Anyone who takes a quick look at my background will know that I have an affinity for track & field. Participation in the sport has afforded me opportunities that (as a kid) I thought were nothing more than fantasies. I even had the honor of representing Team USA at two (2) Olympic Games, which was a dream come true. Even though I retired from the sport in 2017, I still watch with excitement and anticipation as the next generation of athletes make their own mark on the sport.
I happened to catch an amazing competition being held in Atlanta, but it was being televised on YouTube. To be clear, I think social media platforms provides a great way to get more people to see the competition without the cost of TV production. However, how could we expect the sport to grow when even track people have a hard time finding avenues to watch the competitions, let alone the average sport consumer?
In the 1950’s & 60’s the track meets that were televised annually were: Penn Relays, Drake Relays, Millrose Games, US vs the Soviet Union, and USA Indoor & Outdoor Championships. Fast forward to the 2020’s and marginal progress has been made with the addition of the NCAA Championships, the Prefontaine Classic, and a small handful of other competitions. But to be honest, the sport is missing something. It’s only once every four (4) years that the nation is even remotely interested in the sport and that is due in large part to the Olympic Games.
At the “professional” level, the sport is governed by a national governing body (NGB) and an international federation (World Athletics). Both those organizations however are not setup to truly advance the sport in the US in a meaningful way. There are several reasons for this but the most glaring is that both the NGB and International Federation are not designed to market and promote the sport. Their core function is to host US Championships; World Championships; and establish qualifying standards for the Olympic Games.
As you examine the complete opposite end of the sport spectrum, the NFL is a marketing titan. Marketing is most of what the league does. There are literally pre-game shows that are as long as (and in some cases longer) than the games themselves but it’s all geared towards to highlighting the key matches and stories from each week. Even though track & field is an individual sport, there are some takeaways that could be helpful as we talk about growing the sport in a meaningful way.
First and foremost, there has to be an organization (or marketing arm of an organization) designed to reimagine the sport. For example, even though basketball is an international game with its own NGB and International Federation, the NBA has its own rules, policies, and operates differently from any other international organization. So too should professional track & field. The sport cannot survive if it continues to operate as it always has. The sport needs a marketing organization to examine to entire landscape of professional sports in the US and create a (research driven) come up a new format to deliver track & field to the broad sports consumer.
Secondly, the sport must embrace sports betting. Like horse racing, sports betting on races could introduce more fans to the sport because there’s money to be made. Sports betting on college games is now legal in most states and learning from the increased popularity highlights the incredible growth potential. Track & field is the perfect sport to capitalize off sports betting in a meaningful way. The competitions are relatively quick and there could be literally hundreds of prop bets place for each competition. However, this goes back to my first point and that is, we’ve got to find a better way to deliver the sport.
Lastly, learning from what the Wide World of Sports did in the early days of sports broadcasting, we’ve got to do a better job of telling the athlete stories. During the 1960’s and 70’s Wide World of Sports sent video crews to training camps throughout the country capturing footage and interviews of the aspiring Olympic athletes. By the time the Olympic Games came around, the studio stitched together incredible stories humanizing the athletes making them instant stars. Track and field athletes have truly incredible stories that rival anything I’ve seen on TV…but no one knows about them. And if they do, it’s a small subset of hardcore fans. It’s up to the marketing firm and athletes to tell their story which can generate more attention and interest in the sport.
Watching from the outside in, track and field should be leaps and bounds ahead of where it is now but the sobering reality is…it’s not. The sport is stuck between those that want to professionalize the sport and those content with where it is. Track and field has not yet begun to realize its growth potential but until we can reimagine what it looks like, we’ll simply continue struggling trying to find the broadcast on YouTube and maybe NBC if we’re lucky.