Track & Field Needs a Makeover
With the arrival of March comes the start of another season of outdoor track & field for youth, high school, and college athletes. Track & field is the largest participatory sport at the high school level. Yet over the past 30 years, the sport has lost its standing among the major sports in America.
Up until the 1990’s, track & field was the premiere event at the Summer Olympics. However, when Michael Jordan and the “Dream Team” arrived, basketball became the Olympics’ top sport.
It is hard to find track meets on cable unless you are an insomniac. Texas Hold’em Poker games get more play on cable TV these days than track & field. The various doping scandals and the fall of such former track stars like Marion Jones in the last 10 years have not helped the sport either.
Why has track & field lost its appeal? Have you been to a track meet lately? A marathon does not last as long as a track meet!
At the college level there are many two-day meets that can average 10 hours a day with endless heats and flights involving almost two-dozen events. It is one thing to be a track & field junkie, but many meets are just too long and tedious.
What is worse, many meets are poorly managed and do not engage the fans in attendance. I have been to meets that got behind schedule, had gaps of time with no events, or limited announcements of meet results.
How does track & field become more interesting to rebuild its fan base? Consider the following:
Improve meet management. Some track meets run long because they are managed poorly. While some meet directors schedule breaks here and there during a meet to benefit the athletes, it may turn off the fans. The key to a good meet is having a knowledgeable announcer you keeps the fans informed and the meet moving along.
Engage the fans. Many track meets do not have an announcer who keeps the fans up-to-date on what is happening during the meet. Some fans need to be educated like how far 1600 meters compares to a mile, for example. Make folks aware if an athlete is on a record pace, or an individual has won three events, anything that can add interest and drama to the meet. Very few meets tend to do this anymore.
Shorten the length of meets. When I was coming up through the high school ranks, we contested dual meets during the week and competed in invitational on Saturdays. Dual meets took about three hours to run off and most invitational meets had 10-15 teams compete over the course of about six hours. Today, meets seem to run much longer and perhaps some meets should not contest every event, as long as they get in the required minimum events to count as an official meet.
Keep the athletes in mind. Perhaps the biggest concern is the wellbeing of the athletes. The more talented ones seem to carry the load as coaches strategize to win meets. Is it that important to overwork the star athletes in a dual meet? High school rules do limit the number of events an individual athlete can compete in during a meet, but is it necessary.
Add value to the sport. Many high schools and colleges do not value track & field that is, they do not charge admission to most meets. As the country’s largest participatory sport, we need to tap in to the natural fan following. I have been to some track meets that out-draw the more “popular” sports like baseball and basketball. If value is placed on track & field, fans will turn out, provided the previous recommendations are incorporated.
Track & field needs to be relevant again to sports fans. It starts with those of us who enjoy running and competition. We need to be supportive to track & field and the athletes who participate in this grand sport. When was the last time YOU attended a track meet?
The sport needs better leadership at the local and national levels to improve it and build a stronger fan base. Track & field is more than running the fastest, or jumping or throwing the farthest. There are as many interesting stories as there are events in track & field. We coaches and officials need to do a better job in sharing these stories.