July 7, 2014

Track is dead - for now



It's been a little more than a week since collegian Devon Allen crossed the finish line in the men's 110 hurdles at the 2014 USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships, upsetting the pros in one of year's best sports stories and closing out an impressive meet for USATF athletes. In the days that followed, several Americans ran blistering times in Europe and competed for wins on the biggest stages in the world. The U.S. 10k championship saw one of road running's new standouts finish ahead of even more heralded peers, underscoring an almost unprecedented depth in American distance running. The USATF Junior Outdoor Championships showcased stunning talent from the sport's next generation of elites.

And none of those events made much more than a ripple in the larger sporting world, as the World Cup and Wimbledon dominated international news, NBA rumors swirled on Sports Center, and MMA continued its determined march to become a new national pastime.

Track and field is not simply losing the battle for mainstream popularity. That battle, at least as we conceptualize it now, is lost altogether. The sport's fans and athletes need to stop pretending otherwise.

Watching on TV, it was impossible not to notice the near-empty backstretch during much of last weekend's championships. When Trey Hardee, the world's best athlete in 2014, soared over 2.05m in the high jump and proceeded to celebrate the clearance, my well-meaning wife asked aloud, "Who is he celebrating for?" When the camera panned out, it did indeed seem Hardee, set against that backdrop of abandoned bleachers, was all alone in his excitement.

On Saturday, Sacramento attracted 9,227 track and field fans to a stadium with a capacity of over 20,000. The same day, the Sacramento River Cats reported an attendance of 12,505. That's a minor league baseball team outdrawing track and field's national championships -- in the same city.

I suppose it's strange, then, that I couldn't be happier with the state of the sport. Several U.S. track meets each year still attract respectable audiences (though often only at hyper-insular Hayward Field in Oregon, or at meets where high school kids and their families make up a significant portion of attendees, like at the Drake and Penn Relays). There are quality athletics circuits in Europe in which American athletes can compete, and the U.S. is home to the world's strongest Olympic team.

So while track is basically obsolete as a spectator sport, outside a very few events in Olympic years, it isn't dying among hardcore fans. That's better news than anyone I've talked to about track's declining popularity seems to realize.

Here's what track and field fans need to be able to see: the mainstream is lame. "Runner's World" kicked off this year with a cover announcing its 2014 marathon guide, complete with the sub-head, "Great food, craft beer, scenic courses, good times!" This is what mainstream running has become -- a preference for parties and spectacles over races, for "good" times instead of fast ones. "Runner's World" has done as much to support track and field as any publication, and probably more. But its editors have to pay the bills, too. They know they can't survive only by catering to the competitive athlete. And yet that spirit of competition is what separates track and field from the marathon mainstream who believe participation, not performance, should be the focus of our races; from the mud runners who don't have the stomach for the cold, hard numbers of the stopwatch and therefore eschew finishing clocks altogether; from those who would make the 10k footrace a rarity because it is too short to brag about simply completing but too long and painful for a recreational effort. These are the potential fans we're trying to win over?

I cannot count the number of conversations I have had over the years about saving a flailing sport. Advice ranges from selling beer in stadiums to shortening meet schedules to brining in live bands to play during breaks in action. None of these ideas are bad. But the mere presence of beer can't change the fact that great track races are nuanced dances decided by subtle moves that seem either invisible or obvious to untrained fans. Live bands can't make the beauty of a 5.80m jump look much different than 5.30m to fans new to the pole vault.

In a recent essay, Margalit Fox, a New York Times obituary writer, described the best work done in her trade as "long, rigorous, and satisfyingly complex." An astute reader will note the irony in the fact that Ms. Fox seeks to create meaningful and complicated tributes at a time when readers seem to be turning away from complexity by the thousands and millions -- that the very death notices she carefully crafts might be contributing to her profession's demise. That doesn't mean she should stop writing them.

Track and field is operating within the same paradigm. Fans were leaving in a steady stream when Molly Huddle and Shannon Rowbury battled to a beautiful, agonizing 1-2 finish in the women's 5000m in Sacramento. Such races compel many of us to continue to care about the sport. But the 15 minutes it took for that race to reach its climax was too long for Sacramento's fans to wait. That doesn't mean we should stop contesting grueling races that take 12 1/2 laps to properly unfold.
Track's obituary, at least as its played out in conventional media, should fit Ms. Fox's criteria, the sport's storied past made up as it is of four-minute miles; of the crumbling of racial barriers in Berlin in 1936, in Mexico City in 1968, and in high school locker rooms before and in-between and since; of duels in the sun and Pre's rock and Billy Mills taking on all comers and running them into the ground. But all obituaries, no matter how positive, mark deaths nonetheless.

Fortunately, a death of one kind will lead to a rebirth of another. There will always be a place for rich narrative, both in print and on the track. Newspapers used to cater to the masses; now, the best of them have found a niche with educated readers who appreciate stories that take longer than a few minutes to absorb. The audience isn't spread as wide as it once was, but its foundation is still solid. Track's advocates need to take a similar tack.

