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.