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Monday, May 10, 2010

Track's Popularity Soaring?

The WaPo's Amy Shipley has an article today titled Track's popularity soars despite lack of U.S. star power.
Event attendance, nationwide membership numbers and U.S. television ratings are up, or holding steady, even without a single household name on the U.S. track and field team and dwindling coverage of the sport from the mainstream media.

Bolt's astonishing feats and charismatic personality have caught the attention of a broad, non-running audience, a significant development as track and field fights to rebuild after a decade in which myriad doping busts devastated its record books and credibility. But officials say there is more behind the encouraging numbers.

They say years of Web-based communication and an emphasis on social media have allowed the sport to foster a strong, under-the-radar connection to a large audience of track geeks while continually welcoming curious Web explorers, some of whom eventually become new fans.
I'm glad to see that someone believes things are moving in the right direction, but I'd like to add a few insights.

Is attendance going up? That's hard to tell, because attendance totals are rarely kept at ttrack meets and no one centralizes what data there is. Certainly attendance is up at a few key events. Penn, however, always has strong attendance even when Usain Bolt doesn't come to run. The New York GP meet is only now approaching the numbers that its predecessor got in the early 90s. Attendance at the Millrose Games isn't particularly impressive. Bolt made people pay attention to the massive attendance at Penn, but it's always been like that. Before, no one noticed. So I wouldn't say attendance is exploding, just the media's perception of attendance--but that in itself is a major improvement.

Shipley makes repeated reference to doping scandals as the main reason why track had fallen from the public's interest. I disagree completely. If you have people's allegiance, they'll ignore scandals (see: NFL, both political parties, Catholic Church, etc). The problem wasn't doping, it was that track's "leadership" didn't know what to do to keep the public's interest. Everyone battled for control of their own piece of turf, and never realized that the lawn was shrinking to the point where there was no turf left to fight over. Spectators were the last concern of the sport's power brokers, if they were a concern at all. The power of TV was ignored. The "brand" of track & field as a single entity--age-group, high schools, colleges, pros, road runners, and so on--was ignored and left to wither and die. No one realized they were fighting a losing battle against other sports until track hit bottom around 1997. Since then track & field in the USA has begun to clean up, put its life back together and get some dignity--but it's still living in a van down by the river.

I think doping had a more insidious effect on the athletes themselves. Shipley says "Among the top U.S. athletes, there has been a notable attitude shift; the prima donna behavior once characteristic of the sport's biggest U.S. stars -- and seemingly encouraged by their media-wary track agents -- has largely disappeared in what USA Track and Field officials cautiously hope will evolve into something of a post-drugs, get-to-know-our-athletes era." That kind of don't-bother-me attitude goes hand in hand with suspicion of others' motives. And nothing makes a person more suspicious than his own dishonesty. If it really is true that the current generation has less behavior they'd like to hide, then of course they're more willing to talk to the media.

Some other issues Shipley notes may or may not have anything to do with track at all. She notes that the 2000 Olympics had 2,000 media credential requests, which dropped to 1,400 in 2004 and 800 in 2008. I think Shipley knows that the implosion of traditional media is largely to blame for this, but didn't specifically say so. She also notes that while gyms cost good money, working out at your local high school track is free.

Mostly, I think what has changed is that we don't sit around and wait for someone else to take the lead anymore. This began before Tom Borish' Trackshark took off, but when that died we really stopped waiting around.

And yes, we are sitting on a gold mine named Usain Bolt. Track has had maybe one other personality like his in its entire history in Emil Zatopek, but he didn't appeal to Americans like Bolt does.

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