A lesson in small content with big impact

By: Rob Corbidge, 19 October 2023

Mountain biking helmet on a downhill track

If a sport full of drama is not keeping all its fans engaged, who better than the competitors themselves to come to the rescue?

What happens when the coverage of an exciting sport fails to provide all its fans with the content they want? Can it ever? Maybe not, but it turns out that video content produced by some of its own competitors can help fill the void - and give a timely lesson in thinking small not big.

Long story, short: World Cycling's governing body the UCI  made a new deal for coverage of the World Mountain Bike World Cup Series last year, bringing in a TV deal with Warner's Discovery Sports.

The coverage from the first season of the deal has left some fans less than overjoyed. Complaints included that live coverage lacked insight, that camera placement on courses had been poorly considered, and that the actual structure of events over the three days of racing was leading to anti-climactic conclusions, particularly in Mountain Biking's marquee show, the dangerous and exciting Elite Downhill event.

To be fair, Discovery have taken over the mantle from Red Bull, masters of portraying the world of action sports in which participants accept the risk and do it anyway. It may take them time to find their feet, as it would in any sport.

Yet this perceived void in coverage has been filled in a way that forced me to stop and ask: What is good sports coverage?

Enter the professional rider who sidelines as a video journalist. These are people who routinely push themselves to the limit in training and races while having a camera attached to their helmets, often capturing useful training information such as their course lines or techniques, or plain old "hugeys" - a massive crash from which you walk, or limp away.

Clearly, a number of more outgoing riders have seen the value of their ever-present GoPros to also produce their own informal content for YouTube or similar, seeing a gap the official broadcasts aren't filling for some fans.

Consequently for many fans the season of racing just gone has been largely enhanced by some trackside content and interviews created by riders themselves, unscripted and informal with minimal production values - and all the more insightful for it.

It's the immediacy and intimacy of the coverage that gives this rough-cut coverage value. The official coverage and interviews seem to lack the energy you get from a breathless competitor complaining to a rival in colourful terms that his run would have been better if he had not "hit a rock the size of a baby's head" and speared off into a tree. 

It's natural and funny. They share inside jokes and semi-cheesily plug stuff from sponsors, capture arguments in the pits and the work of the mechanics and teams to care for riders and machines, the streaks of mud and steam of sweat on a cold day, and revelations over who has the best food or even the best access to the governing body.

Lastly, it's about the riders themselves, and the rivalry, regard, and camaraderie they have for one another. When the content is being made by "their own" then the guard drops somewhat, and the complexities and relationships in a sport that travels across continents to race in all conditions are just that bit easier to understand.

Even if the official broadcaster knocks it out of the stratosphere next season, this more chaotic coverage has proven its worth. Its rise is partly a result of technology with images and audio being easy to capture well, and partly a result of a change in content literacy - fans are more used to it and know where to find it.

Obviously this isn't applicable to all sports, particularly those that enjoy huge global audiences and scrutinise the minutiae of its participants' actions more closely for what someone somewhere might call indiscretions. Yet if all coverage is sterilised, I fear there's something being lost in the fans ability to relate to those they watch.