Despite success at worlds, track popularity lags in U.S.

Behind sprints, breakthrough throwing medals and the indomitable talent of hurdler Sydney McLaughlin, the United States spent 10 days insistently reminding that they are still what Sebastian Coe, the head of the global athletics governing body, called the “powerhouse” of the called sports. ”

But for 10 days, as the world’s best squared off in front of a few sell-outs while questions lingered about how much of the action was noticed outside the forest-green seats of Hayward Field, the inaugural World Outdoor Championships in the US offered a different memory, and new concerns that this country “is not taking off” as a market for increasing the sport’s popularity, Coe added.

To change that, World Athletics, led by Coe and USA Track & Field, are working on a joint plan with the goal of track and field being the fifth most popular sport in the US by the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. That would be a three-point improvement over a 2019 study by Nielsen. The USATF has announced plans to introduce a five-city domestic route with a stopover in Los Angeles starting next year.

The initiative even has an operating title: “Project USA”.

Eugene, Ore., Coe said, is “an absolutely obsessive athletics community.”

But the US as a whole?

A “tough nut to crack,” he said.

By awarding Eugene the 2014 World Junior Championships and Portland the 2016 World Indoor Championships, and then making Eugene the host of those outdoor championships through a surprise no-bid process – a decision by Coe’s predecessor Lamine Diack in 2015 that was heavily criticized and also Under investigation by the US Department of Justice and allegedly under investigation by the FBI – World Athletics has sent a clear signal that the road to relevance requires a stronger US presence

The appeal of the United States—its 50 million recreational runners, thousands of high school competitors, and great potential for sponsorship—would be reason enough. But it was particularly important, said Coe, the 1984 Olympic champion in the 1,500 meters, because athletics’ inaction to promote itself has ceded territory to other sports.

“I’m probably not going to be Mr. Popular for saying this, but I don’t think the sport has been marketed as well as it could have been in the United States in years past,” Coe said. “I think for many years there was a complacency that believed it was just enough to get back to the top of the medal table from an Olympics or a World Championships. I think there’s a much greater realization now that that in and of itself is important, but it’s not enough.”

US runner Athing Mu celebrates after winning gold in the women's 800 meters on Sunday.

US runner Athing Mu celebrates after winning gold in the women’s 800 meters on Sunday.

(David J Phillip / Associated Press)

No city in the United States is more closely associated with sports than Eugene. It was a logical entry point. It was also their only option, Coe said – even after World Athletics relaxed its bidding process to allow its council to proactively court potential host cities.

“There weren’t many options at the table,” said Coe. “It should have been and we should have engaged earlier.”

Athletes have praised the passionate and knowledgeable local fans.

“I feel like that was reflected in the performances of the athletes, especially the medal count for the American athletes,” said US sprinter Christian Coleman. “I’m not sure when the next opportunity will come, but I would love to have another major championship here on American soil. It’s pretty special.”

Choosing Eugene came with risks, Coe acknowledged. Those who attended in person would likely already be track fans and not the kind of casual viewers they hope to convert by 2028.
Residents here have described a sense of track and field fatigue for hosting so many high-profile meets this spring and summer, ranging from the Pac-12 Championships and Prefontaine Classic to the NCAA and US Championships.

Hayward Field, whose $270 million reconstruction was funded primarily by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, is an eye-catching palace but smaller than venues that have hosted previous championships in places like London, Moscow, Beijing and Doha, Qatar. took place.

For the first nine days, the average attendance for ticketed spectators was 14,540, according to the local organizing committee, with a peak of 21,065 on day three. The number does not take into account the total attendance, which would include athletes or individuals with credentials. World Athletics officials, describing the “economic headwinds” faced by customers, said attendance was one of several metrics they would later look at, including media coverage, stadium capacity and broadcast numbers to gauge the success of the meeting.

Other sports officials, who were not authorized to speak publicly on the sensitive issue, expressed strong disappointment with the Eugene crowd.

Track’s ambitions depend on penetrating a saturated sports market beyond the spectators in a stadium. On television, NBC said its coverage for the first three days drew 11.4 million viewers, more viewers than its coverage of any previous World Cup, and the opening weekend averaged 2.2 million viewers.

Those watching saw the United States put on a smashing performance with a World Championship-record total of 33 medals. Her 13 gold medals was one of her record for an individual championship, and the seven gold medals won by the US women matched her 2017 championship record. After three medals in the sprints at the Tokyo Olympics, the US men clinched eight here, including sweeps in the 100 and 200 meters. It was also the first World Championships in which an American woman won a medal in the javelin throw and won gold in the shot put and hammer throw.

Crucially, the country’s youngest stars won in front of a roaring crowd. McLaughlin, 22, authored the hit’s performance with her 50.68-second rush for gold in the 400 hurdles, the first woman to break 51 seconds. And 20-year-old Athing Mu defended her Olympic 800-meter title with a world title on Sunday.

Devon Allen competes in a 110 meter hurdles at the IAAF World Championships in Eugene, Ore.

Devon Allen competes in a 110 meter hurdles at the IAAF World Championships in Eugene, Ore.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

Viewers also saw American hurdler Devon Allen, a sentimental favorite given his fame in Oregon, disqualified ahead of the 110-hurdles final after leaving the starting blocks in 0.99 seconds – a thousandth of a second earlier than after World Athletics Rules Allowed. The moment was met with fierce criticism on social media from fans who questioned why athletics would diminish its appeal by not allowing its top athletes to perform. Even Allen’s own competitors have lobbied for him.

A 2009 World Athletics study recommended lowering the threshold for false starts to less than 0.1 second. The Organization’s Competition Committee has the authority to recommend such changes. Coe dismissed a suggestion that 0.1 was an arbitrary standard, but said of the competition committee, “I think they’re going to look at that.”

One obstacle to World Athletics that will continue long after leaving the Willamette Valley is sharing its highlights because it doesn’t own its television content and is allowed three minutes of NBC coverage a day on social media, an organization official said.

“It’s going in the right direction,” said Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse, the former USC star who ran the anchor leg on Canada’s gold-medal 4×100 relay team. “I know athletics is a European sport. If I go to Europe, man, the fans are freaking out over there, but it’s hard here in the US. You have to compete with basketball, baseball, football and everything.

“I think it’s going in the right direction, if they market it just a little bit better, try to get it on some top networks like ESPN or Fox or one of those, then maybe things can go in the right direction.”

Coe said World Athletics is also in the development phase of a documentary series modeled after the Drive to Survive series on Netflix, which catapulted the popularity of Formula 1 in the US format from 10 days. The truncated format could be rolled out as early as 2027 as the organization has already signed deals with Budapest, Hungary and Tokyo for 2023 and 2025 respectively.

The World Championships in their current form were first held in 1983. It took them 39 years to reach the United States. Coe made it sound like it wouldn’t be nearly that long before it returned.

“We want to be back here,” he said. “It won’t be Eugene. I want to go back to LA or Miami or Chicago.” Despite success at worlds, track popularity lags in U.S.

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