Follow Us

Track and Field Aims to Capture an Emerging Market: The USA

2022-06-23T12:02:06+08:00June 23rd, 2022|0 Comments

Sebastian Coe stood back as the airplane returning from last summer’s Tokyo Olympics arrived in Los Angeles, deferring to the decorated U.S. track and field athletes on his flight. 

Coe, president of the international track and field governing body World Athletics, expected that medal winners like hurdlers Rai Benjamin and Sydney McLaughlin would be greeted by a bank of TV cameras as they strolled into the airport. 

Instead,…

Sebastian Coe
stood back as the airplane returning from last summer’s Tokyo Olympics arrived in Los Angeles, deferring to the decorated U.S. track and field athletes on his flight. 

Coe, president of the international track and field governing body World Athletics, expected that medal winners like hurdlers Rai Benjamin and Sydney McLaughlin would be greeted by a bank of TV cameras as they strolled into the airport. 

Instead, there was nothing. The heroes of the U.S. track team that won more than twice as many medals as any other nation in Tokyo walked through the terminal undisturbed. Coe, whose native Great Britain knighted him after a running career studded with four Olympic medals, called the scene “bizarre.” 

“It’s been one of, for me, one of the great anomalies, paradoxes,” Coe said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. The U.S. has been the “powerhouse consistently of track and field” and yet the world’s best are largely uncelebrated in their home country—the richest sports market in the world. 

That’s why World Athletics has set an ambitious goal of making track and field one of the U.S.’s five most-followed sports by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. 

This summer, the effort will get a squirt of lighter fluid. The U.S. track and field championships run Thursday through Sunday. They’ll be followed in July by the first-ever track and field world championships held on U.S. soil. Both events take place in Eugene, Ore., at the lavishly rebuilt Hayward Field at the University of Oregon.

Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., is the site of this year’s world championships.
Photo: Thomas Boyd/Associated Press

Track and field now ranks No. 8 among sports Americans are most interested in, according to a 2018-19 survey of more than 1,000 people ages 16-65 by Nielsen. The World Athletics-commissioned survey showed that 37% of respondents who were asked about attending events, viewing broadcasts or reading about a given sport, said they were interested or very interested in track and field. 

The sport trailed, in order, football (66%), baseball, basketball, soccer, swimming, tennis and motor sports. It edged out golf (34%). Ice hockey wasn’t included in the survey because it doesn’t typically overlap with outdoor track and field season, a World Athletics spokesperson said, although the Stanley Cup final is still going deep into June.

“To get to the top five, the metrics, you know, are pretty clear to us,” Coe said. “It’s about viewership. It’s about attendance in stadiums. It’s the engagement of fans. It’s also the commercial revenue.

“So, you know, if you said to me, what is it that I really want out of [the world championships in] Eugene? I would love to start building a portfolio of U.S. sponsors for the sport—domestically and globally.”

Among the sport’s challenges is its lack of deep-pocketed standard-bearers outside of Eugene, Ore., population 170,000. There,
Nike
co-founder and former University of Oregon miler

Phil Knight
spearheaded a reconstruction of the storied track stadium at an estimated cost of $270 million

Coe acknowledged that World Athletics wasn’t “spoilt for choice” in U.S. bidders to host the world championships. The past four U.S. Olympic trials have been held at Hayward Field.

Sebastian Coe is president of the international track and field governing body World Athletics.
Photo: ALEKSANDRA SZMIGIEL/REUTERS

Although he praised the history in Eugene, where former Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman tinkered to create early Nike models and wrote the book “Jogging” to introduce Americans to the concept, Coe said it’s imperative to put meets elsewhere, too. 

“If I’m being blunt, we’ve got to get into the L. A.s, the Chicagos the Miamis,” Coe said.

While the NBA and NHL engage fans with rivalry games and monthslong playoffs, U.S. track and field has few marquee showdowns. The Diamond League professional series of meets is held mostly in Europe, with just one regular U.S. stop: Eugene. 

Although established college-based meets can draw good crowds—a total of 49,315 attended this year’s four-day Texas Relays—other meets sometimes lure fewer people than a Texas high-school football game. The recent NYC Grand Prix featured world champion sprinter Christian Coleman and fan favorite Sha’Carri Richardson, but the crowd at Icahn Stadium, though spirited, didn’t fill the 5,000-seat grandstand. 

Next summer, USA Track & Field will launch a five-city series of international competitions, said USATF chief executive Max Siegel, who added that the sport’s domestic governing body is a partner in World Athletics’ push to boost the sport. The cities are yet to be determined.

The meets could include a mass run, as track and field seeks to link its spectator version with the multitudes of people who do weekend 5Ks and half-marathons.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, American track and field produced household names like Carl Lewis and Mary Slaney, and the sport had a nationwide slate of popular indoor meets from Dallas to Cleveland to New York. But attendance waned amid doping scandals, the rise of the NBA and other televised leagues, and top athletes’ avoidance of racing one another.

That issue persists, and Siegel said he has reached out to sports agents to underscore the importance of the best athletes facing off more often.

Coe outlined the tantalizing market in the U.S.: 50 million people identify as runners, and 1.5 million students (prepandemic) competed in track and field and/or cross-country for their high schools.

Although last year’s U.S. Olympic track and field trials drew TV audiences in the 2 million to 3 million range, other domestic track meets rarely reach 1 million viewers, said Jon Lewis, founder of the Sports Media Watch blog. 

Officials at NBC Sports Group, which owns the U.S. rights to World Athletics series events through 2029, plan to capitalize on a pandemic-condensed run of Olympics or world championships in nearly every year from 2021 to 2027.

“All on this great road to Los Angeles in 2028 and the first [Summer] Olympics in the United States in a generation, since 1996,” said Joe Gesue, an NBC Olympics & Paralympics executive.

Sha’Carri Richardson celebrates after winning the women’s 200 meters during the New York Grand Prix.
Photo: Mike Stobe/Getty Images

NBC will more than double its broadcast time for July’s world championships over the 2019 event in Doha, Qatar, to 12.5 hours. That will include seven hours of first network prime-time coverage, a first.

Track and field leaders tout the sport’s global reach—more than 100 nations have won Olympic medals in it—and that it features men and women.

“The accessibility of the sport is a huge asset,” Coe said. “You don’t need expensive horses or yachts or cars. If you’ve got a body, you’re an athlete. You can roll out of your front door and you can run. And that’s one of the things that we’ve really got to, you know…. We’ve just got to sweat harder.”

Write to Rachel Bachman at Rachel.Bachman@wsj.com

Read More

Leave A Comment