We cringe when announcers convert metric marks into feet and inches though track and field officially abandoned imperial measurements years ago. We take to message boards to vent our frustrations when television coverage favors fluffy personality profiles over live events. But we endure these things because we hope, wrongheadedly, that we can attract the attention of the American sports fan. Meanwhile, he's following the NBA free agency market.

Once we stop trying to strip away track and field's essential elements -- simplicity, tradition, purity of competition -- to cater to those who might flip the channel anyway, we can bolster the sport among those who appreciate it for the right reasons. In so doing, we might paradoxically even make a few new fans along the way -- fans who don't need to be condescended to in order to understand the slow, patient development of contests that follow time-honored ebbs and flows. We didn't know if distance-oriented Huddle would be able to outkick the fast-finishing Rowbury, but we knew we'd seen that race before, and we had seen it won both ways. Every race is different, but the same.

None of this is to suggest track and field shouldn't evolve in some ways. It can and will. But if we continue to advocate pushing it toward the mainstream, we risk eroding the base we have left. We need to embrace track for what it is: a minor sport with some of the coolest, most devoted fans in the world. We need to reject the elements of American sports culture that would water down the parts of our sport we appreciate most. By doing this, we'll realize we're freer than at any time in recent memory to breathe life into the sport in the many places and ways it still matters.

Forget about new fans for a while. Soccer in the U.S. is a testament to that strategy. The most popular sport in the world struggled to gain traction in the U.S. for years. Critics said low scores and long, uninterrupted stretches of play were unsuited to the American psyche. The United States Soccer Federation didn't respond by shortening games or by hosting carnivals at half-time. It focused on marketing the game as it is -- not as critics said it should be -- then promoted its stars and trusted that American audiences would come around. They did.

Track and field will benefit from fan-friendly, elite-only meets that last under two hours, as many have argued. Relatively recent innovations like street vaults inject much-needed energy into field events. We just don't need those things to the exclusion of the annoying-but-necessary all-day track meets that give youngsters a chance to compete, or the all-night distance affairs in Palo Alto and elsewhere that produce lightning-fast track times.

We desperately need, also, to support grassroots track and field. In San Diego, the Summer Nights track and field circuit and the Dirt Dog cross country races provide ready-made examples of how to connect ordinary athletes to their elite brethren. The two series are stripped-down contests that offer little more than a chance to compete against like-minded locals. There are no finisher medals, no prize money, and entry fees are often as low as $5. You either run fast or you don't. Your prize is self-satisfaction or nothing. Unsurprisingly, these events are more fun than any costly road race I've ever run. They're also increasingly rare, even as they're inexpensive and simple to host.

We need to to support specialized websites like LetsRun and Flotrack that do an excellent job of covering the competitive side of the sport. We need to patronize the clubs and local running stores that support burgeoning pros and, while we're at it, we need more local clubs that are as focused on competition -- at all levels -- as they are on social gatherings. We need to be willing to pay for tickets to attend high-level meets when they do happen. We need more dual meets, more all-comers meets, more head-to-head rivalries. We need elites who are willing to log a few easy miles with their local club rather than doing all their recovery runs when the rest of us are at work.

In short, we need to stop worrying about the people who don't yet appreciate track and focus on those who already do.

We've lost the battle for mainstream popularity; the upside is that by hitting bottom, we're free to discard a business model that was broken anyway. Only by embracing this reality will we realize how much we stand to gain as a result.

41 comments:

  1. I, for one, do not cringe when when announcers convert metric units to imperial units. I'm a 61 year old engineer who has been a runner for more than 30 years. Engineering in the United States is still done in pounds, feet and inches. When I run, I pace myself in minutes per mile. I can't tell you what the metric distance is for a half marathon, despite the fact that I have run dozens of them. When I take the line in Hopkinton next April 20, I intend to run 26 miles, 385 yards. I don't know the metric conversion for that distance. I remember watching Bob Beamon long jump 29 feet 2-1/2 inches in Mexico City on a black and white TV. If someone with my professional training and sports background is so easily alienated by the basic math of track and field, why should a more casual observer exert the effort to understand?

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    1. Everyone will have his or her preferences, but when the rest of the world is using metric measurements and our bars in the high jump and pole vault go up in centemeters, not inches, it's backwards not to evolve. I'm not saying we should convert imperial races (the mile is the best example) into metric (1609 meters is confusing for anyone). If you're running primarily road races, sticking to imperial makes a lot of sense. Just not on the track. (And for what it's worth, a half marathon is roughly 21K).

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    2. Great column. It's hard for track to be super popular because you are right - if you don't know the story behind the race, it's hard to appreciate it.

      I agree with nearly all of it and it's in line with a section we have already written for our weekly recap - The Week That Was - on LetsRun.com. We're going to add a part about your column in there.

      I too disagree with the field event stuff. As a running fan, the metric marks mean nothing to my brain, but 8 feet in the HJ or 20 feet in the pole vault mean a lot to my brain.

