Track and Field is Racing for a Bigger Share of the US Sports Market

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For the international governing body of track and field, fifth place is considered a win.

World Athletics has set a target of making the sport one of the five most popular in America by 2028, when Los Angeles hosts the Olympic Games. All it needs is sponsorships, television ratings, and crowds to show up at its events. No sweat.

Let’s Discus

US track and field has a lot of hurdles to jump. Since it’s a tournament-based sport, there are few major events and the professional Diamond League holds most meets in Europe. Crowds can also be sparse — earlier this month, the USATF New York Grand Prix couldn’t fill the 5,000-capacity Icahn Stadium in Manhattan, even with star sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson in attendance.

In short, the sport is a far cry from the 80s when it produced full-blown celebrities like Carl Lewis and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. The firing piston on a turnaround effort sounds this weekend, with the US track and field championships. It will ramp to full speed next month when the US hosts the track and field world championships for the first time, kicking off a TV blitz:

  • NBC, which holds Word Athletics broadcasting rights, plans to more than double the air time of July’s world championships, to 12.5 hours, over 2019’s Qatar event. Seven of those hours will be in prime-time, in the hope that the 2 million to 3 million sized audiences that watched last year’s US Olympic track and field trials return (most domestic track events fail to capture even 1 million viewers).
  • Track and field came in eighth on a 2019 Neilsen survey of sports Americans said they are most interested in. Of note, there are few locations with the resources to host major events outside of sleepy, mid-sized Eugene, Oregon — it’s where Nike co-founder Phil Knight helped fund a $270 million, state-of-the-art renovation to the University of Oregon’s century-old Hayward Field.

“If I’m being blunt, we’ve got to get into the LAs, the Chicagos the Miamis,” World Athletics president Sebastian Coe told The Wall Street Journal — Eugene has hosted the last four Olympic trials, and will host the world championships.

Cross Country Profile: According to Coe the demographics are there: 50 million people in the US identify as runners, and the sport features men and women, giving it a broader appeal. Still, it’s a long race to $6.5 million crypto commercials and 49-year-old Eminem half-time shows.