The culture of running

In Stride

How Track and Field Can Save Itself

It’s no secret that the sport is hurting—here’s how it might regain some of its lost appeal

Ajee' Wilson runs in the Women"s 800 Meter opening round of the 2017 USA Track & Field Championships in Sacramento, California. (Andy Lyons/Getty)

It’s no secret that the sport is hurting—here’s how it might regain some of its lost appeal

Few track fans are as lucky as I am. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, I spent many days and evenings of my youth on the edge of my bleacher at Hayward Field, surrounded on all sides by other spectators. The crowd was loud and passionate, clapping and stomping in unison every time the pack came around the turn and passed in front of us. The stadium felt volatile—and would frequently erupt in a single roar. People were locked in to every second of action: even a pole vaulter or shot putter could bring the house down when they cleared a particularly high attempt or uncorked a long throw.

Seeing what’s possible as a spectator, at such a young age, made track and field feel electric—but it also now puts the sport’s typical spectator experience into perspective. And last weekend’s annual U.S. outdoor track and field championships at a barren Hornet Stadium, on Sacramento State University’s campus (which, to be fair, I watched on TV) felt decidedly un-electric. It was genuinely difficult to watch—and was the latest but plainest sign that track needs to have a major rethink about how it presents itself.

It’s no secret that track and field is hurting. Fans kvetch about it all the time: its popularity keeps declining, its governing bodies are corrupt, it’s riddled with performance-enhancing drugs, most professionals can hardly earn a living at it... the list is long. We can accept that most people only care about the sport for two weeks every four years, during the Olympics. NBC Sports will soon be broadcasting more track than it ever has before on TV and streaming online, as it will be one of the main sports on its new Olympic Channel, launching July 15. But will it matter? I’m a committed viewer, and even I have trouble watching this stuff anymore. Pity the casual or curious viewer who wanted to give track a shot and tuned into this mess.

Last weekend, the unbearable weather was the main thing that most people (though not everyone) wanted to blame. Held in Sacramento, California, the meet was severely overcooked Thursday through Sunday, with temperatures often well above 90 degrees. Attendance figures were more than 29,000 over four days, but the stands, with a capacity of more than 21,000, appeared largely empty away from the finish line throughout the meet. (A USATF spokeswoman told me the advance ticket sales far outmatched the attendance.) The venue itself made the optics even worse. The small crowds, aluminum bleachers and gridiron markings on the infield gave USATF’s marquee annual event, our national championships, the look and feel of an all-comer’s meet.

NBC Sports, for its part, did little to salvage a difficult situation. Apart from a couple amazing stories and upsets on the track this year, there was little drama or passion conveyed in many of the races, and sometimes no perspective at all (try and figure out what’s going on in this clip)—hardly what a championship competition deserves.

Athletes, meanwhile, did themselves no favors when NBC’s trackside reporter, Lewis Johnson, had a word with them after their race. While it’s surely difficult to be witty and insightful while panting, America’s best track athletes rarely strayed beyond the most boring sports platitudes, and too often revealed nothing at all about themselves.

It’s frustrating to see a sport you love look so amateurish. And it’s impossible not to wonder why, in an age where the quality of sports broadcasting is so high, does track look so lifeless, irrelevant, and uncool? Nobody seriously expects track and field to have the production values of the NFL. But there are several short- and long-term adjustments the sport could make to regain at least some of its appeal.

Embrace the Production Values of More Popular Sports

So many great sports moments are intertwined with the announcer’s call. The commentators are a vital part of the viewing experience—they literally provide a soundtrack to the sport. Anyone who’s watched European soccer (or even any longtime Dodgers fan) knows that a good announcer is not just informative, but gives the event a feel and a texture, which track desperately needs more of right now. And storylines matter: the sport has more than a few characters, but broadcasters seem reluctant to fully embrace them. American running is in a good place right now, with lots of young talent plus several dominant stars at the peak of their careers, and a mix of budding and longstanding rivalries. They should be hyped up. Track is a young person’s game, and there’s no point in adhering to stodgy values.

Provide Better Media Coaching to Athletes

It’s a massive letdown when you watch an athlete do something amazing, but then they fail to put any of it into words when given the chance in front of a microphone. A USATF spokeswoman told me that athletes do receive media training during their rookie years and ahead of major events (but not college athletes, of which there were many at this meet). Unfortunately, they often freeze up during those trackside interviews, which is the only opportunity most athletes will ever get to speak to a TV audience. If athletes want more fans, they need to put away the clichés and entertain. Be emotional. Be interesting. Talk trash. Stoke rivalries. Give us insight into what we just saw. The secret to fame isn’t necessarily about talent; it’s about being entertaining.

Get Sponsors to Promote the Sport and Their Athletes

Nike alone pumps millions of dollars into track. While the company often throws its considerable weight around the sport in unseemly ways, it’s not a stretch to say the Swoosh props up track and is inextricably intertwined with USATF. So why doesn’t the company want to cross-promote its athletes? Here’s an idea: Put one or two of Nike’s sponsored runners in an ad or social-media campaign with LeBron James or Kevin Durant during the NBA Finals, for example. Promoting runners alongside their marquee athletes is a win-win for the brand, since Nike controls an even bigger piece of track than it does most other sports. Resources alone don’t attract viewers to a sport—fans get hooked on the personalities. And no brand is better than Nike at cultivating sports personalities.

Pay More Attention to College Track and Field

Yes, this is outside the box. But people love college sports. Athletic departments should work to entice students in all sorts of ways to come out and watch—most college tracks are right on campus anyway. One way might be by bringing back dual meets. Even someone who knows nothing about track will root for their school against its college rival. People might then follow their school’s athletes during their pro careers, but more simply, if broadcasters paid the same attention to runners’ alma maters as they do for basketball and football players, viewers might be more inclined to root for their fellow alumni.

American sports fans, even the committed track fans, just need reasons to watch. The USA singlet and waving a bunch of flags is not nearly enough—but it’s what the sport has been coasting on for way too long. The sports industrial complex has changed. With its future at stake among a crowded, more viewer-friendly sports landscape, it’s way past time that track and field changes as well.

Correction: A previous version of this story inaccurately stated that the Olympic Channel was a rebranding of Universal Sports. The Olympic Channel will be an all-new channel. Outside regrets the error.

Filed To: Sports / Athletes / Track and Field / Running / Fitness

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