The Verdict: Payette River Games On CBS Sports (Good? Bad? Totally Awesome?)

 

UPDATE: You can now watch the full replay of the CBS Sports broadcast.

>> Watch the 2015 Payette River Games online

Original article below…

Payette River Games CBS

In case you’ve been living under a rock the past week, you’d know that Saturday was the world premiere of the Payette River Games on CBS Sports Network.

I was up in Idaho last month and got to witness the PRGs in all their glory. In person, the 2015 Payette River Games was an awesome spectacle. Not only is it one of the most well organised races in the world, the PRGs are definitely one of the most exciting to watch. It’s perhaps the most exciting race in the world of SUP racing.

The whole contest takes place in a short, sharp arena, with a mini ampitheatre giving a great view of the action. The river is so tight and technical that you could literally high five the competitors as they go through certain parts of the course. The format and conditions keep it unpredictably interesting – you don’t know the winner until the final seconds of the final race. Oh and the athletes were totally spoilt by the organisers. I’ve never seen paddlers get looked after this well before.

So buoyed by this real world excitement and emotion, I was very interested to see how Payette would look on the small screen.

The short version: It was awesome. Even ignoring the amazing fact that our little sport managed to get a full hour of prime weekend airtime on a network dominated by football and basketball, the production lived up to the hype and really did the race and the athletes justice.

My longer review is below, but before I get into the finer details, here’s a small snippet of the show in case you missed it.


The action on the water was amazing. We already knew that, but the broadcast really hammered home just how skillful today’s top paddlers are. This event simply wouldn’t have worked five years ago.

The hour-long broadcast did a great job of summarising the event. It skipped a few parts of the story, but the crew only had an hour (actually probably more like 50 minutes factoring in ad breaks) so you couldn’t really fit it all in. And plus this was being made for a more mainstream audience, so addressing every one of the finer points of SUP racing wasn’t necessary. And either way, the PRGs broadcast was a lot easier to follow than the only other SUP broadcast on CBS Sports, the 2015 Ultimate SUP Showdown, which felt very disjointed on TV (and in real life).

The Payette River Games broadcast production values were fantastic. Very slick. Endless camera angles and sharp editing, along with very cool (and informative) on screen graphics. The on board camera was my favourite – it worked to perfection when Dane Jackson made his killer move up the inside during one of the critical heats of the SUP Cross.

The commentary was awesome. Led by whitewater expert Ken Hoeve alongside SUP legend Dave Kalama, in addition to sideline reporter Shannon Camp, the commentary team made it that much more engaging, exciting and interesting. My personal favourites were Dave’s classic little one liners, such as “Just like my hamburger on the 4th of July, this heat is stacked” that he used to describe one of the more competitive heat lineups.

Payette River Games CBS Sports

The best action was probably in the quarters and semi-finals of the SUP Cross, where the contests were tightest and the most frequent lead changes were happening. The final of the men’s SUP Cross was almost anti-climactic, simply because Mo Freitas was so dominant. Just goes to show how amazing Mo’s performance was. Mo also gave one of the best victory speeches I’ve seen – it looked like the young guy was close to tears, as I’m sure many of the viewers were when they witnessed it.

I actually remember thinking this guy had an attitude when I first saw him on the scene a few years ago (this was before I’d even spoken to him I should add…). However I quickly learned to love the kid from Oahu – who was affectionately nicknamed Idamo at the PRGs – after spending more time with him and his family over the past couple of seasons. Mo has become a young champion both on and off the water, while he’s also become one of the best all-round paddlers in the world. There are very few guys (maybe Kai? Zane?) that could keep up with Mo across a combination of all the major SUP racing disciplines (river/downwind/surf/ocean/flat/sprint/middle/long).

I was also stoked to see Jonas Lettieri get on the CBS Sports broadcast. Jonas is a double amputee from Brazil that inspired the entire field at Payette, before receiving a sponsorship from the host venue, Kelly’s Whitewater Park. Jonas’ move in one of the knockout SUP Cross heats, where he jumped from 4th to 1st to produce the loudest cheer of the entire event, got plenty of screen time.

The women’s event didn’t really get much play compared with the men’s (I’d say it was about 70% men’s racing, 30% women’s), though when you consider that only 27% of the assembled competitors were women, you could argue that it was proportional. And keep in mind that organisers split their world record $50,000 prize purse evenly between the guys and the girls.

I would have loved to have seen more footage of the whitewater carnage, though I guess it’s a fine line between making it look like a serious athletic contest and a comedic destruction derby. But yeah, there were some epic crashes through the main whitewater feature that would have looked great in full HD.

Payette River Games stand up paddle race

There was also enough time to give more background on the athletes: Their major race wins, world rankings, rivalries, injuries, etc. Again, I suppose it’s a fine line when you’re catering to a more mainstream audience that doesn’t know anything about the sport (and wouldn’t care about the little details as much as we do).

I also would have REALLY liked to have seen an online streaming/on demand version (particularly for the international fans). I haven’t owned a TV in over a decade, so watching something *not* on the internet was a little odd. Though hopefully the broadcast piqued the interest of the every day sports fans, to whom this broadcast was clearly aimed and who we really need to attract if we wanna grow the SUP racing industry.

Above all else, I really would have loved to see more of the world’s top paddlers competing at the Payette River Games. The women’s field was absolutely stacked – the top five in the world were all there, as were several river dark horses – however the men’s field was lacking some of the bigger names. It was still a very hard race to win – just making the top 20 was a huge achievement (several world-class paddlers finished in the mid 20s) while Mo Freitas’ clean sweep of the event will go down as one of the single greatest achievements of 2015 – but still, quite a few of the very top guys were absent.

This is partly due to the crazy-tight scheduling of the race calendar, but also partly due to a reluctance by some to accept that river SUP racing is a legitimate, athletic endeavour that belongs in the SUP racing world. Some still see anything involving whitewater as a “novelty” that tests a paddler’s luck more than their skill and strength, however anyone that’s competed in or witnessed the Payette River Games in person (or now on TV) will tell you this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Anyway I don’t wish to get sidetracked. The Payette River Games was one of the best events of the year. Perhaps THE best. The feedback and gratitude shown by the athletes highlights this fact. And the broadcast, while it has some room for improvement, was totally awesome. The Payette River Games on CBS Sports was definitely a great hour of entertainment, as well as a huge step forward for the sport of stand up paddling. Oh and Dave Kalama certainly has a bright future as SUP’s go to colour commentator…

Big congratulations (and thanks) to the Payette River Games organising team for pulling off this showcase. Can’t wait for PRG16. Speaking of which: The organisers have already, quite wisely, released their dates for next year: June 17-19, 2016.

The Payette River Games are definitely something else – pencil it into your calendar right now.

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An outside shot of Mo Freitas under the glare of the CBS Sports boom cam