Recently I saw an article asking whether or not we need to delete events from track and field – and if so which ones. The author said that we have to do this to increase the popularity of the sport. Among the reasons given was the attention span of the general public, and that meets are too long. An example that was given was the fact that track and field during the Olympics takes a little over a week to run!
It’s not the first article I’ve seen on the subject – all with similar reasons given. They’re also the reason why some meets, like those in the Diamond League, have basically cut their competitions in half. It also explains why others have resorted to running down the middle of the street, and hiring bands to play, because ostensibly in many people’s minds, the lack of appeal of track and field outside of the Olympics is that the public (which we SO desperately want) just can’t watch our product because it’s too long.
I’m gong to tell you that the above is a load of rubbish! Let’s talk about the American sports fan, because that’s really the audience we’re talking about here. Just what does the American sports fan like? Well, the Big Three sports are: football, basketball, and baseball. And guess what? Three hours is about as short as they go time wise, and an individual game can get up to five hours long! And in the fall during football season, when games start at 10:00 in the morning (here on the West coast) they go non stop until 9:00 at night (midnight on the East coast)! And fans sit and watch ALL DAY AND NIGHT! Some even pay good money in sports bars eating and drinking all day glued to screens watching games with people they may not even know!
So much for the poor attention span of the American sports fan! Like I said, a load of rubbish. Just like the complaint that track takes over a week during the Olympics. Guess what? Nearly EVERY sport takes a week to contest during the Olympics – it’s a GLOBAL competition. Everything is basically a round robin tournament. That’s what happens when you have nearly every nation on the planet participating – it takes a while! Same with National Championships, and Collegiate Championships. Even state high school championships take two days – and are solidly attended by the way! Which debunks the theory that track has little popularity in America by the way! As a matter of fact, track and cross country are the highest participation sports in high school, and colleges – ahead of soccer which everyone has tried for decades now to make as popular here as it is in other parts of the world!
So, we know there is NOTHING wrong with the fans attention spans. And the sport is popular enough to be the most popular in high schools and colleges across the country and fill up stadiums to watch high schoolers in states like California and Texas! By the way, neither the high schools, nor the colleges have reduced their meets one iota! They run their meets with FULL schedules! The same way the relay carnivals of the spring do. As a matter of fact, the relay carnivals – Penn, MtSAC et al – add a ton of additional events in the form of relays! And guess what? They are the most highly attended meets in the country! SO, not only is there NOTHING wrong with the attention span of the sports fan, there’s NOTHING wrong with the number of events contested in the sport, OR the length of meets. AND we know there are enough fans out there to support track meets from the Pacific to the Atlantic! We also know one other critical piece of information – that the only level of the sport suffering attendance issues at its top meets is THE ELITE LEVEL! Oh, I’ll throw out one other piece of information – that lack of attendance is relatively NEW – roughly since the mid 00’s!
So, what’s wrong? In a nutshell, elite track and field doesn’t present the fans with its best product. You see, not only is there NOTHING wrong with the fans attention span, there’s also nothing wrong with their intelligence! Football, baseball, and basketball give the fans their best athletes EVERY TIME they play! Not just the playoffs and finals, but all throughout each leagues regular season’s. That’s what professional sports give their fans – the best they have to offer!
Can you imagine the NBA attempting to build their fan base with Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan NOT PLAYING during the regular season? Making spot appearances during the playoffs? And only showing up if there happened to be a game seven in the finals? That would be ludicrous! The fans would boycott games. They would refuse to buy tickets, knowing that they were being cheated. The league as we know it today would NEVER have evolved. It may be extinct by now. Yet THAT is what track and field attempts to do!
The ABA was competitive only as long as it could afford to match the talent level of the NBA. And in the end the teams that survived and merged with the NBA were those that were rich in talent! Remember the USFL? It was a football league that tried to compete against the NFL – with players that couldn’t make it in the NFL. The league didn’t last long.
NCAA Division I sports broadcasts are huge on television. Division II and III, not so much. Over and over, the story is the same – fans support and pay for the privilege to watch top level sporting events. They reject reduced products! Including track and field! When track meets showcased the top athletes, meets throughout the United States filled stadiums from coast to coast! Large cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Smaller cities like Fresno, Modesto, Westwood and Berkeley. Many of the largest, most exciting track and field competitions in the world were held right here in the United States before standing room crowds! As recently as the turn of the century – 2000.
There were no street races. No bands. No pole vaulting in the parking lot. Yet we got to watch Carl Lewis, Don Quarrie, Steve Williams, Evelyn Ashford, Gwen Torrance, Mary Slaney, Edwin Moses, Ben Johnson, Jim Ryun, Maurice Greene, Brian Oldfield, Ralph Boston, Michael Johnson, Jackie Joyner Kersee and thousands of other record setting global stars right here at home – in EVERY EVENT the sport offers! And the fans stayed til the end! Because just like the Olympics, meets were exciting from beginning to end! That happens when the world’s best athletes are in attendance!
THAT is what made track and field. THAT is why the Olympics are so popular. And THAT is what track and field needs to GET BACK TO if it truly wants to be popular again. You see, Seb Coe got it WRONG when he stated that the sport needed Usain Bolt to win the 100 in Rio. What Coe, and track and field NEEDS Bolt to do is run at least a dozen races or more in meets that AREN’T the Olympics or World Championships each year! Now THAT would be good for the sport! That would help bring fans to meets and fill stadiums.
THAT is the challenge facing track and field – to get the stars in the marquee events competing regularly again – because it used to happen, recently. And to ensure that meets have solid matchups week in and week out.
I find it both sad and ironic that we are the ONLY sport, where the stars seemingly don’t want to compete!! You couldn’t keep Magic, MJ, and Bird off the court. There are true stories of them competing with injuries and illness that are legendary. Tom Brady has fought all summer to be on the field instead of the four game suspension. Tiger Woods has fight hard after multiple surgeries now to get back on the green. Football players, baseball players, professionals of other sports seem to die a thousand deaths when they can’t compete. Yet in track Wayde van Niekerk broke the world record and hasn’t been seen since. We barely saw Bolt before Rio, and we knew we wouldn’t afterwards. Many of the world’s sprint stars were nowhere to be seen in the final four meets – Where’s Waldo, where’s Justin? As several meets post Rio had difficulty putting together respectable fields. Gimmicks haven’t, and won’t, fix this.
This sport needs a Competition Summit. Coe, the federation heads, top agents and leadership of the shoe companies, need to sit down and have a “Come to Jesus” meeting about how this sport is going to get back to the best competing regularly! I can tell them when and why the change occurred – and I will in my next post. Their job is to fix it, if this sport has any hope of becoming what it should be as a professional endeavor.