Sunday, October 2, 2022

U.S. track athletes dominate at world championships. U.S. fans, not so much.

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EUGENE, Ore. — The first track and field world championships held in the United States have delivered clear successes and highlighted profound challenges for the sport in the host country. Knowledgeable and passionate crowds provided electricity at Hayward Field. U.S. athletes have dominated the medal count and produced historic performances. But crowds have not always filled the stadium, and it is unclear how much the atmosphere in a track-mad city has penetrated elsewhere.

The sport’s leaders hoped the event would enhance the profile of track and field here. World Athletics, the global governing body of track and field, views America as a market “not punching its weight,” President Sebastian Coe said. It owns a powerhouse track and field team, 50 million recreational runners and a high school system in which more kids participate than any other sport (if cross-country is included).

By the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, World Athletics hopes track and field has grown in popularity, and it placed its marquee stand-alone event in the United States as part of that aim. As U.S. athletes produced on the track, the organization must wonder the effect the event will have on potential U.S. fans.

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“I feel the ball’s been dropped a little bit, not going to lie,” said sprinter Noah Lyles, who broke the 200 meters American record during the meet. “I feel there could have been way more advertisement on America’s side. This is an immaculate meet. This is by far the best track and field meet that America has had in years. And I’m watching these immaculate performances, and I’m like, ‘The crowd is here, yes. But gosh darn it was this not put together well.’ All the times are happening late at night. I’m still barely seeing much presence outside of what NBC is doing. Yes, people are talking about it. But people are late.

“It’s not so much the people inside of track. It’s the people who are trying to say they want to be a part of track, and they are not fully committed to distributing the information. People need to be saying how big of a deal this is or why this is so important. The whole story should be, ‘If you think this is amazing, just wait until L.A ….’ That’s what this is. This is a prelude to L.A.”

Coe allowed that most Americans who watched the world championships would have been inclined to do so regardless of their location. Being in the United States, though, provides a new set of data to study and learn from.

“For the very first time, it gives us a real-time audit of what we’re up against,” Coe said. “We’ll look at the viewing numbers. We’ll look at seats. We’ll look at stadium capacity. We’ll look at broadcast. We’ll look at the way it’s got covered, the penetration. But it’s a cluttered, complicated marketplace. It’s a tough nut to crack. It’s not been made easier by the fact that at a time when we probably should as a sport have been focusing on engagement and promoting the athletes, it didn’t happen in the way it should have been done.”

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Last Sunday’s coverage on NBC averaged 2.235 million TV-only viewers, according to the network. NBC boasted that it was the most watched track and field competition in the United States over the past 18 years outside of the Olympics and the U.S. Olympic trials. It also said it was the fifth-most watched sports program of the weekend, although that is a low bar to clear in the sports desert of mid-July.

The fans at Hayward Field have made the world championships feel worthy of the event’s global stature. “It really made us feel special as athletes,” American 400 gold medalist Michael Norman said. “The fans gave me almost chills.”

The problem is, there have not been many of them compared to other championships. Hayward Field has a capacity of about 30,000. Once sponsors and delegations from every country were taken care of, it sold about 12,000 seats per session. It still sold 90 percent of available tickets, with some but not all night sessions selling out.

If you want to put on the best track meet in the United States, Eugene is an obvious choice. If you want to expand the reach of the sport in the United States, it is not the best choice. Only locals or fans willing to make a long pilgrimage could have attended. Both of those groups are composed of people track and field already has.

This week, Lyles overheard a local resident say, “I know this is the world championships, but I’m all tracked out.” Since May, Hayward Field had hosted the Prefontaine Classic, the NCAA championships and the U.S. championships. The frequency of major events may have spread local enthusiasm out.

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“We knew there was a risk,” Coe said. “I do politely make the point there weren’t a lot of options available. There should have been, and we should have engaged earlier.”

Coe wished more cities had engaged with USATF, but only Eugene pushed to host after World Athletics made clear it wanted to bring the event to the United States. World Athletics changed its host city selection process and could now engage directly with a possible city rather than only a country’s governing body, Coe said.

“We can’t keep relying on Eugene to be our epicenter of track and field,” Lyles said. “There are other places we can go. When we went to New York for the Grand Prix [in early June], their interaction was just as strong as the interaction I had at Prefontaine. We don’t have to have everything in Eugene. We can get the same interaction in other places. We just to have to market and get people knowing we’re going there.”

World Athletics is trying to help in a country it believes, Coe said, has not always marketed track and field well. World Athletics and USATF have formed an initiative called “Project USA” to increase popularity here. As part of that, World Athletics is funding a documentary in the style of “Drive to Survive,” the Netflix hit that spurred a surge of popularity in Formula One car racing.



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