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    3. Robert, thanks for reading! We can disagree on the field event marks, but I bet you'd change your mind if you payed more attention to the vertical jumps. (I could be wrong.) I've watched a lot of pole vaulting -- A LOT. Here are the first four heights in the progression at USAs: 5.40, 5:50, 5.60, 5.65. In imperial: 17' 8 19/32", 18' 0 17/32", 18' 4 15/32", 18' 6 7/16". Which is cleaner? It's akin to David Rudisha running 1:40.91 for 800m and having a friend ask you, "OK, but what does that convert to for a half mile?" It's outdated. I'm in favor of running the mile rather than 1500 at non-championship U.S. meets, but the fact of the matter is that we run 1500m internationally -- at some point, 3:30 for men and 4:00 for women have to mean something in their own right without us constantly asking what the equivalents are for a mile. Same goes for vaulting/jumping/throwing. Go to a meet some time, follow the event closely from start to finish, and you'll start thinking in metric measurements. It just takes a little bit of time, and the payoff is that we don't have to keep bouncing back and forth between the way the rest of the world thinks (and the way hardcore American fans and atheletes think, too!) and conversions, just to make it palatable for fans who don't pay that much attention anyway. Ask an elite U.S. jumper or thrower their PB and I guarantee they'll give it to you in meters first.

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    4. Paul, everyone knows that runners (except for basically you and me) don't follow or care about field events. However I'm not totally sure that anyone other than maybe the vertical jumpers (and it really might only be the PV'ers) are more knowledgeable about their mark in metric vs feet and inches. Certainly the long and triple jumpers care more about feet and inches than metric - and this even goes for the elites (although obviously most of my experience is HS/college).

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  2. Excellent article. I completely agree. There is a more difficult beauty to understand in watching a track race. Values and ideals (simplicity, tradition, purity of competition, patience) that aren't necessarily profitable are still important and part of what makes running so fascinating for its hardcore fans. I think we inevitably run the risk of compromising those values when we try to appeal to the mainstream.

    Track and field shouldn't want fans and money for the sake of fans and money. This was a very refreshing read.

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  3. Thank you for writing the article, and bringing attention to the current state of Track and Field. As a female pole vaulter, who clearly understood the conversion of 4 meters (13' 1 1/2"), in my brain it's "high," that 5 and 6 meters for the guys were "awesome," that raising the bar 15 cm meant 6 inches, 10 cm mean 4", and for every spectator that didn't vault, it seemed more of a matter of simply "who looked coolest" or who was the last one in when the bar went up, I really don't think the conversion factor is a big deal. With conversion aps readily available, I don't see any reason not to join the rest of the world in metric.

    I believe we need to focus on YOUTH! They are the future of track and field, yet PE classes are being dropped from curriculums around the country. How can we expect kids to get into track and field when there's no emphasis on youth running? It can be so simple to put on a youth track and field all-comers meet to get kids interested, but why aren't more people doing it? I grew up in OR with 2 district-wide running events, the "Jacee Relays," which every child tried out in every school, making a boys, girls, and coed relay team for each grade in each school to compete against the district. Then the "Awesome 3000" (or 1500 for Kindergarten). Our PE teacher prepared us for these events and encouraged everyone to participate. We ran a mile EVERY Thursday. Now, if schools aren't encouraging running, its up to parents. When they only have an opportunity to choose from a few club sports, what are they going to do? The fact is, running is cheaper than any other sport, so why not focus on creating simple running programs at the elementary school level.

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  4. Of course metric conversions suck, and suck hard. I too am a 61-year old and agree with the first writer, an engineer. Metric conversions mean nothing at all to me, yet a seven foot high jump, a 70' shot put, a 30' barrier in the long jump, a 60' triple jump and a 300' javelin mark cannot be replicated in metric form. The meter is way too big a unit of measurement for field events--when someone high jumps 2.34, that means absolutely nothing to me. Give it to me in feet and inches when we are in the United States. The sites that print the results in metric are just as much to blame for track going down in this country as any other reason. A big part of track is standardizing events so even generations apart can be compared, and I remember all the progressions of track and field as world records were set, IN FEET AND INCHES!!! And I want to compare today's athletes with yesterday's marks, which were made and reported in FEET AND INCHES!! Very simple. Let the European countries report their results however they want, but changing English marks to metric is killing purists in THIS country.
    Here is another big, big one, and it's also the standard set by the Olympics, just like meters. It's the Olympic curve for the starting line. Instead of starting lines in front of the stands, at the 50-yard line, directly in front of the spectators, we have them start way down the track, almost to the first curve, where we can only see them at a great distance, and see their backs, at that. Can't see the athletes as they are being introduced, can't see the finish either--it's too far down the track. Let the runners start in the middle of the track, and the times won't suffer at all! Still the same distance around, and I think the 400 meters and 400 hurdles would actually improve for the runners, so that they could start straight for a little while and get up a head of steam before having to lean into the curve. As it is, they start off turning to the left. But mainly, the spectators can't see them and can't see the finish. Move the finish to the middle of the track. Simple. Used to be that way, too, when track was taken more seriously. And I think that was the original reason given for moving the start line to the curve; so that the spectators could see the runners battle all the way down the homestretch. Well, it hasn't worked and there are way too many drawbacks; if the finish were in the middle, we could still see the battle as it progressed around the last curve and see the runners finish right in front of us AND tell who won, as the line would be visible to way more spectators, and closer to us in the stands.
    Pacesetters kill track, too. Tune in to a race from Europe and it's hard to tell who is actually running the race and who is going to drop out. You assume that the best runners are leading, and you watch them, only to see them quit after halfway. Marks set with pacesetters breaking the wind and who have no intention of finishing should not be acceptable; it's cheating. Nobody runs the race except people who are going to finish!
    -Robert McGinnis, robmcgin@yahoo,com

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    1. I'm with the author on the metric/imperial argument. I think the most important thing to note is that if we pay attention, the metric marks will not only make sense, but will be a whole lot easier to keep track of. As a LJ comp is going on, it's a whole lot easier to remember that 8.24 leads, with 8.02 in second and 7.96 in third. It's not the easiest to your brain RIGHT NOW, but if you are a fan and pay attention for just a couple of meets, you'll prefer it. I guarantee it.

