In the wake of what has to be judged an exciting, successful World Championships in Eugene, Oregon, where the host nation won a record 33 total medals, and another record 29 nations took home a gold medal – capped by a world record in the meet’s final performance by Swedish vaulting god Mondo Duplantis – the question: why athletics can’t seem to fill stadiums or attract a wider television viewership in America remains stubbornly salient.
According to the local organizing committee, 146,033 ticket holders attended the ten days of competition at the new Hayward Field (does not include athletes, trainers, event staff, volunteers, and the media). The high-water mark came on Sunday July 17, Day 3, when 21,065 fans poured through the turnstiles to witness finals in the men’s 10,000m; a Jamaican sweep in the women’s 100m; the men’s 110m hurdles, featuring Grant Holloway and the unfortunately disqualified U. of O. grad Devon Allen; a gold-silver U.S. finish in the women’s pole vault; and an American sweep in the men’s shot put, starring local hero Ryan Crouser.
According to NBC, the opening three days reached 11.4 million viewers over a combination of network, cable, and live-streaming. They touted the ratings as larger than all previous world championships, with an opening weekend average of 2.2 million viewers. But comparing yourself to your own past is hardly an honest measure, considering athletics was only the fifth most watched sports program over the opening weekend during what TV executives consider the low point for annual television sports viewing in mid-July.
World Athletics understood it was taking a calculated gamble in putting their showpiece biennial championships in the United States in 2022, and specifically in Eugene, Oregon, in the northwest corner of the country in a difficult to reach small college town. Their calculation was based on Eugene’s unique reputation as Tracktown USA, the hotbed of track in America, and the coming 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. To capitalize on that selection, WA and USATF saw the opportunity to kick-start the fortunes of the sport in America with the World Champs staged at the Lamborghini of American track facilities, the new Hayward Field.
With its 10-day schedule of short sprinting and long walking, vaulting and hurdling, throwing and jumping, and running far, the World Athletics Championships cover the entire spectrum of human performance, portions of which are staged simultaneously in track’s unique three-ring circus presentation. It’s like a one-stop sporting mall for fast people, powerful people, agile people, and endurance people. Now look at the state of malls in America.
From a competitive standpoint, the World Champs in Eugene were a rousing success. The performances, especially by young homegrown stars like Sydney McLaughlin, Noah Lyles, and Athing Mu show potential to transcend the sport, A) if that is their goal, and B) if the marketing and promotion go right.
But marketing and promotion have never been a strong suit for this sport in the U.S., beyond what Nike does as the 800-pound gorilla of a sponsor. This is another vestige of track’s amateur past and federation governance that T&F has never been able to shed.
Track, as an organized sport, developed in America in the 19th century when leisure time was just becoming available to the average person. Before then, life on farms and work in factories was far too difficult and time-consuming to allow for leisure, except for the well-heeled. The average American worker earned approximately $12.98 per week for 59 hours of work in 1900—$674.96 a year – the equivalent of $23,810.71 in 2022 dollars. But there were no paid vacations, holidays, or sick leave.
As the Industrial Revolution brought more people to urban centers, and government over-site began to regulate labor laws after a series of worker strikes, an increasing number of people finally had the time and income to recreate. Eventually, sporting clubs formed, sports became codified, and formal competitions attracted participants and fans alike.
At the dawn of the 20th century, athletics was one of the most popular sports, along with boxing and thoroughbred horse racing. Other forms of running, jumping, and throwing developed as baseball, tennis, football, and eventually basketball.
Over time, these other sports superseded track and field in the marketplace of sports, as professionalism and marketing began separating the Haves from the Have-Nots, especially after 1960 with the advent of televised sports and the rise of the NFL through its commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Track evolved into a niche sport followed closely by a group of hard-core enthusiasts, except every four years when the Olympics rolled around, and track became the centerpiece of that world enterprise. Over the last decade, however, even there, track & field is no longer alone at the top of the Olympic sporting heap.
ST PETERSBURG, Russia, May 29, 2016 (Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee on Wednesday recalculated the rankings of the 26 sports federations in the Olympics to determine revenue distribution from the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. 2016 Rankings Group A. Aquatics, athletics, gymnastics. Group B Basketball, cycling, football, tennis, volleyball. Group C Archery, badminton, boxing, judo, rowing, shooting, table tennis, weightlifting. Group D Canoe/kayak, equestrian, fencing, handball, hockey, sailing, taekwondo, triathlon, wrestling. Group E Modern pentathlon, golf, rugby. - - - - Under the previous breakdown used for the 2012 Olympics, athletics was awarded about $47 million, Group B sports received about $22 million each, Group C $16 million and sports in Group D about $14 million. Previous rankings Group A Athletics Group B Aquatics, basketball, cycling, football, gymnastics, tennis, volleyball
The current attempt to make track and field more popular in America, therefore, may well be based on the false premise that it is possible for WA to make track that much more popular in America.
In many places in the world, life still revolves around a rural existence where the sporting opportunities are fewer, and sports like world football (soccer) and athletics (T&F) are all that’s available as they require less expense.
