With nearly 2,000 athletes participating in the first track and field world championships in the U.S. and 33 medals from Americans, why wasn’t there more interest in the States?
Tom Schad and Lindsay Schnell | USA TODAY
EUGENE, Oregon – On the first night of the 2022 track and field world championships here at Hayward Field, American shot-putting superstar Ryan Crouser was asked by a reporter about waning interest in the sport, particularly in the United States.
“I’m from the Netherlands,” the reporter explained, “and I’m really surprised there aren’t 20 American journalists breathing down my neck.”
The implication was clear: Why isn’t track and field as popular in the U.S. as it is around the world?
It’s a question that has puzzled the sport’s leaders for decades. And it has been particularly front of mind over the past 10 days, with nearly 2,000 athletes participating in the first world championships held in the U.S.
As the Americans turned in a dominant performance on home turf – winning 33 medals, the most ever by a single country – the event struggled to pique the interest of casual sports fans.
At Hayward Field, in the city dubbed “TrackTown, USA,” only five of the first 14 sessions of action were sellouts, according to the sport’s governing body. And on NBC, last Sunday’s action was both “the most-watched track and field event on the network in 18 years” and just the fifth-most watched sports program of the weekend.
“We have to fix this, we don’t have a choice,” said Ato Boldon, NBC’s lead track and field analyst and a four-time Olympic medalist. “We have to do everything we can to get more people interested in this sport. We as broadcasters have our jobs to do, athletes have their jobs but the administrators really have the job. They have to capitalize on this world championship (in the United States) and make it into something other than just a little spike in the graph.”
On the eve of these championships, World Athletics president Seb Coe stressed the importance of this task, describing organizers as “on a mission” in Eugene.
He noted that there are roughly 50 million recreational runners in the U.S. and more high-school participants in track and cross country than any other sport. The hope, he said, is that these worlds will serve as a “glidepath,” building interest ahead of the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
“One of the challenges that we have … (is around) what we can do to help promote the sport in the USA,” Coe said. “And that’s not just a sort of parochial view, that we’re in the United States and we want lots of people in the stadium. This is the largest sports market in the world.”
But in a culture dominated by football and basketball, what can track do to keep pace?
The solutions are myriad and interconnected, but many of them trace back to the sport’s individual stars and rivalries — nurturing them, promoting them and hoping that they can be a bridge to the casual sports fan.
“We don’t just need to have one Usain Bolt, for eight consecutive years, that’s what everybody talks about,” said Stephanie Hightower, the former president of USA Track & Field. “There’s so many great performances and personalities in our sport that I think don’t get recognized here in the United States like they do over in Europe, in Asia, in Africa.”
‘We don’t have any Darth Vaders’
For nearly two decades, the sport’s most recognizable U.S. face has been Allyson Felix, the 11-time Olympic medalist.
But with Felix destined for retirement at the end of the season, there is no American athlete who matches her dominance and longevity – though there are plenty of candidates.
In the past 10 days alone, former quarter-miler Fred Kerley led a U.S. sweep of the men’s 100-meter dash. Sydney McLaughlin, 22, smashed her own world record in the women’s 400 hurdles. Crouser, the best shot putter in history, led America to a first-ever sweep in the event. Noah Lyles broke an American record in the men’s 200 that had stood for 26 years, set by Michael Johnson at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And Athing Mu, 20, became the youngest woman to ever win Olympic and world titles in an individual track and field event.
Yet experts say the trick for the sport’s leaders won’t be celebrating these accomplishments. It’ll be keeping those athletes in the headlines between now and the next Olympics, in Paris in 2024.
“They’ve got to be relevant off the track, and on an ongoing basis,” said David Carter, a professor of sports business at USC and founder of the Sports Business Group. “They can’t simply train well, make a team, excel, stand on the podium for the anthem and then we don’t hear from them again until it’s time to prepare for the Olympic trials.”
She did it again: Sydney McLaughlin smashes own world record in 400 hurdles track
Hightower, who no longer works in the sport, acknowledged that keeping stars in the national conversation between Olympics is something that “we’ve all wrestled with for years.” And she believes that having multiple stars – not just one go-to name – is key.
