The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

How to Repopularize Track in America

Jun 20th, 2022
4:12 pm PDT

As we prepare for the start of our national championships, one of the biggest “complaints” about track and field in the United States, is that it’s lacking in popularity! And the “question” that is always on the table is, “how do we make it more popular” or interesting. Personally, I don’t see the sport as unpopular, but I have seen the drop in popularity. You see, I’m old enough to remember when the sport was extremely popular in this country. And frankly, I think that same degree of popularity is still sitting there right beneath the surface. The problem being, not a lack of inherent popularity, but poor presentation and marketing here in the US.

Now, my idea of lack of presentation, is totally different than that of those at USATF. They seem to think that they need to change the way meets are run. That the sport needs “spicing” up. In my opinion, track is just fine the way it’s run. It’s simplicity is actually a plus. Who is fastest. Jumps furthest. Or throws farthest. The problem is, “where” this occurs, and how often it occurs. Let me explain.

You see, most professional sports in this country, have viewing outlets all over the country. Baseball, football, and basketball – the big three – and even hockey, soccer, tennis, and golf, are played in venues all over the country. Allowing their team fan bases the opportunity to go and see their favorite stars live and in color during their respective seasons. THAT is important. It makes the sport real and exciting. It’s how fans are cultivated.

Once upon a time, track and field at the highest level was also played in stadiums all over the country. You could see Jim Ryun, Bob Hayes, Evelyn Ashford, Carl Lewis, and Mo Greene, in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Dallas, Houston, New York, New Orleans, San Jose, Indianapolis, and many other locations throughout the United States. At Invitationals, Relay meets, and National championships. Allowing fans all over the opportunity to physically see the best in the country. I know, because I’ve watched track at all of those venues and more!

Then a couple of things happened. Perhaps the most important being that the cost of securing star athletes began to increase exponentially. Making it very difficult for meet promoters with small budgets to secure top level talent. The result, it was nearly impossible to get Tyson Gay, Marion Jones, Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt to go anywhere but Europe. Getting that level of talent became almost impossible. And unfortunately athletic fans in the US are accustomed to getting the BEST for their ticket dollars. When you can go to other sporting events and see LeBron James, Steph Curry, Patrick Mahomes, and Davonte Adams. Then that’s what you expect to see when you go to a track meet – Olympians and World medalists. Suddenly however, we stopped providing that level of athletes at US meets except on special occasions. Those occasions being championship settings. The Olympic Trials. NCAA Championships. USATF Championships. And those meets continued to get great support. The Olympic Trials of 2000 and 2004 broke back to back attendance records. Then the second thing happened.

We allowed those meets, which had been rotated throughout the country, to be bought and moved to a single location! Nike opened its considerable wallet and paid (they will say out bid) for the Trials, Nationals, and NCAA’s to be in Eugene Oregon – to go along with the Prefontaine Classic. As far in one corner of the country as you can get. So, instead of our top athletes performing all over – California, Iowa, New York, Indiana, Tennessee, Louisiana, et al. They’ve been locked up in Oregon for about twenty years. And while Eugene brags about how many championship meets they’ve hosted. It is no coincidence in my humble opinion, that the popularity of the sport has dropped precipitously during that time span! Not opinion, numerical fact.

You see, people like to get out and see their stars. It’s what makes the big three sports popular in this country. The ability to buy tickets and go and see the stars. For some people, it’s saving money and taking a trip to Denver, New York, Chicago, or Seattle, and watching your Cubs, Yankees, or Broncos. It’s why track and field is SO popular in Europe. In Europe you can actually go and see American stars in cities throughout the continent. You can hop on a train and go to Rome, Paris, Helsinki, Oslo, or Berlin and see the best in the world compete. Including Noah Lyles, Sydney McLaughlin, Christian Coleman, or Allyson Felix. Sadly you can see Americans compete all over Europe, but you can only see them in one location here at home!

So, to answer the question, how do we increase the popularity of the sport in this country. I believe the answer is pretty simple. We have to get back to spreading the sport throughout the US! I’ve said forever, that Eugene runs a great meet. The Pre Classic is one of the world’s best. That doesn’t mean that everything that we do, has to be in that stadium. And this year, they are showing just how ridiculous that is as with world class meets every few weeks leading up to the World Championships, and attendance is DOWN! Even with the pent up demand of coming out of Covid.

So it would be nice, if Nike cares about the sport that has made billionaires out of ownership. To spread the love of the sport around the country.. Nike could afford to host meets in all four corners of the country. A meet in California. How about another in Texas or North Carolina. Another in Ohio or Virginia. And let’s have NCAA Championships in multiple locations. Thank goodness it’s going to be in Austin next year. Let that be the start of a nice rotation. Same for USATF. Have it at MtSAC (beautiful new stadium) like you were supposed to before moving it to, Eugene! And begin moving that around as well. That’s how you get back to building your fan base. We don’t need a “Track Town USA”. We need track all over the USA! That’s what made track popular in the first place and will make track popular again.

Europe is small enough to put track into one central location. But ironically they don’t. It’s all over the continent. And beloved all over the continent! The continent where track is king. It’s time for Nike, and the other shoe companies to actually help build the sport that’s helped build them. Time for the country with the most stars to get them out where people can see them, live and in color. It’s time to rebuild the popularity of track and field in America. The country with the largest depth of Olympic caliber athletes. Should have a greater presence in the sport. THAT should be one of the driving goals of USATF!

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