Distance running and endurance sports have long struggled to establish a foothold with television coverage. Between the monotony of hours-long exercise and vanilla backstories of cloistered elite athletes, the events rarely make riveting stories. But when NBC began broadcasting the Spartan Race, a grueling eight-plus mile competition through strength- and will-testing barriers, the network knew it had broke the mold. The first year of coverage reaches its peak with the Spartan Race World Championship November 16 at 3 pm eastern on NBC.
Five thoroughly produced shows leading up to the Championships have been aired since June on NBC Sports, and were met with enthusiasm. The question is, why produce a show about Spartan and not another of the dozens of obstacle races out there? According to Senior Vice President of NBC Sports, Rob Simmelkiaer, the answer boils down to competition.
Obstacles in the Spartan race — wire crawls, rope climbs, mud pits, stone carries, — have been replicated elsewhere, but the air of competitiveness that Spartan Race attracts is singular. While Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash participants focus on camaraderie and finishing as a team, Spartans focus on victory. And this is why the event makes great television. “Elite athletes are showing up to this race, not just to have a good time, but to win,” says, Simmelkiaer, who himself has completed a Spartan Race.
The appeal does not simply lie in watching others push their bodies to the limit, but also in the accessibility of the sport. “If I sit down and watch the NBA, even if I’m twenty-years old, I’m never going to be like Lebron James,” says Simmelkiaer. “But with Spartan Race, I can be a top athlete if I put my mind to it and work at it.”
A reality TV production slant deepens this sense of familiarity. Featured competitors are telegenic men and women from all walks of life, and the audience is given their stories through genuinely moving interviews. We watch the athletes drag stones, swim, and sweat, as they narrate their own journeys to the Spartan Race. It’s the quality of coverage that we’d expect from a broadcast company that Joe De Sena, founder of the Spartan Race, calls, “the ultimate TV brand.”
“When you think NBC," he says, "you think Olympics. NBC is synonymous with sport.”
For De Sena, the Spartan Race coverage is a major step in solidifying his own brand. “It’s a big deal for us. This is a 14-year-old startup, developed by a team of true Spartans. The goal was to make the Spartan Race credible. To do that we needed a bigger platform.” De Sena hopes this show moves his event series in the direction of his ultimate goal: establishing the race in the Olympics.
But for now, the Spartan Race’s broadcasts reveal a quiet shift in the way society relates to sports. As awe-inspiring as it is to watch genetic freaks perform feats of grace and athleticism we couldn’t dream of accomplishing, there is a separate and undeniable giddiness that comes from watching someone we can relate to conquer an event through sheer force of will and training. We look at the Spartan Race athletes and see our own potential. According to De Sena, it’s downright necessary. “This show is a call to action, he says. "We want to get people off the couch.”