      The barriers argument is not a good one. In the PV we have 6m and 5m as super-elite barriers. In the LJ, we have 8m and 7m as likely near world-leads and elite barriers. The women's HJ has the same with 2m, and the men with 2.40m. In the M Jav anything between 80 and 90m is world-class, with over 90m being super-elite. In the W Jav we have the same thing with 60-70m.

      The barriers are all still there, and in fact they are a whole lot easier to keep track of. I promise that if you pay attention you will lock into the metric marks and prefer them 10:1.

      Another thing that I would like to note is that the metric marks would be a whole lot better if we would change the way field events are packaged on TV. When we just show two-three throws/jumps in a row leading up to whoever won, there's no context and no entertainment. You guys should watch the Monaco Diamond League meet online on the 18th. Watch how they show several jumps/throws throughout the meet broadcast. Some might be misses in the vertical jumps, fouls in the horizontals, or poor throws, but that's what makes the field events so exciting. When they do show one live and someone hits a monster, it changes the whole game. You'll not be able to wait to see the next attempt. Pay attention. Watch the meets. Educate yourselves as fans and leave your bubble. If you don't know that 8.50m in the Long Jump is really really good, or that 5 people over 2.40m in the high jump this year is a huge deal, you're not doing that well as a fan.

      Notice the Tour De France... do the announcers ever convert km to miles? No. Because the fans have adapted and learned to prefer the simplicity of the metric system. We need to do the same.

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  5. Excellent article, which addresses most of the concerns of us hardcore fans.
    I'm afraid I have to add my voice to the metric haters. Feet and inches are exciting, meters just make me lose interest in the field events.
    Perhaps the youth can be won over to meters, but we fans who have been following track and field for many years detest 'em.

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  6. T&F has problems for the very simple reason that it refuses to learn from history. It's a common thing that happens in sports. The SF 49ers of the early 2000s refused to learn from their own history - they ignored the staggeringly successful methods of Bill Walsh. The Raiders won't learn from the Niners or Seahawks at any cost. And T&F will NOT learn from the Diamond League.

    Would it really take THAT much money to put on meets that compress TV coverage to two hours; that use a single set of sophisticated cameras (they can be hauled between meets; that have Tim Hutchins on mic with a very informed, very well-prepared commentator? And PLEASE take the rest of the meet off the air - the endless meandering video and blathering, poorly prepared commentators, hour after hour - it not only does no good to the sport; it detracts.

    The reason America won't learn from the BBC is that our egos are huge, and track has its head up its collective butt. Nobody can tell us anything. The very definition of stupid. It could be so much better.

    And while I'm ranting - teach athletes to be courteous, give expansive interviews, and just generally BEHAVE. The demeanor of the sprinter who repeatedly turned his back on the young girl at the Paris Diamond League who tried several times to offer him a bouquet of flowers after he'd won his event was an absolute disgrace.

    USATF could learn so much if it crawled out of its cave and started learning about technology, programming, presentation, rapid video editing, and proper preparation.

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  7. Paul, Your column is now linked to the front page of the Track and Field News website! Congratulations on this well-deserved recognition.

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  8. For the most part, Runbei, I've found track athletes to be the most approachable of any sport I follow. I've chatted with Carl Lewis, Ashton Eaton, Trey Hardee, Maurice Green, Jesse Owens (yeah, I'm an old guy) and dozens of others I won't bore you with. All of those guys I mentioned are or will be Hall of Famers. Meanwhile, just try to get close to that guy on the end of an NBA bench or an MLB dugout. Kobe, LeBron, ARod....closest you'll ever get to any of those guys is from your seat. Sure, there are a few like that idiot in Paris, but for the most part track athletes will give you as much time as you'd like and are happy to sign and chat.

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  9. "I too disagree with the field event stuff. As a running fan, the metric marks mean nothing to my brain, but 8 feet in the HJ or 20 feet in the pole vault mean a lot to my brain."

    This works both ways: Does 6'6 3/4" mean so much to you?(the 2-meter barrier means a lot to the international brain in high school and/or women's high jump). Or 19'8 1/4? (that's the elite 6-meter pole vault barrier). Women long jumpers have no meaningful barrier to break in the U.S.: 22'? 23'? 24'? But 7 meters is very significant to internationals (fans and athletes). Neither system is "superior;" it all depends on what you are used to.

