or throw something. We all know how difficult this is to do well, and we all agree that it is fun enough watching insane athletes complete these tasks better than we ever could, that we will spend money to see it live, or turn on our TVs to watch it at home. The sport is currently playing with new ideas to boost their value as a televised sporting event in non-traditional track towns (Nitro Athletics Melbourne recently experimented with an up-tempo made for TV track meet), but there are plenty of cities around the world that can sellout stadiums every June, July, and August for some elite track action.
The path is a bit trickier for a sport like wheelchair racing. We are a part of the Track and Field world in the sense that we participate in the same distance events in the same venues, but we are not really a part of them. After years spent on the fringes of competitions controlled by our able-bodied counterparts--offered one event here, or an exhibition race there--we broke our first barrier into professional inclusion last year. The key was getting off the track and hitting the road. The World Marathon Majors, a race series taking place over six marathons (Tokyo, London, Boston, Berlin, Chicago, and New York City) and two years, and their title sponsor, Abbott, created an elite wheelchair division for their tenth series of the event. Series X, which began in Boston in 2015 and will end in Boston in 2017, introduced an elite wheelchair category that mimicked the running category in terms of rules and points, but would take place over six marathons in *one* year rather than *two* (wheelchair racers need less recovery than runners, allowing us to do far more marathons in a year... more on this to come in future blogs).
While the track and field community had long held us at arms length, the road racing community has harbored opportunity for "professional" racing; athletes racing for prize money. The introduction to Series X cemented the idea that the greater marathoning community had reached a point where they not only accepted us as participants in their races, but as professional competitors, training fulltime and racing to *win* not *finish*. Road races have been offering prize purses to attract talent for over 30 years, however that was on a race by race basis. Being a part of the Abbott World Marathon Races are carving out space in, or increasing their budgets to include us, and we are gaining an increasing presence in media around the race. They opened a door for us, and now it is our responsibility to make sure it never closes.
It is very important, at this juncture, for wheelchair racers to be able to clearly state and support our value proposition. The most beautiful thing about marathoning is that it is an egalitarian event. Everyone runs the same course, at the same time, whether you are gunning for a 2 hour marathon or a 7 hour, or whether you are running on two feet, one foot, no feet, or in a racing chair. Sponsors of these races love that they will be in front of the eyeballs of 30-50,000 runners, their families, and the thousands of spectators along the course. Broadcasters, however, get their value by being able to feature the best runners on the planet pushing human endurance to its limits. Elite runners can demand upwards of $20,000 just to start a race, with the top runners pulling $50-$70,000 (race dependent). These are compelling stories because, as we stated earlier, people can relate to the pain, suffering, and natural high that accompanies distance running. They may not be able to compare to the elite runners on an physical level, but it is easy for them to sympathize.
This statement does not hold true for wheelchair racing. Until recently, the only stories that ever interested the media were bent on *overcoming,* as in; "so-and-so overcame a horrific accident as a child to be out here participating today." The general public has long found it difficult to separate the disability from the equation to allow themselves to see the athletic side, and there is little empathy for the amount, and intensity, of the training we do to run a sub-1:30 marathon, or have to consistently finish races in a dead sprint. Change is apparent. The ability to relate to a wheelchair racer is gradually increasing, however until it is on par with our able-bodied counterparts we need to define our value in other ways.
Back in New York, spectators riding on my shoulder can see the steel and glass laden skyline fly down the left side on the screen as I head down the West Side Highway, One World Trace Center looming in the distance. The image being blasted to millions of tvs and computers across the globe captures my upper back, head, and arms in the bottom third of the frame. Sponsor names are scrawled across my back and helmet jump, in pristine high definition color, from each of those screens. As we continue to perfect an onboard camera we increasingly raise our value proposition. People may not know what it is like to push a racing wheelchair, but they all agree that it is envigorating to watch a pack of racing chairs thundering down the road, bumping, jostling for position, feeling out the right time to attack, or waiting to respond, and occasionally crashing. Our races are entertaining as races even before spectators learn how relatable we are as humans and athletes. It is not such a bad value proposition when we can offer this high a level of access for both sponsors and spectators to a sport with increasingly evident entertainment value.
Here's to the future of the professional wheelchair racer.