Sport is life’s most concentrated metaphor, showcasing the arc of human emotions in real time before an attentive audience in a well-lit arena. Thus, do we see bitter defeat hard breathing alongside utter euphoria as both experience the dramatic after effects of a consequential action. Maybe that one word — consequential — is what most distinguishes the recent European Championships and U.S. Olympic Trials from the average IAAF Diamond League athletics meeting, whose circuit picked up again today in Monaco.
People understand championships and trials. Not just athletics fans, but regular sports fans, too. NBC’s TV ratings for their Trials’ coverage underscores that point. What people get is that the competition is staged for something of consequence, something of perceived value. In the case of the Euro Champs, it was an international title, and in Eugene it was the attainment of an Olympic berth. Those titles and berths resonated with the audience, and lifted the competitions onto a higher plane.
Today in Monaco at the Herculis Meet there were many intriguing competitions for athletics fans, perhaps the men’s 1500 and women’s (kinda, sorta) 800 most especially. But as Track & Field News stat man extraordinaire Ken Nakamura tweeted: “Lots of empty seats in Monaco. @BislettGames was not full either. Is track losing fans because of doping and Diack?”
Possibly. Those corrupting elements certainly don’t help. But security was also very tight in Monaco following last night’s terrorist tragedy in Nice, France. That said, besides fast times, long and high high jumps, what about the Herculis/Monaco Meet will resonate outside the industry other than maybe Caster Semenya‘s Ripley’s Believe It or Not women’s 800?
From my viewing, there was no sense you were watching a professional sporting event where there were consequences to winning and losing. A grand exhibition? Absolutely. But what was at stake to engage emotions? Where were the metaphors for hope and sorrow — except for the sorrow of those poor women running behind Semenya’s rocking-chair 1:55?
Even when Olympic Trials finals dawdled in their early laps, the consequential nature of the outcome ratcheted up the tension all the same. After all, once an Olympian, always an Olympian. And except for the top four ranked golfers in the world, making an Olympic team has perceived value to the public. So if we must speak in such terms, why hasn’t competition and its reward become the focus of the sport at the professional level, rather than paced time challenges that offer no perceived payoff?
Who delivered the most blows at UFC 200? Does it matter? They keep track of such things, of course, but stats can be deceiving, are deceiving, and will be again. But what’s not deceptive is the fact that the UFC was just sold last week for $4 billion 15 years after being bought for just $2 million. Somebody knows how to market a sport.
Not to say you don’t want to occasionally stage a world record attempt. Today’s men’s 1500 had a record attempt quality to it, though it faded late. But that must be only an occasional promotion, not an every-race format, because then it loses its consequence.
If anything that’s the message coming out of the Olympic Trials every four years, and the challenge athletics faces in this era of lost relevance and rising cynicism. How do you make the sport matter beyond Usain Bolt? How do you connect to an audience beyond the hard core?
Because after all we might expect to see in Rio — drug stories, national team banishments, viruses, crime, inter-sex races, potential terror, heavy media focus on swimming and gymnastics — the IAAF suits in their leather armchairs better figure it out fast or their own sport’s sorrows might indeed grow to be quite consequential, and not just metaphoric any longer.
14 thoughts on “CAN ATHLETICS BE MARKETED TO MATTER ANYMORE?”
Doping has destroyed this sport. Why is Justin Gaitlin, two-time drug cheat, on the 4×100 relay? Why is Tyson Gay, an admitted drug cheat, on the 4×100 relay? Who wants to cheer for performances that are produced with needles? Track & Field, like the addicts Neil Young sang about, is done; administrators, athletes, even some of the few remaining fans have fallen to drugs:
I’ve seen the needle
and the damage done
A little part of it in everyone
But every junkie’s
like a settin’ sun.
Sadly, true. And athletics didn’t have any cushion to buffer it’s fall. Considering that drugs in sports have been in the public eye for over six decades, and always tied to athletics in the eastern bloc, the sport was never able to clean up its image. Then when the federations went to the dark side, game over in the public’s mind with no build-up of fan or commercial interest to help pull it outbid it’s free fall.
Thanks for adding to the conversation.
What I found particularly sad at the trials were the enthusiastic cheers for America’s doping sprinters: especially Gatlin, also Gay, Rogers, Spearmon, Merritt. The so-called knowledgeable and sophisticated fans of Hayward Field were roaring their approval. NBC’s shameless promotion of Gatlin is beyond sickening. Ato Boldon has gone over to the dark side with Gatlin.
I’m no fan of religion, but I’m told that many of your world’s religions have this concept called “forgiveness,” where someone can take responsibility for their mistakes, endure an appropriate penalty, perhaps learn not to make the same mistake again, and not have the mistake held against them for the rest of their life. This certainly is how our prison system is supposed to operate, and the fans at Hayward Field (I was one of them) seem to have embraced the concept. You and Linda seem to advocate for lifetime disqualification for failing a drug test, which seems to me disturbingly punitive, not to mention un-christian.
Thanks for adding your voice. But you referenced “where somebody can take responsibility for their mistake”, as if that’s what these athletes did. They didn’t.
Growing up as a Catholic kid we weren’t taught ‘wait until you get caught, then go to confession and ask for forgiveness.’ No, You felt guilty about what you had done, and went to confession. In these cases The athletes didn’t come up with their excuses until after they had been caught, which is a whole different kettle of fish.
How do you forgive someone who still doesn’t admit they’ve done anything wrong? Tyson Gay gets more of a pass to me because at least he admitted it ex post facto. It’s not a right to run in these national championships, Olympic Trials, or Olympic Games. It’s a privilege. And if you besmirch the integrity that makes it a fair open competition, then you forfeit future privileges. Thanks for listening.