    Critics of T&F's popularity always compare it to that of football, baseball, basketball, hockey, or a couple of others. But we're not so bad off if we compare it to swimming, gymnastics, volleyball, badminton, judo and the other martial arts, fencing, wrestling, water polo, cycling, field hockey, lacrosse, boxing, equestrian sports, rowing, weightlifting, etc., etc., etc.

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  10. Let's stop the lie about imperial being the death of track and field. Let's also stop the lie that HJ, PV, LJ, and other field events are the issue. That's a lie; most of the people in track and field wouldn't give two fake nickels for the field events.

    The"imperial" argument is only ever brought up by the distance running crowd, and it's because they want to "bring back the mile". This, despite the fact that most of the people who run 5K or 10K for charity have no idea how far a 10k or a 5K is, but they still run them and get this - attempt to compare times. Why? Because as long as the distance is standardized it makes no difference. Look at how many people brag about their half-marathon times? How standard is that distance? I've never heard field eventers crying about metric. In fact, many readily accept it. 21.00/22.00 shot put; 5.00 wPV/6.00 mPV; 7.00 wLJ/8.00 mLJ (and a meter less for a man or woman is basically a "good" high schooler). The metric complaints all come from people who want the sport to re-adopt the mile - as if changing the distance is going to catapult American men back to distance running relevancy pre-'80s (Manzano and Centrowitz not withstanding).

    The entire "imperial" only argument falls down because in all of our everyday lives we use arbitrary measurements, that are not standardized, to gauge levels of virtually everything and we accept it. There is not a factor of difference between an amplifier turned up to 9 or 10 (or 11 if you're Nigel Tufnel). And everyone uses standard category measurements for hurricanes and no one understands it; same for richter scale, yet it's quoted every time we get an earthquake. Daytona 500 is considerably longer than the Food City 500 at Bristol, and the fans still get it. Why? Because the first to the finish line wins! Person who throws the farthest wins! Person who jumps the highest wins! Person who runs the fastest wins! Whether it's telephone pole to telephone pole or 1500m. Again, the imperial argument is a red-herring.

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  11. Track is far from dead, its simply not a popular spectator sport in this country and wont be for the foreseeable future. However on a participatory level it is thriving. The number two high school boy's sport and number one for girls in terms of participation numbers. This is the largest reason for the US being to top team in the world. US also boosts the largest number of competition suitable track facilities in the world. So dead no, just don't expect to see it leading Sportscenter.

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  12. This has been brought up before elsewhere, but the broadcast for all meets can and should be simplified greatly. Show one event at a time. Show it in its entirety. Don't cut away from a 5000 two laps in to go to commercial. Don't only show the high jump sporadically during other events. Many times, no, almost every time, this results in missing key parts of the competition. All of the field events are exciting when shown in their entirety. They only become "boring" or "annoying" to fans when they are shown solely as an interruption to a distance race. Equally, those who are actually watching the distance races don't get bored by watching them start-to-finish. In fact, we actually prefer it. Taking the camera off of the action (even for 60 seconds) can be enough to completely miss something key.

    Showing the meets in this fashion really shouldn't be difficult, and frankly, would probably be easier from a production standpoint. No human interest stories, no cuts between events, and no commercials mid event. Keep the standings up on the screen at (almost) all times, a running clock, and a lap counter. Not too difficult I would imagine.

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  13. I have announced college track meets at both Cal and Stanford for many years. The 2014 NCAA Rule Book Section 14 page 44 says: "Field-event results shall be announced imperially and metrically." I announce the metric mark first and then I follow with the imperial mark.
    Keith Conning, Pleasanton, CA

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  14. I was at the recent USTAF meet in Sacramento driving up for the final two days with my son. The seats on the back stretch were mainly empty and as one of the nearby fans stated" why don't they give those seats to the kids in high school?". I think that is how we can win more fans is to give those cheap seats away to help fill the stands. Probably will get even some parents to come with them!

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  15. I am a hard core track fan and was bored at the USA Championships in Sacramento. If it is the nuances that make our sport interesting to us, then we need to do more to make those nuances more obvious and meaningful. What is essential to the sport does not have to change, but the way in which it is presented should be altered to be more engaging. Meet and sport managers need to take what is fundamentally exciting within the sport (head to head competition) and build a meet experience from scratch around this, only adding elements that heighten the emotional impact within fans, and nixing the ones that distract from it. Meets now do little more than put athletes on the line, asking the spectator to have an active imagination in developing story lines around a race; defining the heroes and the villains in the field of competitors. What makes sports so powerful is their ability to unify people to root for a common athlete or team as they take on a foe. Sports that allow fans to take ownership in the wins of the competitors because they represent a fan base on the field are the ones that are successful; sports that do not do this will always be on the fringe. Aside from a track athlete's family, friends or management, not very many people really care if they win USA Champs. Unless it is done in the World Champs or the Olympics, track performances are interchangeable from meet to meet and athlete to athlete, as a win is only owned by the athlete who accomplishes the feat. The nuances of track would become meaningful if wins were meaningful to a greater population. Our soul does not have to be drowned in the mainstream to become popular, we simply need to do some thinking on what elicits a feeling of excitement in us when watching a race, and be able to package that feeling in an experience that will evoke a similar one in a potential fan. The lack of fans is the main reason why elite track athletes struggle financially. Minimal fans leads to minimal compensation, which leads to talented track athletes pursuing other opportunities outside of the sport.

