American track athletes dominate at world championships. American fans, not so much.
Sports executives hoped the event would raise the profile of athletics here. World Athletics, the world’s governing body for athletics, sees America as a market “that doesn’t measure up,” chairman Sebastian Coe said. It has a powerful track and field team, 50 million recreational runners, and a high school system in which more children participate than any other sport (if cross country is included).
By the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, World Athletics hopes track and field will grow in popularity, and it has placed its marquee standalone event in the United States as part of that goal. As American athletes have produced on the track, the organization must ask itself what effect the event will have on potential American fans.
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“I feel like the ball got dropped a little bit, I’m not going to lie,” said sprinter Noah Lyles, who broke the American record for the 200 meters at the meet. “I think there could have been a lot more publicity on the American side. It’s an immaculate meet. It’s by far the best track and field meet America has had in years. And I watch these immaculate performances, and I’m like, ‘The crowd is there, yeah. But damn it, it wasn’t put together well. All the moments are late at night. I still barely see much presence outside of this what NBC is doing. Yes, people are talking about it. But people are lagging behind.
“It’s not so much the people inside the track. These are the people trying to say they want to be part of the trail, and they don’t fully commit to spreading the information. People have to say how important it is or why it is so important. The whole story should be, ‘If you think this is amazing, just wait until LA….’ It is what it is. It’s a prelude to LA”
Coe admitted that most Americans who watched the world championships would have been inclined to do so, regardless of location. Being in the United States, however, provides a whole new set of data to study and learn from.
“For the first time ever, it gives us a real-time audit of what we’re up against,” Coe said. “We will look at the audience figures. We will look at the seats. We will look at the capacity of the stadium. We will consider the broadcast. We’re going to look at how it’s covered, the penetration. But it’s a crowded and complicated market. It’s a tough nut to crack. It wasn’t helped by the fact that at a time when we as a sport probably should have focused on engaging and promoting athletes, it didn’t go the way it should have. TO DO.
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Last Sunday’s coverage on NBC averaged 2.235 million viewers alone, according to the network. NBC bragged that it was the most-watched track and field event in the United States for the past 18 years outside of the Olympics and the US Olympic Trials. He also said it was the weekend’s fifth-most-watched sports program, although that’s a low bar to break in the mid-July sports desert.
The fans at Hayward Field made the World Championships worthy of the event’s global stature. “It really made us feel special as athletes,” said US 400m gold medalist Michael Norman. “The fans almost gave me chills.”
The problem is that there have not been many compared to other championships. Hayward Field has a capacity of approximately 30,000 people. Once sponsors and delegations from each country were taken care of, it sold around 12,000 seats per session. It still sold out 90% of available tickets, with some, but not all, nightly sessions selling out.
If you want to host the best track meet in the United States, Eugene is an obvious choice. If you want to expand the reach of the sport in the United States, this is not the best choice. Only locals or fans willing to make a long pilgrimage could have attended. Both of these groups are made up of people that athletics already has.
This week, Lyles overheard a local resident say, “I know it’s the world championships, but I’m completely tracked. Since May, Hayward Field had hosted the Prefontaine Classic, the NCAA Championships and the United States Championships. The frequency of major events may have spread local enthusiasm.
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“We knew there was a risk,” Coe said. “I politely point out that there were not many options available. There should have been and we should have engaged earlier.
Coe wanted more cities to engage with the USATF, but only Eugene pushed to host it after World Athletics made it clear they wanted to bring the event to the United States. World Athletics has changed its host city selection process and could now engage directly with a potential city rather than a country’s governing body, Coe said.
“We can’t continue to rely on Eugene to be our athletic epicenter,” Lyles said. “There are other places we can go. When we went to New York for the Grand Prix [in early June], their interaction was just as strong as the one I had at Préfontaine. We don’t need to have everything in Eugene. We can get the same interaction in other places. We just have to market and let people know we’re going there.
World Athletics is trying to help a country that Coe says hasn’t always marketed athletics well. World Athletics and the USATF have formed an initiative called “Project USA” to increase popularity here. As part of this, World Athletics is funding a documentary in the style of ‘Drive to Survive’, the Netflix hit that spurred a wave of popularity in Formula 1 car racing.