So there you are at your local orienteering event!

Your friend, loved-one, or a teammate has just punched into the starting control, been presented with their map, and is off into the forest. You scream encouragement as they clip-in and zoom off down the trail, then stand there in silence as you now realize you have some time to kill before you see them again. If there was only some way to know how they were doing, where they were on the course, and actually know how close they were to the lead.

But alas, you — the orienteer spectator — know full well that once your racer disappears into the woods, you will have virtually no clue where they are, or how they did competitively, for at least an hour or more. Chances are, the results will take even longer, making the sport of orienteering one of the least spectator-friendly sports in the world.

Many other sports throughout history have gone through this very same problem (e.g. Cross Country Running, Triathlon, XTERRA, Paintball, Mountain Biking, Road Biking, Car Racing, Fencing, and Adventure Racing). Some have found that there are significant advantages to spectator-friendly offerings while others have reserved themselves to remaining on the margins of a multi-billion dollar sports industry. Fortunately, there is a growing interest among orienteering federations and race promoters alike to make foot, mountain bike, and ski orienteering more spectator-friendly.

However, not everyone agrees in making the sport appeal to spectators, or if they do, how it should be done. This has led to a growing (and often heated) debate among orienteers on the future of our sport. The question is simple: do we adapt, innovate, and start producing events that are spectator-friendly for the sake of growing orienteering? Or do we maintain the fundamental traditions, competitive formats, and culture of orienteering in order to preserve the legacy of a sport that has stayed relatively unchanged for almost a hundred years?

Change Formats or Die!
I would argue that the “change or die” argument on formats has already been decided. However, it does not mean that we cannot have both. Take for example the sport of Paintball. Paintball went from back-woods scenario play to multi-million dollar arena tournaments by providing spectator-friendly formats. Did scenario paintball in the deep woods disappear in favor of arena paintball? No, sir! One could argue that scenario paintball is bigger than ever thanks to arena paintball that brought with it TV coverage, sponsorships, production quality DVDs, and technological advancements in all aspects of the sport.

Like Paintball, orienteering must learn from this example. By creating sprint-style orienteering events SEPARATE from the traditional “deep woods” events will certainly appeal to a more spectator-friendly environment. Proposals are already being discussed within the International Orienteering Federation (IOF) about splitting the World Orienteering Championships into a just that: either a Sprint WOC or Traditional WOC held on alternating years. This certainly would not mean that traditional formats would go away. Just like in Paintball, the addition of the shorter distance “spectator-friendly” formats would open up new venue choices that may have been overlooked in the past. These could include sports stadiums (using man-made terrain features), college campuses, inner-city recreational parks, and less-wooded or open acreage.

The new formats could also do something traditional orienteering has failed to do: create a demand for live orienteering via cable TV and the Internet. This in turn could lead orienteering to finally be accepted as a competitive sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Taking orienteering to the mainstream via spectator-friendly formats could directly impact the IOC’s consideration when it comes to including orienteering in a future Olympic Games. But to do this, the orienteering community as-a-whole would have to embrace the concept that spectator-friendly versions of the sport are not the death of traditional orienteering, but merely an off-shoot of orienteering that will certainly act as a “gateway” to traditional events.

Change Technology or Die!
Technology is already changing orienteering as we know it. The World Orienteering Championships in every discipline (but primarily in Foot, Mountain Bike, and Skiing) have already served as the laboratory for orienteering innovation for well over a decade now. The WOC was the first event to introduce the “big screen” concept to spectators. It was also the first orienteering event to introduce a race design concept that forced racers through the spectator areas multiple times during a race and the first to feature live online TV coverage of orienteering competitions. Let’s also not forget that it was the first event to bring play-by-play style announcing, near real-time GPS tracking, AND big screen route following of competitors during the WMOC in Israel in 2010 (and now the WSOC in 2011)! So much for “traditional orienteering”!

With all the innovation that has already impacted orienteering, someone from even the 1990s might not recognize the sport as we know it today. However, advancements in orienteering technology only serve to make traditional styles of orienteering enjoyable to watch from a spectator’s point of view. It also lends itself to making announcing, timing, and filming easier for the event promoter while keeping competitors happy with challenging course designs and unique venues. This in turn helps orienteering organizers create an entertainment environment that is sure to attract new competitors and spectators alike. No longer does my wife has to worry where I am or how I’m doing out on the course. She can watch my progress from a big-screen TV as I make route choices from control to control. She can see when I checked in to what control and when. Know who’s ahead of me and who’s behind me. She can even see me attack a control via cameras or know when its time to break out the cowbell from my final sprint to the finish.

That doesn’t even bring into consideration the simple peace-of-mind the event organizer receives by knowing when and where every competitor is located. The safety angle alone is worth the expense. But it also allows an event to build momentum, capitalize on the drama of the sport, and make an orienteering event exciting! Face it, technology and spectator-friendly go hand-in-hand. Just imagine the day when a spectator can follow their favorite orienteer from start to finish — complete with real-time tracking, video feeds, biometric status reports, placement, and commentary — at a forested park via their iPad!

Change Revenue or Die!
Professional sports have no problem charging spectators a fee for admission. Many sporting events provide prime seating, a great view of the action, entertainment, food, and an experience that is often worth the price of the seat. However, outdoor sporting events — especially amateur sports like orienteering — have struggled with charging spectators an entry fee. In the United States, secondary schools have no problem charging around US$5.00 for admission to a football game while admission to an NCAAF Division 1A College, or even an NFL-level American football game, can cost you around US$50.00 to US$100.00 for the cheap seats.

When comparing that to an orienteering event, a spectator would be hard-pressed to pay unless they were getting an approximate level of entertainment value in return. If you charge admission to an event where you only see each competitor start and finish, with no context regarding the level of competition, surges, or why you should even care when someone comes into the finish, you might not have many people sticking around to watch your event. However, if you added a format that was spectator-friendly, or included the technology that made the event enjoyable to a spectator, there may be a greater degree of willingness to pay-for-entry.

This could also include “spectator-friendly attractions” such as live music, event-only clothing sales, and vendor-specific food (my favorite is having Red, Hot, and Blue bring their little trailer down to serve BBQ pulled-pork sandwiches — always a crowd-pleaser). Enhancements to a race are always a welcome addition to those who have to stay behind while “daddy” goes off into the woods for a while.

It also adds to the social aspect of the event itself. Spectators get to mingle, talk among themselves, and eventually end up cheering for everyone when they are actively engaged in the event. Can you remember the last orienteering event you were in where a crowd cheered you as you arrived at the finish control? Me neither. But in a spectator-friendly environment, EVERY competitor can not only be announced as they come into the finish but can allow the audience to get excited as others start cheering on their racer to pass other racers on the course. It is this type of environment that people WILL pay a small fee to be part of.

Like it or not, the demand for more spectator-friendly orienteering is already here. Technology has already changed traditional orienteering into a more competitive and interactive sport. This change has allowed spectators to demand more information about when and where competitors are at on the course and how they rank against others on the course.

Once spectators start becoming engaged within the competitive environment of the sport, it is only natural that this demand would evolve into a desire to see the event — in its entirety — LIVE! And the more LIVE and EXCITING an event organizer can make it, the more comfortable spectators will become with paying to see it.

Posted by Tommy Dauntless

Dauntless has been mountain bike racing, adventure racing, and orienteering for over 20+ years and has been building and directing mountain bike races for the better part of two decades. He was the first race director to design and direct MTBO races in the United States in 2010, and help launch the entire Orienteering USA effort to send athletes to the World MTBO Championships. His love for MTBO comes from competing in MTBO in Australia and wanted to bring the sport of MTBO to America.