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    1. Couldn't agree more. As a fan of the sport, give me a reason to cheer for the individual athlete. If Leo Manzano, for example, were to win a Diamond League race, what does that mean to me? Other than "racing" (losing, horribly) to the guy, I have no real connection or rooting interest for him. I also don't care that he didn't have a sponsor or finally got one. What I would care about is if Manzano, or any other professional runner, joined the Portland team and helped us kick Seattle's ass, or something. But there are no Portland or Seattle teams and there are no meaningful rivalries for fans.

      Your average professional T&F athlete lives off of the money they receive from their brand sponsors and wears those brands around everywhere they go. So what? The most successful sports in the United States (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) give fans jerseys with their city on the front, their favorite player's name on the back, and plenty of well-thought-out TV coverage. It also seems like none of those four major leagues has as much direct participation in the sport as Track & Field. People run.

      It feels like there an enormous untapped T&F fan base in the US right now that is receiving terrible direction from the media and has no meaningful connection to the athletes. Give the sport the infrastructure it needs to grow, give me, as a fan, more reasons to care about an athlete's performance, and give a very strong consideration to how effective the media's portrayal of T&F is.

      Thank you for the refreshing post, Jeff.

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    2. You make some excellent points, thank you. I hope a lot of people read this article and the replies, particularly yours.

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  16. I watched the USATF TV webcast from Sacto
    It was the most boring thing I had ever seen. Just god awful. And I'm s track fan

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  17. What I'd like to see is T&F borrowing the best complimentary ideas from three other sports without changing its own basics; from cycling the yellow champion shirt, from sumo wrestling having six "world" championships per year instead of one every second year, and from soccer the rotating continents schedule for championship hosting. Also, for those six world championships a year each single event should leave the big meets format and host itself separately for maximum media focus (that's not to say big meets apart from that should be broken up, the Diamond League and others would still fill a role, stay with me).

    Let's use the 5000 meters for example:

    Here's first how the six world championships could be rotated: January (Australia), March (Asia), May (North America), July (Europe), September (Africa) and November (South America).

    Second: Straight up finals with 32 men and 32 women. The 10 best from the previous final are directly qualified for the next one, that way the battle/battles behind the medalists will be important too. The reigning champ runs with a yellow champion shirt.

    Third: 18 of the remaining 22 spots are to be sent by each continent federation as they see fit to chose (Australia 3, Asia 3, North America 3, Europe 3, Africa 3 and South America 3). This leaves room to try out different qualification and public attraction methods in various parts of the World.

    Fourth: 3 of the remaining 4 spots are to be handed out by the IAAF as Wild Cards one or two weeks before the next championship takes place. And of course, the very last spot should be voted in as a final Wild Card by THE FANS and the ticket buyers in the organizing city!

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    1. Sounds clever. The personal rivalries and stories of the athletes are what make the races interesting and would make them popular if highlighted. Now if only any of us had any power to make these changes rather than type on a keyboard and speculate what may work

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  18. Inches sminches. Meters smeters. Let's use smoots as the unit of measurement. It works for MIT.

    Now trying to be half serious, I agree with Keith Conning, just announce the result both imperially and metrically. Everyone is then happy!

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  19. As far as this year's U.S. championships were concerned, did anyone notice the lack of several "stars' participating this year? This was an "off" year for track and field that occurs every 4 years when there are no Olympics or Worlds so what is the Incentive for some of the top U.S. names to compete? And as far as the metric vs. imperial argument is concerned, when it was attempted to be introduced to the typical American sports fan 30 or 40 years ago, "1st down and 9.144 meters to go" or "Reggie Jackson just hit a 121.92 meter homerun out of the park"!!!" just didn't cut it. And I remember Bob Beamon's 1968 Mexico City long jump and wondered: "What the hell is 8.90 meters???"

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  20. Not weighing in on the metric/imperial debate, but on this point about the "marathon mainstream. I want to dissent, just a bit. In a nutshell, I agree that you should not water down the sport merely to make it more palatable for casual fans. I also get that some forums -- rightly -- focus on the elite aspect of the sport. That said, I object to the sense of disdain as to non-elites.

    (1) I guess I am part of the marathon mainstream that the author seems not to like -- I am a 46-year old female who ran a marathon last year after several years running 5Ks, then 10Ks, then a bunch of half-marathons and only then a full. NOTE: While I am not winning these races, I do care about my time. I get the stopwatch. I don't get in the way of faster runners, I train, and I am looking to improve. I am not running in gimmicky, expensive "experience" runs. I look for top three in my age group and I am keenly aware that I am a couple of minutes from my BQ.

    Are there people who run "for the experience." Yes, of course. But are there also people (like me) who run for time, age group place and PRs, even if they don't win? Yes! With that in mind, I think that author's dichotomy -- i.e., front of the pack (where the cool, niche sport lives) and the middle and back of pack (where, apparently, we all don't care about time and are in it for medals and the experience) is simplistic and unhelpful. I get that you don't want to rearrange track and field entirely for casual fans or slower runners. Makes sense to me. But, the sense that only a select few are cool enough to be T&F fans seems counter-productive.