A large part of the decline is due to the fact that the Olympics are over-promoted. What I mean is they are promoted as though they are the only thing that matters in Track & Field. As soon as the London games concluded, NBC was immediately talking about Rio instead of Moscow & Beijing. This gives the casual observer the idea that for 4 years T&F athletes just train for the Olympics. The olympics don’t need promotion. Everybody already knows about them. When Rio is over, NBC should not mention the 2020 games until the 2019 World Championships is over. Right now, they promote the World Champs & The Diamond League as nothing more than filler to pass the time between the olympics. And that is a large part of the problem. The athletes certainly don’t see it that way. USATF needs to press NBC to correct that perception.
Concerning doping, I wonder why the public perceives that T&F is the only sport with a doping problem? Everybody knows there’s doping in baseball & football, but nobody seems to care. Why does T&F catch so much more heat? Maybe it’s because they’re the only sport actively testing and trying to combat the problem. That’s a shame. That means that trying to address the problem has backfired on them. I don’t have a solution for that one…
I think Waynebo is definitely on to something – while it’s well known that the supposed “anti-doping” efforts in football, basketball and baseball are primarily window dressing to give the appearance of concern for the athletes and the integrity of the sports, once baseball got beyond Bonds, et al the big three (along with the players’ unions) have made efforts to insure that only the most stupid and careless (and unknowns) would ever test positive for anything. Or, if there were a question it would get buried (Peyton Manning, anyone?). And seemingly the fans and promoters could care less how truly insincere the efforts are to have clean competition in those sports.
Meanwhile, crusaders like Letsrun.com, among others, ceaselessly question every single world class result (especially of their favorite targets) while mainstream media coverage (when there is any) of track & field is dominated by doping stories (not performances). Yeah, I’d say there’s a problem here. Are the pursuit of “absolute purity” in track & field and the efforts to increase its popularity irreconcilable?
Good analysis. Thanks for the input.
But I’m not sure if the public perceives athletics to have more doping. Instead it may be that it’s just perfectly situated to be the poster-child for doping in that it’s a well-known enough sport, and yet an inconsequential enough sport (not enough money invested in it, no player’s union, no league etc.) to protect its interests. Also, there is a large foreign contingent to it, and no emotional tie-in to the Americsn public, making it the perfect whipping boy to focus the drug problem on.
No, it can’t. The sport has become irrelevant in the United States. The World Indoor Champs didn’t register at all on the national sports radar screen. People will watch the Olympics because, well, it’s the Olympics, and people tune in to watch events they never watch the other 47 months during each 4 year cycle. T&F is a distant 3rd place behind swimming & gymnastics in the eyes of NBC sports. The putrid production of the track trials pales in comparison to the other 2 aforementioned sports.
We all love Vin, a man who’s kept the sport from completely dying. He’s dreaming, though, if he thinks the 2021 WC will bring the sport back into prominence. With doping, corruption & incompetence at every level of the sport (IAAF, USATF, all NGBs, WADA, USADA, USOC, IOC) and with no end in sight, lord knows what the state of athletics will be in 5 years time. Even without those problems, the sport has been steadily heading southbound (great song by the Allman Brothers, BTW). Becoming President of USATF sounds great, but he will still be facing the total dysfunctional group that is the USATF board of directors. He’d be better off fighting the fight from outside, in my humble opinion.
I’ve been a fan, follower, and donor to the sport for decades, and I’m basically done with it. Seeing Justin Gatlin as USATF’s poster boy once again, has sealed the deal. I’ve had enough. People I know who were interested in making a donation to the sport have pulled their offers. I’m talking 6 figure donations. Reports now of ever-increasing doping on the HS/college levels will accelerate the sport’s decline. Can’t trust anything we see now.
Jeez, Anon, you make me sound like an optimist. But it’s hard to argue the decline, and the debilitating corruption by those tasked with preserving and protecting the integrity of the sport. There are too many claimants to people’s eyeballs snd wallets for a damaged Blanche Dubois of a sport to fully resurrect its image.
I’m a straight shooter Toni, don’t have time to sugarcoat things when the hard truth is required! Most fans of the sport forget that we occupy a tiny bubble, outside of which we hear comments such as “track is a professional sport?” I’ll continue to watch, but from the sidelines. Too much going on with business and life!
Thanks for your continued excellent writing.
Toni, Of course your observations are spot on. Here in N.Y., population of a gazillion, we’ve lost our short lived Diamond League meet and have had to move Millrose from the Garden to the Armory. My fear though is that some marketing genius with no real background in T & F will come along and turn our sport into some kind of carnival freak show. I’m all for trying to inject some energy, but the light shows, clamorous music, 50 something ex NFL players lumbering 60 meters…..don’t resonate with me. My collection of Sports Illustrated issues all with T & F athletes gracing the covers remind me how far we’ve fallen. Here’s to hoping we can build enthusiasm back up while keeping the sport ‘pure’ and that our kids will pass along our fervent interest to their kids.
Thanks for the reply, Kevin. The Trials had all we want in the sport, but the question is how to generate interest in the interim between? I suggest connecting events and athletes and meets into some coherency. The outcome of the 400 is tied to the steeple, etc. Create a unified narrative where the outcome of the track meet hangs in the balance, rather than an endless series of disconnected exhibitions.
Also, the use of modern technology like drones to cover the sport to bring new perspective to what we all know to be great athletes. Vin Lananna is making an attempt with his new series. Let’s see how that works.
The most riveting coverage of our sport that I have experienced was the Dubai marathon from two years ago where a drone shadowed the runners from all different heights, angles, perspectives…There were about 8 – 10 minutes where the audio from the commentary failed & all you could here was the sound of the runners feet prancing off the asphalt. It was special!