Kenya, home for many of the world’s dominant distance runners, is slowly being transformed from its current status as a developing country with emerging markets into a middle-income country. Originally working in the agricultural sector, most of Kenya is now moving towards industrialization. The manufacturing industries and the service sector currently produce 70% of its GDP, and create the most employment opportunities in the country.
At the 1996 Boston Marathon, three-time defending champion, Cosmas Ndeti of Kenya, hoped to run a world record time to punctuate the historic year. The weather, however, was not conducive for fast times, and Cosmas fell to third place after leading most of the race. His countryman, Moses Tanui, took top honors.
Two years later, following a training run along the Great Rift Valley, Moses considered the state of Kenyan running and its future. His conclusion was that the only thing that could derail the juggernaut that Kenyan distance running had become was modernity.
With the stunning vistas of the Great Rift yawning in the distance behind, the two-time Boston Marathon champion talked about having once walked 70 kilometers to attend a track meet as a 10-year-old boy. He didn’t ask for permission, or have a place to stay, he just went. He compared that experience with his own children living in a big house in Eldoret city and attending a nearby school.
Eventually, he saw that the hard-working lifestyle of rural Kenya that he knew as a boy would give way to a more urban-based existence for his children, or grandchildren. Once that happened, he thought, it would be difficult to keep Kenya at the top of the distance running world.
Similarly, in 2019, on a trip to Rwanda for the International Peace Marathon, we saw a new sports arena being erected alongside the old national stadium, as the NBA began investing in an African basketball league to help develop talent in that part of the world. Such moves are still in their infancy, but they are revelatory just the same, as they point toward the continuing evolution of sport in the developing world.
In America, the sporting landscape is forever restless and creative. Even as I am writing this, I am watching the World Axe Throwing Championships on ESPN. The many foreign-born athletes that compete in American pro and collegiate sports become co-opted by the teams and schools they play for. Shohei Otani is not a Japanese baseball player, he is an Anaheim Angels baseball player. Yet outside the Olympics and the World Championships where they run for national pride, track and field athletes represent nothing beyond their shoe company sponsor, nor are they allowed to market themselves beyond that narrow confine.
Within America’s cornucopia of sports, the perception exists that maybe the highest jumpers, the farthest throwers, and the longest jumpers are already playing other sports besides track and field. Perhaps only the very fastest runners compete in track, but even there, maybe not by that much.
We saw NFL Seattle Seahawks’ wide receiver DK Metcalf try his football speed against track specialists last year. It wasn’t at a big meet, USATF Golden Games, but he still ran a respectable 10.36 for 100 meters with no serious training.
Now, name the non-track celebrities that showed up in Eugene for the World Champs.
Actor Matthew McConaughey attended the Formula 1 French Grand Prix in Lewis Hamilton‘s Mercedes garage this weekend. We saw Mark Wahlberg at the Indy Car series race in Iowa. Tennis had David Beckham in the royal box at Wimbledon. Tom Cruise was there, as well.
While we did read excited social media messages from ex-NBA superstar Magic Johnson and ex-NFL star Shannon Sharpe about the Worlds, we didn’t hear Shannon talk about Eugene with co-host Skip Bayless on Undisputed, their daily national sports talk show on Fox TV, because their audience has a total focus on the American professional sports.
Another contributing factor to track’s lack of impact beyond its hard-core fan base is the rarely discussed topic of money. Whether fair or not, in America, money validates.
In the same week that Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray signed a five-year, $230 million contract extension, it feels somewhat paltry to ask for peoples’ attention to tell them a World Champion gold medalist in track will receive $70,000, and a world record setter will earn a $100,000 bonus. You don’t hand a big check out to a performer in front of the media that only has five zeros on it in the third decade of the 21st century; you keep it quiet.
Somebody had to make $1 million bucks, right? Well, not when the entire prize purse for the 10-day, 49-event meet was less than $9 million.
In short, with its mall-like, one-stop-for-all design, its low financial stakes compared to professional sports, and widespread international base that generates very few, if any, breakout stars, athletics is better designed for participation and on-site spectating by a knowledgeable crowd, rather than TV viewing by an audience weaned on ball sports with a violence chaser.
And when we look at the evidence in that realm, the sport is already wildly successful in America with 50 million self-identified road runners, the greatest level of participation of any sport at the high school level, and a robust feeder system at colleges and universities.
But World Athletics doesn’t want to accept this metric as its ultimate success in America, notwithstanding that’s where it truly lies. And good on them for trying to improve their fortunes.
But in its current form – 2000 athletes from 192 countries competing over 10 days every two years for $8.5m – track & field is simply an unwieldy anachronism for attracting a large following when other sports present more easily digestible expressions of speed, strength, and agility for significantly higher stakes on a regular calendar basis.
But that realization should not diminish what the sport of athletics is, nor affect what we saw in Eugene. Instead, remember what all coaches tell their new athletes, ‘First, have realistic expectations’. And the expectation that athletics can truly be a professional sport without a fundamental change in how it is currently organized is not being realistic.
So, let’s love it for what it is, not hate on it for what it’s not. Great job by all in Eugene, including World Athletics. Thanks for a great World Championships. It was exhausting, in all the right ways.