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The Tour de France and Long Tail Sports

24 Jul 2006

Floyd Landis, a former mountain biker from San Diego, won the Tour de France yesterday. He achieved this through one of the most extraordinary rides in modern Tour history: a 125 kilometer solo break over four Alpine climbs to gain back nearly eight minutes. He is just the third American to wear the yellow jersey in Paris, with Greg Le Mond and Lance Armstrong. And it didn’t make the front page of CNN.com.

It’s often suggested that American’s don’t follow professional cycling because it’s a “fringe” sport. It’s not. More people ride bikes in this country than play football, baseball, or basketball. But what’s more interesting to me is how coverage of the sport I love has gotten so much better in a media landscape exploded into a long tail.

Steven Johnson wrote about this recently, suggesting that audiences become more defined and narrow, the coverage of their subject swings to expert conversation:

There's more information conveyed in shorter amounts of time, with less hand-holding from the creators. It occurred to me reading The Long Tail that the general trend from mass to niche can explain some of this increased complexity: niches can speak to each other in shorthand; they don't have to spell everything out.

So true. The Tour’s coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle was embarrassingly naive: short wire store rewrites buried deep in the sport section, defining “peloton” every day as the “main pack of riders.”

But US television coverage of the Tour on Outdoor Life Network acknowledges this. They provide a live broadcast of each stage in the early morning hours here in the US. The commentary is provided by Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin - two former racers who are beloved by the cycling community as the voices of the Tour. They do an amazing job of providing insight and color, but with shorthand and jargon aimed directly at fans of the sport.

Later each day, OLN reruns the stage with pedantic commentary from Al Trautwig. The coverage is laced with explanations of why the cyclist ride so close to each other, how the teams work, and other basic concepts. Imagine John Madden telling you why the players “huddle” during the Superbowl. True fans just Tivo Phil and Paul.

Of course, I don’t get my cycling coverage from the Chronicle nor color commentary from Tautwig. But it does make me wonder. If their reporting is this bad on a subject I’m close to, is it for everything? Why would I turn to a general interest media source for any news?

Slowly but surely, media is changing. And I couldn’t be happier. ​

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