Crossover appeal could help, too.
Hurdler Devon Allen, a college football star at the University of Oregon, plans to attend NFL training camp this week with the Philadelphia Eagles. Though he was disqualified out of the 110-meter hurdles final after a controversial false start call, Allen said his goal remains the same: he wants to be the best hurdler ever, and win a Super Bowl.
There’s no doubt everyone in track and field, regardless of their NFL loyalty, is rooting for Allen to succeed on the football field.
“Think of when DK Metcalf came and ran the 100 meters,” said Robert Griffin III, a former NFL quarterback who was an NCAA All-American in the 400 hurdles while at Baylor. “The amount of buzz it got, how much attention it brought to track and field, I look at Devon Allen the same way.
“Devon Allen the football player is going to bring more attention to Devon Allen the track and field hurdler.” That’s good for everyone.
Boldon cautioned that it’s not just about star power. He stressed the importance of rivalries – and villains.
“That’s one thing that track and field does not have,” he said. “Everybody wants to be Luke Skywalker and I’m like, really, we don’t have any Darth Vaders?”
Boldon referenced the men’s 200, where a rivalry seems to be developing between Lyles and recent high school graduate Erriyon Knighton. At the U.S. outdoor championships in June, Lyles chased down Knighton before surging ahead of him to win. After he crossed the finish line, Lyles screamed and pointed to the clock – though some believed he was pointing at Knighton, warning the youngster that Lyles was still king of the 200.
Lyles quickly threw water on the notion that he was trash talking or picking on Knighton, but the gesture generated plenty of buzz all the same.
“The truth is, everybody’s watching that final because they feel like the young kid could get some payback for what Noah did to him at nationals,” Boldon said before the 200 final, where Lyles led a U.S. sweep, with Knighton finishing third. “But (the athletes) don’t see it that way – they think people will watch anyway and it’s like, no, kids, no. People watch more if there’s somebody to root for, and if one of you is the villain.”
Lyles, who oozes confidence and charisma and has talked frankly about his desire to be an influencer, not just a track star – all in the name of bringing more eyeballs to the sport – pushed back on the idea that it has to be good guys vs. bad guys to get attention.
“The villain is fun for a little bit, until people are hating on you,” Lyles joked after his gold medal win. Then he turned serious.
“A rivalry doesn’t have to be you hating each other,” he said. “A rivalry can be, every time you step on the track, we know that you guys are going to go at it. It doesn’t have to be aggressive. We can come out here and be buddy-buddy, but we know that every time we get on the track, there’s no friendship and we’re all coming for each other.”
Social media can help sell track stories
Almost everyone in and outside of the sport is in agreement about one thing, at least: If track’s stars are to become U.S. sports stars, they will have to work to sell their own stories and help viewers understand there’s more to them than running fast, jumping high or throwing far.
Mu, the 800 star who burst onto the scene at the 2020 NCAA championships before winning gold at the Tokyo Olympics, said the narratives currently told about athletes “are too basic” and too performance-oriented. Humanizing athletes helps because “then track will just be something we do, instead of who we are,” Mu said.
Kara Goucher, a longtime distance standout who now works as an NBC analyst, is sympathetic to athletes who want to block out distractions, like social media, before big events. But there’s a push-pull that athletes have to understand, she said.
Goucher pointed to the way Mu has highlighted her relationship with fellow 800-meter runner Brandon Miller. Before worlds Mu and Miller posted photos posing together in their Team USA gear, with details on when they were scheduled to race. Intermixed among that type of information are fun pictures of them on dates and playing with her pug puppy.
“People eat that stuff up,” Goucher said, “and Athing knows it.”
Felix’s popularity, for instance, has grown in part because of what she’s done away from the track – and how consistently she’s done it, including between Olympics. She’s starred in ads, founded her own shoe company, and become an advocate for maternal health and postpartum care.
“There has to be continuity. And that continuity has to really resonate. And it’s got to be authentic,” Carter said. “You can’t just go off the grid for a couple of years.”