How Track and Field Can Save Itself

Few track fans are as lucky as I am. Growing up in Eugene, Oregon, I spent many days and evenings of my youth on the edge of my bleacher at Hayward Field, surrounded on all sides by other spectators. The crowd was loud and passionate, clapping and stomping in unison every time the pack came around the turn and passed in front of us. The stadium felt volatile—and would frequently erupt in a single roar. People were locked in to every second of action: even a pole vaulter or shot putter could bring the house down when they cleared a particularly high attempt or uncorked a long throw.

Seeing what’s possible as a spectator, at such a young age, made track and field feel electric—but it also now puts the sport’s typical spectator experience into perspective. And last weekend’s annual U.S. outdoor track and field championships at a barren Hornet Stadium, on Sacramento State University’s campus (which, to be fair, I watched on TV) felt decidedly un-electric. It was genuinely difficult to watch—and was the latest but plainest sign that track needs to have a major rethink about how it presents itself.

It’s no secret that track and field is hurting. Fans kvetch about it all the time: its popularity keeps declining, its governing bodies are corrupt, it’s riddled with performance-enhancing drugs, most professionals can hardly earn a living at it… the list is long. We can accept that most people only care about the sport for two weeks every four years, during the Olympics. NBC Sports will soon be broadcasting more track than it ever has before on TV and streaming online, as it will be one of the main sports on its new Olympic Channel, launching July 15. But will it matter? I’m a committed viewer, and even I have trouble watching this stuff anymore. Pity the casual or curious viewer who wanted to give track a shot and tuned into this mess.

Last weekend, the unbearable weather was the main thing that most people (though not everyone) wanted to blame. Held in Sacramento, California, the meet was severely overcooked Thursday through Sunday, with temperatures often well above 90 degrees. Attendance figures were more than 29,000 over four days, but the stands, with a capacity of more than 21,000, appeared largely empty away from the finish line throughout the meet. (A USATF spokeswoman told me the advance ticket sales far outmatched the attendance.) The venue itself made the optics even worse. The small…

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