    (2) In this regard, reserving your sport for the cool kids -- if it means categorizing everyone "else" as uncompetitive, not-cool and clueless -- has consequences. As it stands now, most professional track and field athletes barely make ends meet (if that). While you don't have to cater to the non-elite crowd, you might want to recognize that without non-elites buying shoes, buying gear and entering races, the lack of financial support for professional athletes would only get worse.

    (3) Many elites have commented on the good atmosphere and knowledgeable crowds at European meets -- even smaller meets. Is there something that we could learn from these meets? Are folks in Europe doing a better job of blending the cool, niche aspect of the sport with fandom? I don't know.

    (4) I am all for supporting forums -- like letsrun -- that focus on the elite aspect of the sport. But, please be aware of how women get treated on the message boards. When female runners are discussed on letsrun, the conversation generally devolves into a discussion of the runner's relative hotness (or lack thereof), whether the poster would sleep with the runner, how stupid the runner is, what a head case the runner is, and so on. And, that's the tame stuff. The growth in running (in terms of participation) is due largely to the influx of women. It's possible for women to care about time, to be competitive and to care about place. Again, I am all for focusing on the elite aspect of the sport -- but at least recognize that some of the places where this happens carry a healthy dose of sexism.

    I expect that many of you will disagree vehemently with this post. I would just challenge you to think more broadly -- and more creatively -- about how you can keep the cool aspects of the sport -- and its core identify -- for devoted fans without actively excluding those not at the front of the pack.

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    1. Hey, thanks for your comment. You have plenty of great insight here, and I hope others take note, especially as to the way some women are treated in the sport. However, I do want to be clear that competition itself is what matters -- not how well you do in that competition. You're top three in age-group races? That's awesome. But even if you're not, as long as you're really RACING, then looking at your watch when you finish and subsequently trying to get better, you're part of the "hardcore" group I was trying to describe. My issue is with the participants who don't even care. My fault if that wasn't clear from the outset.

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    2. I'd also like to point out that if you are in the ball park of your BQ then you probably take the sport seriously.

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    3. Thank you, belatedly, for these responses. Just two final thoughts.

      (1) First, I appreciate the competing vs. not competing distinction. You were clear about this -- I jumped down your throat a bit :-). What I should have done, more skillfully, is raise questions about how the track world draws the line between those who compete and those who don't. I personally enjoy the reality of the stop watch -- it provides remarkable clarity, and it keeps me honest. That said, I will always be a very average runner. If you hang around the letsrun message boards, it is clear that are people who think "hobby joggers" like me -- middle-aged female, happy when I snag a PR, or place well in my age group -- are a sign of the running apocalypse. That's the dichotomy that is frustrating. Yes, I am a hobby jogger -- thank god we don't depend on my "winnings" to make ends meet, after all. But, at least in non-elite road races, there are a lot of average folks like me. I'd love for track to figure out a way to leverage this group as fans/ supporters of elite racing, so that elites and emerging elites could earn a decent living.

      (2) I wonder whether there is room for the non-competitive runners in the sport. I personally am not a fan of the color runs, warrior dashes, etc. But, I do know people who use those races as a first step -- towards competing, when running with kids (at least the color runs), etc. I have no trouble with some races catering to the super-competitive fast folks, some catering to the average runners like me trying to snag PRs or the BQ, and some catering to folks for whom running at all is a personal victory.

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    4. Absolutely agree with the anonymous comment, and have to contend with the author's response, about the "participants who don't even care." Who is it bothering if someone enters a race just for the sake of finishing said race? Especially a marathon - a distance which, for many people, is trying enough. For most, that is a goal and accomplishment on its own, so I don't see how it could possibly bother anyone that these people aren't obsessing over times/PRs/splits. Not everyone grew up playing sports, or running, or racing, so for most folks, finishing a race like this *does* suffice. Nobody is taking anything away from the competitive athletes.

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    5. I think you two have admirable motivations -- it's never a bad thing to try to be compassionate toward others -- but you're setting the bar too low. It does no one any favors. Think of it this way: A race is a test. Equate training with studying, and the stopwatch with your final grade. We won't all have the same academic abilities, and a B or C might be as good as we can do -- but if we studied and focused during the exam, that's still something to be proud of. However, what you're arguing is that we should be praising the people who didn't study and don't care what their grade is. No, they don't take anything away from the diligent students, but neither are they worthy of much praise. All they did is show up on time and fill in all the answers (never minding that most of them are wrong). When we set our expectation this low, and say that participation is the same as performance, we dilute the very best parts about our *sport.* It is a sport, after all, and sports have results attached to them. Want to go out and jog? Fine. I do that all the time, too. I just don't confuse it with trying to excel. I'm all for encouraging others to get out and run for the first time. But do you want to truly support them after that? Then challenge them to get faster in their next race. It doesn't matter if they're objectively fast or not -- the willingness to really and truly *do your best* is honorable. And yes, harsh as it may sound, it is *more* honorable than showing up and just finishing. (P.S. You're not a hobby-jogger -- the LetsRun crowd is often awesome, but some of the message board folks are out of touch. I don't factor them into these discussions.)

