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Commentary: An affront to tradition? Diminishing coverage in Hydro Races a sad reality in 2017

When I think of the biggest local sports disappointments over the last decade, I think about the Sonics move to Oklahoma City. The end of Super Bowl 49. The Mariners longest playoff-less streak in all of baseball.

And then there’s a different kind of disappointment: The slow death of the annual Hydro races – from both a coverage and an interest standpoint.

This year marked the first time in 66 years that the Hydro races at Seafair weren’t broadcast live on TV. The reasons ranged from everything from costs to lower ratings – but the end result is clear: The buzz, the hype, the spectacle that was once THE preeminent sports event on Seafair weekend has seemingly slowly and painfully lost its luster. And that’s a huge letdown for the sport’s most devoted fans.

Now, wait a minute, you say: There are still more than 100,000 people who attend Seafair – great exposure for a sport that’s now down to only five stops on the H1 Unlimited circuit.

But just last year, Dave Williams, executive director of the Hydroplane and Raceboat Museum in Kent, admitted to the Seattle Times, “The (real) hydroplane fans stay home to watch it on TV.” Imagine the bummer those true fans felt when they learned that the races weren’t being broadcast live on TV.

Now, the chicken or egg argument will continue: Is the media at fault for cutting back its coverage or is the sport’s waning interest and lack of media access the cause for those cutbacks?

Whatever the reason, it’s fair to say the days are gone when Hydro drivers like Bill Muncey and Chip Hanauer and Dave Villwock were regarded in the same light as other local sports heroes.

No offense, but you don’t ever hear the name “J. Michael Kelly” in the same sentence as Russell Wilson, Clint Dempsey, Sue Bird or Robinson Cano.

So, what can be done? Well, for one, it won’t help if the station known for broadcasting the event live for generations gets away with a 90-minute highlight show instead. It also won’t help if they get more complaints about preempting 60 Minutes than those from the old guard of devoted Hydro fans upset they can’t view the races live on TV. After all, it’s a long-time tradition being suddenly cast aside.

But it’s also a reality of local TV. Ten years ago, it was a given to send a news photographer to camp out at Seward Park for three days straight, just to get footage of the one Hydro that flipped. With smaller news staffs and other priorities, including the Seahawks in the midst of Training Camp, you don’t see that anymore.

Interests have changed. Times have changed. For better or worse, many in charge have deemed Hydros as a novelty rather than must-see event.

And until there’s a strong enough push back, then it’s a shame that a pre-packaged "highlights" show is enough to justify a change in what was once a major Seattle tradition.