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Craig Masback's Blog

Number 1 - Monday, August 20, 2007

The summer of 2007 has proven to be an incredibly successful one for American track and field athletes. As Team USA arrives in Osaka for the 2007 IAAF World Championships, the roster includes six athletes who have set American records this year alone. And although he hasn't (yet) broken a record, Tyson Gay has become the fastest 100/200 sprinter in history.

As a person who loves the sport and knows how track is thriving as a sport, business and social movement, I always cringe when I read news reports of our athletes' successes. Almost inevitably, any report about "good news" or amazing performances is paired with unnecessary commentary such as the negativity a recent article in the Seattle Times, after Alan Webb broke the American record in the mile, "Can Webb lead American fans to circle the track once again?"

Unfortunately, the people who filter news to the public often hold outdated or simply wrong assumptions.

For example, the Seattle Times article pointed out how much more attention Jim Ryun's feats received than do current athletes' exploits. No one would argue with the premise that the mainstream media paid more attention to Jim Ryun's world mile records in 1966 and 1967 than they paid to Alan Webb's American record last month. Doesn't that make sense? Webb's time makes him the 8th fastest in history, an incredible achievement. However, Americans and the American media don't have a habit of celebrating the 2nd best at anything never mind the 8th best. By contrast, I would point out that when Webb broke Jim Ryun's longstanding high school record, he was not only the subject of front page coverage in the New York Times and USA Today, he also appeared on the Letterman show, was in People magazine, and was heralded widely by the mainstream media

No one would argue with the implied Seattle Times article's premise that track was a bigger deal to the traditional, mainstream media in the mid-1960s then it is today. To me, whether you measure it by column inches of newspaper coverage or Sports Illustrated covers, Olympic sports get less coverage than they used to, losing much of their previous position on what I call the American sports and cultural landscape. This is a complex issue that results from decades during which Olympic organizations, sports bodies, journalists, and sponsors failed to work together effectively for the good of the sports.

However, I disagree with a related point made by the Seattle Times reporter, and which many people seem fond of making in one way or another. He said, "When I was in high school in the '50s, track was as important as baseball in the spring. Big relay meets drew 50,000 fans or more." That's ridiculous. Even when track was a bigger deal on a national basis, it was never as big as baseball. And, earth to writers, the big relay meets still draw 50,000 fans or more. In fact, the Penn Relays, which is a 113-year-old event, has had its biggest-ever crowds five of the last six years, with the biggest ever crowds on Saturday (upwards of 50,000 people) and the biggest three-day totals ever (over 114,000 spectators). Drake has a 40+ year streak of sell outs still in progress and Texas has had record crowds in recent years.

The fact is that track and field and its meets are different today than in the 1950s. For example, there are many more participants at the high school and college levels today than there were in the 1950s and 1960s (track/cross country represent the #1 junior high, high school, and college participatory sports) and the sport is much more international. As noted above, the crowds at many traditional meets are bigger than ever and there are new meets that didn't exist - like the Prefontaine Classic. Sure, some of the old meets went away - like the Coliseum Relays and Fresno Relays - but there are new meets in different places. The Armory Track & Field Center in New York has 90 track meets a year today with more than 250,000 participants . . . that is a much more robust schedule than existed previously. And, while the traditional media offers sparse coverage of track and field, there is more track "coverage" available than ever via the internet for the core track and field audience. Do I feel nostalgic for some of what I experienced in my youth in the 1960s - absolutely! But different doesn't mean worse.

The Seattle Times article also asserts that performances have stagnated or improved only slightly in recent years because track is 'losing' its top potential athletes to other sports. The Indianapolis Star recently published an article on a similar topic. While across track's 47 Olympic events there are some events that have shown less progress than others, the progression of the sport in terms of performances has been steady since records were first kept in the 1850s. I was at our Junior Olympics National Championships recently and a youth club 4x400 team ran 3:06. Allyson Felix ran 22.11 while in high school. Bryshon Nellum ran 45.2 this year in high school. Our talent pool is incredibly deep and increasingly competitive in events where we've rarely been competitive, like the hammer throw. In fact, while it is a much more competitive landscape today then it was in my day or Jim Ryun's day (212 countries will take part in the upcoming World Championships . . . at a typical Worlds or Olympics 40+ countries now win medals), we are winning an increasing number of medals - look at the Athens Games where we won 8 of 9 medals in the men's 100/200/400. True, we've undoubtedly lost talented athletes to soccer and lacrosse and the X Games, but we are still attracting more outstanding athletes than ever. And the fact remains that, for female athletes, track is one of the top three sports in which to make money. Only golf and tennis offer more to female athletes.

In terms of comments about "man on the street" American "interest" in track and field, how should we measure that interest? As a TV property, we get better ratings than many other sports (WNBA, MLS, NHL, AFL, X Games, MLL) for our regular week in and week out coverage on ESPN and NBC, and our ratings have gone up in recent years while most other sports are losing audience share. I've heard athletes of yore bemoan the fact that the sport doesn't attract the crowds that it used to. Well, the total attendance at both the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Trials exceeded any Olympic Trials crowds in history (over 23,000 per day for 8 days in 2000). I recently saw video of Ryun's 1966 Berkeley race and 1967 Bakersfield race. The stands were not even half full for either race! It is difficult enough for track to compete against today's crowded list of sports, many of which didn't even exist back in the 1950s and 1960s. It is impossible to compete against romanticized recollections of what it used to be like.

Galvanizing interest in Olympic sports in general and track and field in particular, is not an overnight process. It takes more than records and amazing performances at a single World Championships or Olympics. It will take a coordinated effort among everyone with a stake in Olympic sports success - Olympic organizations, sports bodies, TV rights holders, sponsors, and athletes.

And, it will take an even longer process of key decision makers at newspapers, magazines, and TV stations realizing the power of track and other Olympic sports to move readers and audiences before the coverage will change. That can happen if fans of those sports demand change. In order to help the process along, I encourage fans to write to, email, and call their local sports editors, whether their local paper is the New York Times or the Brattleboro Town Crier. Tell them that you want to see more track and field/running coverage - coverage that celebrates success without perpetuating outdated thinking, sometimes even myths, about the state of our great sport.

 

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Photo of Craig MasbackCraig A. Masback is the Chief Executive Officer of USA Track & Field (USATF), the national governing body for track and field, long distance running, and race walking. Headquartered in Indianapolis, the organization has more than 90,000 members throughout the country. Masback is responsible for overseeing programs ranging from youth track and field, to selecting teams to represent the United States at the Olympic Games and World Championships, to administering programs for age 40+ masters runners.

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