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  21. Re: T&F: Youth Club and High School Team participation are doing very well for the most part. The NCAA killed off team competition and thus killed off general participation in favor of the elitism through the budget conscious chase for qualifying standards. Post college there's not much T&F happening unless you are pro/elite. Summer used to be a time for the average track & field competitor to have fun, try new events and learn to compete/race. Now? Too many road races, too many school coaches demanding 100% adherence to their summer training programs. Athletes participate in T&F because it's fun. When it stops being fun, they stop participating and we are left only with the elite. There is a minor upsurge in the participation numbers at the Masters level. But, compare the Masters T&F participation numbers to the average road race participation numbers and wonder why the focus is on trying to capture non-existent T&F athletes when the focus should be on capturing the road racers. Maybe that bird has flown also.

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  22. Wow. Great stuff. I have been a XC and Track coach at the HS level for many yrs now and cant stand the corporate running machine. Big races: just finsh: who needs a time:. Are ya kidding me...what is your PR in the mile! That's what matters to a true distance runner. You and the white lines on the track. Grass roots competition is where it is at and will always be.
    If Track bores you then so be it. I can sit for 5 hours at a meet and love every minute of it ( most minutes) Field events and all!

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  23. I'm sorry to object but I'm confused why you are blaming coaches for trying to coach their athletes?

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  24. This is a really interesting article, I loved reading it! Track is never going to be on the same level as cultural institutions like NFL Sunday, and afternoon at the ballpark, or Duke v. UNC, but I do think it has more to offer than it currently shows. I think a lot of the infrastructure is already in place for track: we have Diamond League meets in the US (Pre and Adidas Grand Prix), a smaller domestic track circuit forming (American Track League), and great specialty niche meets (Portland Track Festival, Nike Festival of Miles, etc.). On the roads, too, there are some of the major marathons and the USA Running Circuit, giving road runners a semi-season of competition. The problem is that we have virtually no media coverage of these events...or, the coverage that does exist is terrible. Right now, the only way you would ever know anything about track is if you are an insider, following T&F News, Letsrun, Flotrack, etc. So how does the sport provide insider coverage on a mass scale? Doing that, I feel, would attract more fans on the periphery...people who run, but aren't necessarily rabid fans.

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  25. Paul - Great conversation you have triggered. You make a lot of good points, but I can't get past one core element of your commentary. I don't see how the sport survives/succeeds if the reliance and focus is only on hardcore fans. The economics simply can't work on the backs of this small (shrinking?/aging?) group. To sustain the basic sport, in a competitive sports arena, re: domestic meets, indoor venues, decent TV production and scheduling, live streaming, supporting a professional living for the top athletes, etc.....even if we could live a non-progressive sport....is beyond the current resources. (Full disclosure: Between my roles with USATF Foundation grant making and the AthleteBiz web platform I see everyday the consequences of an under-resourced sport.). Yet I'm optimistic and would postulate that there is a big accessible group of "near fans & former fans" that could be "the answer". I wouldn't call it 'low hanging fruit' but I do believe they are reachable without heroic changes in the sport....and with them the economics could improve dramatically. Certainly this is a quest I'm willing to get behind!

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  26. I wanted to make my reply - but had to scroll through DOZENS of replies to get here! Track isn't dead. I have been in the sport as an athlete, coach, and meet official for almost 40 years. The level of competition in high school track (boys and girls) is 2 to 3 times what it was when I was in high school. OK - so some of the athletes are taking it for PE credits - but it does allow them to compete in something, and not just "sit the bench" as they would in other sports. With the advent of all weather tracks, and youth coaching programs, I see more interest in the sport in California than I ever have. The die-hard spectators will always come out.

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  27. My 39th year coaching and over 50 years since I walked into an indoor meet at the Poughkeepsie, NY Armory holding my Mom's hand. I'm presently at the University of California and I host nearly a meet every week. Track & Field is NOT dead and if you're waiting for it to be broadcast on TV for some sort affirmation of the sport's viability BOY are you missing the point. All these little meets [our local athletes competed in 5 completely different meets in the last 7 days] ARE happening even if they're not on broadcast TV. 4-Time Olympian and 84 US Team Captain, Ed Burke told me just 4 weeks ago, "We just have to keep promoting these 'silos' of Track. It's the new model and it's working." Don't wait for someone else to promote or "make" track happen. It only happens if WE make it happen. Presently working with the PAUSATF on an indoor track 'kit' to make as many as 3 portable, telescoping [for different sized venues] indoor tracks for California. It won't happen if too many people stand in the way and say "It CAN'T happen." That's all it takes to kill it ... just enough negativity. Be positive and quit saying you can't do Track unless there's a 9 lane Mondo track at the end of your block. BE PART OF THE PROGRAM or make your own program. -Geoff Foley-

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    1. Eric and Geoff -- Maybe you just read the headline and skipped the content? You seem to be restating most of the central themes of this little essay, which argues that track is dead as a mainstream spectator sport but is more than well on more substantive levels. I never wrote that it's dead altogether. Or maybe I'm missing something? In any case, thank you both for your help with developing athletes -- I know from personal experience that mentorship in the sport is invaluable.

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