When international track and field officials wanted to bring their world championships to the United States for the first time, the running mecca that embedded Nike into American culture was the easy choice.
But images of half-empty pits at a gleaming new 25,000-seat track stadium in Eugene, Ore., and readings of TV ratings that didn’t beat a routine NASCAR race have re-emphasized a Decades-old reality: When it comes to watching, not competing, track and field is a niche sport in the United States.
Athletics executives would like that to change over the next six years, especially given declining viewership and stagnant revenue in the wider Olympic world. It is essential, they say, to bring the flagship sport of the Summer Games back to its former glory in the United States ahead of hosts Los Angeles in 2028.
“For the games to really work, the United States needs a really strong athletics presence,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said. “You have the best athletes in the world. You have all these other assets. And we need to make sure people understand a lot more about our sport by 2028.”
The United States entered the final day of the world championships with 28 medals and is almost certain to break its world championship record of 30. And yet, track is, at best, the eighth most popular sport in the States States, according to a study commissioned by World Athletics. Coe said he’d like to get him into the top four — more in the NBA and baseball realm.
These talks are similar to the hand twisting that takes place in American football circles during World Cups. If American teams are successful and millions of people play recreationally, what would it take for it to become more than a niche sport for fans?
“You have to go where the young people are. And the foundation of your sport, you also have to go where those people are,” said Sheryl Shade, a longtime agent in the Olympic space, while noting the relatively low presence of athletes on social media and a shortage. of human interest stories related to this year’s worlds.
There is a potential audience there. A study by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association estimated that 50 million Americans (about one-seventh of the US population) are runners.
The National Federation of State High School Associations says there are nearly 1.1 million students participating in track and field — more than a million playing soccer — and nearly 500,000 in cross country. And that doesn’t take into account the large number of kids who run, but don’t play on high school teams.
“You need to look at the assets you have and figure out how to leverage them,” says marketing expert Joe Favorito. “You have to make sure that you’re showcasing personalities and everyone is doing it. More than TV ratings, my question would be, what is the TikTok strategy, and how do people measure that? »
There’s no Usain Bolt-like personality on the horizon for the United States, except for the tantalizing possibility of gregarious 200-meter champion Noah Lyles.
“They’re pretty boring,” track legend Edwin Moses said of the current generation of athletes.
New 100-meter champion Fred Kerley is a seemingly likeable character with a remarkable story – raised with 12 other children by his aunt, who stepped in after Kerley’s parents ran into trouble. But he did little mainstream media, and his worlds-leading social media posts were mostly a series of one-liners: “Let’s go” and “Yes, sir.”
In an Instagram video posted shortly after his victory, Kerley declared himself “the greatest of all time” to his 134,000 followers. Bolt, retired for five years, has 11.5 million followers.
Sydney McLaughlin is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete who broke her own record in the 400-metre hurdles on Friday and is the Olympic and national champion. McLaughlin is 22 – about 10 years younger than Allyson Felix when she came out of her shell and became a vocal advocate for women in sport – and has mostly chosen to let her do the talking.
Moses said the personalities are now a far cry from the 1980s and 90s, when oversized personalities such as himself, Carl Lewis, Evelyn Ashford and Florence Griffith-Joyner could often be seen on the track during the day and on the show. of Johnny Carson at night. .
Moses thinks a flaw today is that top riders set their schedules based not on where they can face the best competition, but on where ranking points and appearance fees are. available. These places are rarely, if ever, in the United States
“Eugene is great, but the stadium is a few years old and it’s had one of everything,” Moses said of the national championships, Olympic trials and world championships that were held in Oregon. “I don’t think athletics will become great until it’s restored to Los Angeles, and it becomes the athletics capital of the country.”
LA will be the track capital of the world for 10 days in 2028. And Casey Wasserman, the chairman of the organizing committee for these Olympics, is well aware of the importance of raising the profile of the track.
“The US market is such an important economic and fan market for them,” he said of the sport. “They need to come to the United States with their biggest events and their most important athletes.”
Los Angeles will mark only the second time this century that the Summer Games have been held in a US time zone, which could generate more buzz and viewership despite the realities of an increasingly fractured TV audience. . While the IOC has struck a multibillion-dollar TV deal with NBC through 2032, ratings for last year’s Tokyo Games and earlier this year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing were abysmal.
In Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, there is a growing awareness that things are not the same.
“We’ve seen a disturbing trend of people being less engaged in games,” chairwoman Susanne Lyons said in a recent interview. “And, for me, that’s the ultimate problem. Because if people aren’t in the games, they’re not watching, then the sponsors aren’t signing up, you’re not getting any money, and ultimately everything it does not work.
NBC also didn’t hype Track Worlds like it would the Olympics, and it showed in the opening weekend ratings. The most-watched session on NBC averaged 2.24 million, about 160,000 fewer viewers than a NASCAR race on USA Network at the same time. The final round of the British Open, which aired in the morning and led to track coverage, drew almost double the viewership.
“The United States has its challenges for us, and we’ve been completely open about that,” Coe said. “But being here is really important.”