Spent the weekend at the USA Track and Field Nationals in Sacramento. It was hot, the kind of brutal heat wave that leaves the hotel shower water lukewarm when you turn it all the way to cold. It was also track geek heaven — at one point I found myself in a room with Michael Johnson, John Carlos, Renaldo Nehemiah, Carl Lewis, and a bunch of guys who looked like the heroes of my youth gone gray. This came just one day after meeting my childhood hero Jim Ryun in person and finding out that he reads my books. Which is pretty cool, when you consider that I once stole “The Jim Ryun Story” from my elementary school library for my entire sixth grade year because I basically read it cover to cover, again and again and again. The extended borrow seemed more in keeping with my reading habits than returning it and running the risk someone else might check it out.
The racing in Sacramento was amazing, as it always seems when watching elite athletes compete up close and in person. The women’s 5,000 was one for the ages, a show of power and speed that should make any young women long to race at that level.
But while I enjoyed each and every minute of the track meet, the fan in me came away deeply disillusioned. USA Track and Field has lost touch with its fan base, a fact that was clearly on display in Sacramento. I would even go so far as to say they don’t give a shit about their fan base. How else to explain a meet that was more poorly attended than the California State Championships just one month ago? The USATF governing body seems more intent on raising donations to pad their million-dollar salaries than in creating a true fan experience to draw in a new generation of enthusiasts.
The heat in Sacramento could not be helped, not anymore than the rain pelting the crowds at the NCAA Championships in Eugene a few weeks ago. But in Eugene the fans sat under the protective cover of a grandstand awning, while in Sacramento people either baked in the sun or cowered in the shade. The hospitality room in Sacramento was filled to the brim with all those track and field celebrities because it was air conditioned. Rather than watch the races going on literally just outside the door, it was far more comfortable to stay inside for the television coverage.
There were moments of inspiration, such as the drumline that kept the beat during the distance championships and welcomed the athletes on to the track. But in this day and age when the NFL hosts a fan experience complete with concerts and interactive demonstrations, and the NBA fills an arena for their draft — also with spectacle and hoopla — the drumline seems a quaint attempt to be relevant. It’s worth noting that the Woodbridge Cross Country Invitational has utilized a drumline to add excitement to its championship races for more than ten years, so clearly USATF needs to be a little more forward thinking. The meet seemed perfunctory, a throwback contested on an eight-lane track in an era when even high school championships are held on nine-lanes. It reeked of USATF selling the championships to the highest bidder rather than finding a truly great location in a big city that could add media pull. The average sports fan likely did not know there was a US Championships in track and field last weekend. There was no SportsCenter coverage, none of the media onslaught that greets even a small market baseball team’s wins and losses.
I bought a copy of the Sacramento Bee on my way out of town. The headline story was not the national championship, but the arrival of the city’s new NBA draft choices. It was a sad reminder that the days when 105,000 Americans crowded into the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch Ryun and Gerry Lindgren race the Russians in a dual meet are long gone. Track is no more or less sexy now than it was back then, but there seems to be a belief that the sport will market itself. It won’t. And in an era when more potential athletes are pulled away by the single sports mentality that stokes the mediocrity of greed-fueled youth club sports, the need to make track and field a fan experience is more vital than ever.
Running is America’s number one participation sport, yet there’s no attempt to indoctrinate those millions of weekend warriors into track fans. It’s not enough that track and field athletes become household names every four years when the Olympics roll around. The USATF is a bureaucracy that exists to fill its own coffers, not pass that money along to the athletes or the fans.
It’s a shame, and nowhere was the evidence more clear than last weekend in Sacramento.