Derailing the Beer Mile Hype-Train

(Preface: I wrote this blog a week ago after I was involved in a Twitter discussion regarding the potential popularity of the beer mile. I was frustrated, had lots of thoughts that I needed to get off my chest, but in the end decided not to post it. Today, I changed my mind when, after not hearing the word “beer mile” for three days, my boss (who has no knowledge of running or track and field) asked me if I was considering becoming a beer miler. Here are my two cents:)

For those who have managed to live under a rock for the past two weeks (I’m jealous), I’ll catch you up to speed. Over the past few months, this niche activity called the Beer Mile (which consists of running four laps and drinking four beers as quickly as possible) has been everywhere. Its gone from a non-competitive social activity and has turned into a professional event, with sponsors, world championships, and plenty of media attention. Within the last two years, the world record went from a relatively unchallenged 5:07 down to a very competitive 4:47. After setting the record, Lewis Kent signed a contract with Brooks, was interviewed by most major sports news sites likes ESPN & Sports Illustrated, and made an appearance on Ellen.

All this didn’t bother me too much. I met Kent this year, he’s a good guy. I’ve also spectated a bunch of beer miles, and they’re a ton of fun. I tuned into this years and last years FloTrack coverage of the beer mile world championships, and thought they did a really great job with it. I’d also like to preface my upcoming rant by saying that drinking four beers + running four laps in less than 5 minutes is very very impressive. It’s something that obviously took a lot of training, and I’m glad to see Kent getting lots attention for it.

Here’s what did irritate me: “media & marketing experts” like ESPN’s Darren Rovell saying that the beer mile will one day become bigger than track and field. He made the claim that beer milers can be more marketable than regular track athletes, and that popularity of beer miles will surpass that of regular miles.

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Darren, I respect you, but you’re wrong. Beer miles and athletics cannot (and should not) be compared. They are two separate entities, one with a long, rich history that dates back to the ancient olympic games, the other a bastardization of the worlds most prehistoric sport.

Here’s why the current rise in beer mile popularity does not signify the END OF TRACK AND FIELD as we know it:

  • The beer mile is currently going through a perfect storm of media attention, which led to Lewis appearing on Ellen. While he was able to benefit massively by being the best at the right time, there is no staying power. It’s not like every world record holder from now on will appear on a talk show. The beer mile went from being a niche activity to a viral sensation, and will now go back to being a niche activity.
  • The beer mile is not a new event. People have been doing them since at least the 80’s, and the idea of combining racing and drinking isn’t a new one. My dad took part is a few 2-mile beer runs in Buffalo, NY in the early 80’s that involved running through the streets of downtown drinking beer every 400m. Why did these types of races die out? The answer to that question might help predict the future of the beer mile.
  • Runners aren’t the first to combine their sport with drinking. Introducing the Single Speed Cyclocross World Championships (http://sscxwc.com), an extremely popular event that puts a fun spin on traditional cyclocross. Billed as the “wildest, most devil-may-care spirit of cyclocross”, competitors traverse challenging courses while stopping at various stations to chug beer and take shots of liquor. While the event has become increasingly popular amongst a niche crowd, ssxcwc hasn’t come near the popularity of traditional cyclocross (Video of this years cyclocross IS however worth a watch ).
  • There’s a stigma that comes with associating drinking and professional sports. As impressive as it is to combine a near four minute mile with incredibly quick beer drinking, people won’t ever consider it a real sport if it involves drinking. It’s something that gains the publics interest due to novelty, they’ll watch it one time, be awed by it, and move on.
  • Saying that beer milers have more marketing potential than regular milers is an especially ludicrous claim given that we’re going into an Olympic year. Over half the worlds population will tune into the Olympic games in Rio this summer, and there will be billions of dollars made in total revenue. Given that athletics is one of (if not THE) the main event(s) of the summer Olympics, track and field is about to benefit tremendously in 2016. Elite athletes that qualify for the games this summer will have the opportunity to provide their sponsors more international exposure than any elite beer miler could ever possibly imagine. I’m upset with myself for even having to address this issue.

There are however, several lessons to be learned from beer miles recent popularity. In my opinion, the fact that the event was able to become a viral sensation in the first place is a good sign for track and field. In the end, it means that people do have a general understanding of what a good mile time is (most people associate 4 minutes= good). They appreciate how difficult it is to combine four beers and still break five minutes. It also shows that “beer” is a sexy word that, when associated with (less sexy) words like “running”, it attracts attention.

I think this proves that there needs to be continued emphasis placed on mile races in North America. While the 1500m is the Olympic distance, people can’t relate to it. The general public didn’t run the 1500m in their high school gym class. People don’t know what an elite 1500 time is, but they could probably tell you who was the first to run a sub 4 minute mile. Substituting the mile for the 1500 in more and more events will be one big key to increasing interest in the general population. (EDIT 12/19/15: In light of the NCAA’s recent decision to change the 1500m to the mile at the outdoor national championships, let me make my position on the matter more clear. Yes, the mile is great, and yes it’s got public appeal. However, the 1500m should still be the chosen distance in championship events to reflect whats being done at the international level (Worlds, Olympics). My other major concern with this decision is that meets like Payton Jordan and Mt Sac might now switch to the mile. Since these collegiate meets are popular among elites for achieving qualifying times, I’m okay with the switch so long as championship meets like the trials, Worlds, and the Olympics accept the mile as a qualifying time.)

The beer mile also helps prove that making track and field more of an “event” helps increase popularity. Meets in Europe are fun (and better attended) because there’s food trucks, beer is served, music is playing, and it’s generally more geared towards the spectator. Meets in North America need to innovate, and serving beer trackside is a must.

With all this being said, I must admit that i’ll be ending my down week on Saturday by running my first ever beer mile. After all the hype the past few weeks, our groups decided that we’ve got to take a crack at it. Then, I’ll go back to being a serious athlete again, with my sights set squarely on the main event (RIORIORIO).

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Photo from XC Nationals Nov. 28th.

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