Running At The Front
Let’s start by making something clear: front running can mean a lot of things in sports.
My brother, for example, is a front runner. Alright, fine, more accurately, he was a frontrunner. In 1992-93, at the tender age of seven, he chose his favorite sports teams. Take a wild guess, of the major North American sports rolling at the time, which teams he chose. Bingo. Super Bowl winners Dallas Cowboys, Stanley Cup winners, Montreal Canadiens, and World Series winners, Toronto Blue Jays. Had he cared about basketball, I’m confident he would have picked the Chiago Bulls, but I digress.
In sports terms, a front runner is someone that looks to be at the front of the pack. If everyone is talking about sabermetrics, they try to learn everything about it and be into it first. When fantasy sports were taking off, they were in five leagues. Remember when New Era hats became cool? Front runners were there.
As an athlete, front running comes to mean something slightly different. It has more to do with a particular set of skills, a style or mentality. It’s definition is this:
1. ahead in a race or other competition.
a. (of an athlete or horse) running best when in front of the field.
Or, as I like to put it:
2. The act of seizing initiative, being first, or setting the pace in relation to their opposition.
You see what I’m going for here? Examples of some great front runners include Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Jones Jr., and Randy Moss. Or how about a contemporary front runner like Steph Curry who sets out to take six three pointers in his first seven shots and bury opponents? Or my personal favorite, Kenyan long-distance runners (pun intended).
Except front running can also be a team thing. The New England Patriots come immediately to mind. Remember their 2008 undefeated regular season? Front running on crack. They didn’t just try to beat teams, they were trying to pace them; or paste them, depending on how you look at it. Their average margin of victory? 19.7 points. Get the idea?
A historical example is the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980’s. With Wayne Gretzky at the helm, they poured the offence on teams. Ice rinks became track meets as Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and the boys looked to pour on historical goal tallies and bury their opposition — most of the the time which they did.
This weekend, one of the great front runners in sports was on full, gorgeous display: ‘The Notorious’ Conor McGregor. McGregor is the king of front running in MMA because he’s also the blueprint of the unflappable front runner. Other MMA front runners include Ronda Rousey and Daniel Cormier.
McGregor, like all great front runners, chooses to work at a pace and aggression that forces — nay, requires — his opponents to try to meet him or else he runs them over. Even when they do meet his pace, he runs them over. It’s why his calling so many of his fights to end within two rounds is hardly a prediction but a very, very informed calculation.
Front runners don’t plan to win in the 15 minutes of a fight, the 60 minutes of a football, hockey or basketball game or 90 minutes of a soccer game. They plan to put you so far back so quickly, you’re only path to victory would be Pyrrhic. Want to win? Put yourself at hazard.
There has been a steady rise in the front running mentality in recent years. One of the main reasons is because of its inherent entertainment value. Sports leagues want teams to score. If they don’t score, they want them to play fast. If they don’t play fast, they want them taking chances. All of these things are characteristic of a front runner.
The NHL made huge changes to their game after the 2004 lockout because teams were actively taking the back running path, playing defence and winning slow. The NFL’s boom in popularity (cough, profitability) came when they encouraged QB’s to throw through a variety of alterations to their game. The NBA has never been more fun to watch because teams run the court and shoot three’s at a rate that makes you wonder if the ball has a detonator attached to it.
Front running has a spiritual relationship with offence. Because offence is fun for fans. Have you ever noticed how fans boo when their football team runs three consecutive downs when they have the lead late in the 4th? Not much offence there. Boring, right? Front runners tend to pour on the offence.
Except there are really boring front runners, too. Front running is rooted in arrogance. It’s saying, ‘I don’t think you’re good enough to handle me.’ Some of the best front runners are front runners because they do the same thing over and over again because no one can stop them from doing it. Which, you know, can be really, really boring.
The king of conservative front runners is Floyd Mayweather Jr. Mayweather achieved a peak of front running when he began flexing his bargaining power late in his career and famously fighting in rings 400 square feet — whereas a typical ring size is between 256 to 300 square feet. In other words, Mayweather only needs to utilize his legendary elusiveness in a ring the size of his ego to make opponents look like fools. That’s front running 101.
Or how about the Pittsburgh Steelers of the Steel Curtain era in the 1970’s? Or the Chicago Bears in the mid-80’s? Violent, aggressive defences anchored by smashmouth running offences. They beat you up early and ran away from you as the game progressed.
The fundamental key to front running is an indomitable will. Like a racehorse with blinkers on, a substantial front runner ignores the critics, ignores when their pace slows, ignores when an opponent begins to eek back into the contest.
Lacking this will, front running can be ugly — a dirty flip side to the coin. The pace and aggression with which they operate can put them can become a detriment if they don’t see immediate results. Their trademark is inherently risky. If they fail to do what they they seek to do, they are left looking silly and over matched (See: Ronda Rousey v. Holly Holm, New England Patriots v. New York Giants).
The narrative of a front runner can lose the popularity contest. It’s called the underdog narrative, if there is anything sports fans love more than a winner it’s a comeback story. The Patriots losing to the Giants in the 2008 Super Bowl was a story as much because they lost a perfect season as the Giants went toe-to-toe with a hyper aggressive favorite.
Front running has been around as long has there has been sports. Now if you will excuse me, I believe the Golden State Warriors are playing. They’re great television.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb @NPBroadcaster