How to Make More People Fall in Love with Track and Field
There’s no sport whose feats of athletic brilliance are more accessible to the masses
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In the lead-up to this week’s World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, USA Track and Field president Max Siegel said that he hoped the event would be a catalyst to enhancing the sport’s domestic popularity. The goal, according to a story in the Los Angeles Times, is to make track the fifth most-followed sport in the country by the time LA hosts the Olympics in 2028. A 2019 Nielson study has track currently in eighth place in the hierarchy of sports Americans care about, lagging behind both swimming and motor racing. Siegel has his work cut out for him.
Fortunately, he has some powerful allies. Track and field’s governing body, World Athletics, and its president Seb Coe know that the United States is the behemoth of the global sports market. They would like nothing more than to get a bigger slice of the pie; it doesn’t take a genius to recognize the discrepancy between the United States’ competitive dominance in international track competitions and the dearth of high-stakes, professional meets in the country. To that end, Siegel has just unveiled a plan to launch a new annual series of high-quality meets in the United States starting next year. The initiative, backed by World Athletics, is intended to be a U.S.-based rival to the Diamond League, track’s premiere circuit of competitions, most of which take place in Europe.
However, in an oversaturated sports landscape, merely staging more races is not enough. Here are a few further suggestions for how to generate nationwide passion for track and field.
Do: Support More Track Races for Everyone
A recent report by the market data company Statista indicates that almost 60 million people in the United States do some kind of running activity every year. This vast recreational contingent is frequently cited as a kind of built-in advantage for professional track and field, along with the fact that track and cross-country, taken together, are the country’s most popular high school sport by number of participants. The idea is that a significant percentage of the population is already primed to be interested in elite-level running. As Coe put it recently: “The challenge is to form that really clear connection with what they are doing, particularly those recreational runners, and believing they are part of that track and field landscape.”
Fair enough. But I think we tend to overestimate the extent to which your typical 5K fun run hobbyjogger feels some kind of spiritual kinship with those who can rip 12and a half laps around the oval. Since track and road racing are distinct—both in terms of tactics and competitive ambiance—the sport would benefit from having more track events for the general public.
Don’t: Cut to Commercial
Apologies for mentioning something so obvious, but track and field cannot expect to win the hearts of prospective fans if it can’t offer them adequate coverage of longer races. Imagine the uproar if commercial breaks during NFL games deprived viewers of a single, meaningless down. There would be a meathead revolution. Blood on the streets. In track and field, meanwhile, there have been countless instances of telecasts cutting away from the action only to return when the decisive moment in a race has already occured.
I was traveling outside the U.S. during this year’s World Championships and ended up watching most of the races on the BBC’s iPlayer. It was a shock to have extended, uninterrupted coverage of an event as internationally obscure as the World Championships marathon where Britain didn’t have any athletes in medal contention. While publicly funded television is unlikely to be the salvation of American track and field, any future model for delivering the sport to viewers needs to find a way to be economically feasible without devaluing the very thing it’s trying to get people to care about.
Do: Invest in Increasing the Profile of Cross-Country and Indoor Track
The first Diamond League meet typically takes place in mid-May, the last in early September. Major international competitions like the World Championships or the Olympics are usually also staged during this window.. The professional outdoor track and field season, in other words, is rather brief—certainly compared to the “Big Four” American sports leagues. And even in the off-season, these leagues continue to tantalize their fan bases with draft day spectacles and trade rumor intrigue. The show never stops.
How can U.S. track and field hope to compete? By making the most of its potential as a year-round sport. More effort should be put into staging and promoting high-level cross-country meets in the fall and indoor track races in the winter. (The Millrose Games won’t cut it on their own.)
Don’t: Allow Major Competitions to be Decided by a Technicality
At the World Championships this week, an oblivious cameraman stood on the track during the men’s steeplechase final, forcing a bunched 15-person field to run around him on either side. Fortunately, calamity was avoided and the incident didn’t seem to impact the outcome of the race. But it felt like an appropriate metaphor for track and field’s occasional tendency to get in its own way.
The world’s oldest, simplest sport should have an edge in an era where other sports have become maddeningly complex, where every consequential call has to be scrutinized in slow-motion from 20 camera angles before the ref can make a decision. But track’s beautiful simplicity is undermined when the rules mandate a disqualification that defies all common sense. Case in point: Kenyan steeplechase legend Ezekiel Kemboi retroactively losing his bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics for a single misstep in the middle of a 3,000-meter race. Even that enormity paled in comparison to Devon Allen’s DQ in the final of the men’s 110-meter hurdles earlier this week. The Hayward favorite was given the red card for responding too quickly to the starter’s pistol; his .099-second reaction time was one one-thousandth of a second quicker than the World Athletics threshold of .1 seconds. If you think there’s something perverse about this, you are not alone.
Do: Capitalize on Track’s Accessibility
At the expo for the 2018 Chicago Marathon, a giant padded treadmill was set to the same pace that Eliud Kipchoge ran to break the world record at the Berlin Marathon the month before. It’s one of the simplest, yet most effective sports promotion initiatives I’ve ever seen. Attendees were challenged to see how long they could maintain a 4:38-per-mile pace before attempting to disembark without humiliating themselves. The YouTube video, 21 million views and counting, features amateur athletes locked into what looks like an all-out sprint.
The idea was a hit because it put a superhuman performance in a context that amateur enthusiasts could not only understand, but physically experience. This has always been the great asset of professional athletics: the fact that almost anyone can do this stuff with minimal instruction—run a lap, jump into a sand pit, hurl an iron sphere into open space—even if it takes supreme talent and years of dedication to do it at the world-class level.
While it’s true that every professional sport needs compelling narratives in order to thrive, a passionate fan base also knows how to appreciate supreme ability. In this respect, track and field would seem to have a clear advantage: you don’t need any special knowledge to understand how insane it is that a human being once jumped almost 29 and a half feet. The job of the sport’s governing bodies is to make sure such brilliance doesn’t go unnoticed—to remind us that these really are the finest athletes in the world.