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

Why Soccer, But Not Track?

Jul 18th, 2011
8:38 am PDT

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That’s the question I was asking myself this weekend as the final game of the FIFA Women’s World Cup came to an end. With Team USA a contender from the opening of the tournament, America was watching. ESPN showed our matches, and Americans across the country watched. And as Team USA advanced to the semifinals and then to the final game, living rooms and sports bars were packed to watch Team USA go for the FIFA Championship!

If only I could say that the same would be true come August 27th through September 4th. But alas you and I both know that it won’t be. The real question is: why not?

Most will lament that track just isn’t popular in the United States. That we have too many other “professional” sports to occupy our attention and our time. And I will reply that it didn’t seem to stop the fervor that was held for Team USA and the World Cup!

I will also argue that track and field is as popular as any other sport, and arguably more popular than soccer. After all, according to the most recent survey done by the National Federation for State High School Associations (NFHS), track and field ranks NUMBER TWO in participation among high school male athletes! That’s right #2. Only football ranks higher than track and field in terms of number of boys participating. In our wake in the top ten in order are: basketball, baseball, soccer, wrestling, cross country (!), tennis, gold, and swimming/diving. The numbers are even BETTER for girls with track and field ranking NUMBER ONE ahead of: basketball, volleyball, softball, soccer, cross country (!), tennis, swimming/diving, competitive spirit squads and golf!

Translating that to the college level, among Divisions I, II & III, 898 schools have cross country programs and 678 have track & field programs. Soccer comes in at 763 schools with programs. Comparing with the “major sports”, 625 schools have football programs, 897 have baseball programs, and 1,022 have basketball programs – and while the actual numbers were not available, one would have to assume that based on the size of the average squad of each, that track and field should outnumber them all in terms of individuals participating. (Data from the NCAA’s 2006-2007 Sports
Sponsorship and Participation Report)

The point here is that our numbers are right there with everyone else’s in terms of participation – actually better than most. We have the athletes, and by default name recognition because we’re churning out individuals that are aware of our sport and should have some semblance of allegiance/affinity for it – i.e. a fan base. One would think a potentially good sized fan base when you add into the mix the parents, siblings, and friends that tend to make up any given track “community”.

Let’s also add, that we have as many “championships” as anyone. NCAA I, II & III, NAIA, NJCAA, Junior Olympic, Youth, Club, and Masters. Which means we should be leaving a nice “footprint” of who we are and what we do somewhere along the way. And it should help that we are the core sport of the Olympic Games – only the biggest sporting extravaganza in sports history!

So, why so much attention for the FIFA World Cup, while the vast majority of those same people aren’t even aware that there is a World Championships of Track and Field? For my money the answer is MARKETING. We, as in USATF, do a lousy job of telling our story.

America knew that there was a World Cup and that Team USA was going to be a major contender. Why? Because it was everywhere. It was in newspapers. It was talked about on talk radio. It was on the local news and in ads on TV. America was reminded that we had won this thing before and were back in position to do so again, and national pride was being stoked!

Does America have a clue that we are the top nation at the World Championships on a regular basis? Are they aware that between Jeremy Wariner and Lashawn Merritt we haven’t lost a men’s 400 since 2003? That the last time Team USA and Jamaica actually went head to head on the track in the 4×1 that Team USA actually won (‘07) against a team that finished off with Usain Bolt and Asafa Powell. Does America have a clue that Allyson Felix is gunning for her fourth 200 title in a row or that Brittney Reese is the defending long jump champion? Or how about the fact that the defending “Worlds Greatest Athlete” is non other than American Trey Hardee? The answer, sadly, to all of these questions is: NO! Because we haven’t told anyone!

Where is the stream of press releases being sent out to all the major papers across the country? Why aren’t we sending ads and promo DVD’s to ESPN and trying to get them to interview USATF “staff” and athletes of note? Why aren’t promotional DVD’s begin sent out in mass to news affiliates across America? We have Tre and Ashton, why aren’t they being used like Dan and Dave? Yes, I know that Dan and Dave was an Olympic promotion – and that is precisely my point. Just because the rest of the world waits for the Olympics to come around doesn’t mean WE have to wait until the Olympics to tell OUR story!

We have the world’s best track and field squad – every year! We have more global stars than soccer, or any other international sport outside basketball. A match up between Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt is perhaps the most anticipated global event since Carl V Ben. USA v Jamaica may be the biggest national rivalry in the world in any sport. We have what it takes to cause Americans to turn on their TV’s and root for good ‘ole Team USA. So why don’t they? Because America doesn’t know – and it’s time we started telling them.

2 Responses to “Why Soccer, But Not Track?”

  1. Boris Hornbei says:

    Well, duh. Soccer has an ENORMOUS network of development leagues, even in the US. Track does not. Efforts to promote track's popularity with a top-down approach (tout the stars) will always be doomed to fail, until someone gets the bright idea to start youth track teams, everywhere. Track is hidden at every level – high school, college, pro.

  2. Michael Caton says:

    How popular a sport is with kids or young adults doesn't necessarily translate into television. To be successful on TV, a sport has to be fast-paced and interesting to watch even for people who don't do it or never did it. Football has taken over from baseball as the national pastime because pro football (specifically the NFL) was developed with television in mind. Baseball was the most exciting thing going in 1915 but on TV it can be damn boring. So to make televised Track and Field a reality, get together with a sports producer, and figure out how to show track so that it keeps moving and can keep asses in seats for commercials. This might mean scheduling things differently at meets or even changing certain aspects of certain events. If that doesn't sound good, you have to ask what's more important, preserving the sport, or having it succeed as entertainment. Two very different things.

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