LANE ONE: Two track & field stars confront the dangers of not competing enough: no one cares when you do

Rio Olympic 1,500 m champ Matthew Centrowitz (USA) (Photo: Erik van Leeuwen via Wikimedia Commons)

There is a lot of trash on Twitter. But last week there was a remarkable conversation between two former University of Oregon stars which pinpointed a substantial issue that is depriving the sport of a higher profile.

The talkers were 2013-14 NCAA 1,500 m champion Mac Fleet (best of 3:38.35 in 2013) and 2016 Olympic 1,500 Champion Matthew Centrowitz, both of whom are still active. Last Friday morning, Fleet reacted to a Citius Magazine post and the discussion went on from there (tweets are shown as published):

Nov. 24: Citius Magazine:

People asking ‘How do you make track more entertaining?’ are asking (and answering) the wrong question.

Track is entertaining. People that don’t think so simply aren’t paying attention. I know because I used to be one of them.” – @DanielWinn

Nov. 27: Fleet:

While all of this is true, it absolutely needs to be presented in a non-train wreck fashion, which most Track & Field coverage is. You shouldn’t have to explain to your friend they missed a race move while NBC does a 5 minute cutaway story on someone not in contention at [Olympic Trials].

[2-3-4-5] Finding commentators that are professionals first needs to be a priority. Being a mega fan or former pro shouldn’t be automatically qualifying to be on TV or stream. Trying to “get into” a new sport while the commentators can’t even get anyone’s names correct is a huge issue.

Predetermined “interesting” cutaway stories need to be banished. Every race is more interesting while its happening live. Commentators need to tell the story that’s happening LIVE in front of them.

Track & Field meet directors should seriously consider hiring an action sport company/sponsor (think redbull types) to put their spin on producing a track meet. These companies excel at presenting niche sports and would likely come up with a better fan experience.

We need Tony Romos not Jason Wittens.

Centrowitz:

While this would all be nice, I don’t think this is still THE solution. To keep it simple, track athletes need to compete/race more. 82 games are the least amount played in the major sports. Most athletes race 10 or less times. We need more exposure. We need to incorporate sports

[2] gambling to track & field. We need to allow spectators to drink beer (like at some European meets). We need to fill track & field on days when no other sport is being televised. Imagine if we had a meet on a random Wednesday and some people were looking for a sports outing or

[3] something to bet on tv. We can’t just put track races on the weekend when other big sporting games are on. The Olympics are in August when NBA is done. Football hasn’t started. Before the playoffs in baseball start. People are looking for anything.

Fleet:

Imagine even a free Diamond League betting app using DL “points”. Watch a meet, get 100 pts to gamble, win DL gear and trips to meets. Keeps people engaged long term and short term.

Centrowitz:

100%. There are so many ways you could do it. At the end of the day, when gambling gets involved, people will show more of an interest to track and follow athletes. Imagine people showing up to workouts to see how an athlete is getting on. Imagine people reading scout reports.

[2] It’d almost be no different than horse racing

● Then this from @TrackSuperFan Jesse Squire:

T&F’s biggest challenge past high school is that our athletes compete less often than in any other sport save horse racing and boxing. Not coincidentally, these are the only sports whose popularity dropoff are larger than T&F’s.

● And from NBC Sports at-large writer and long-time observer Tim Layden:

What is the target fan base?

1) People who love T&F but are frustrated with the current model?
2) NFL/NBA/MLB/NHL/College sports/X-Games fans who are barely aware of T&F except Oly?

The first is a worthy endeavor. The second feels like very heavy lifting.

There were a lot of replies and many more tweets from Fleet, which you can follow from the links above. Replies to Centrowitz noted football (both kinds) plays less than 82 games (true, but the NFL plays for 22 consecutive weeks and Major League Soccer for 34 straight weeks).

But that’s not the point.

The head of the world’s most successful sport – Gianni Infantino (SUI) of FIFA – made the point during his 3 March 2020 speech at the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Ordinary Congress. He told the heads of European soccer that it’s time to look into changing everything:

“I think that this will be really the topic – the international match calendar – that we have to focus on for the future of football. … It has to be fine-tuned. It has to be debated. It has to be discussed by all stakeholders.

“We have to ask ourselves many questions that maybe we avoided to ask ourselves in the past. ‘How many matches can a player play in a year?’ ‘How many competitions do we have?’ ‘How many competitions should we have?’ ‘What kind of competitions do we need for the future?’ ‘Do we play too much or don’t we play enough, maybe, in some parts of the world?’ And we have to realize that the international match calendar is a global match calendar which has to take into account many issues such as, of course, climate and geography.

“And, you know, [in] this we need to consider the fans as well. The fans are the lifeblood of football. I had the pleasure to assist in Belfast on Saturday the quarterfinal of the Irish F.A. Cup between Glentoran and Crusaders, and it was freezing cold. But there were a few thousand people watching this game and supporting their team. These are the true, core football fans and we have to work for them, of course, and offer them what they want to see, and if possible even a little bit more.”

This is even more crucial for track & field in the U.S. with the Olympic Trials and Tokyo Games in 2021 – it looks like they will happen – and then the World Championships in Eugene in 2022, followed by the 2023 Worlds, 2024 Olympic Games, 2025 Worlds and the Los Angeles Games in 2028.

Infantino is worried about players being stressed with too many matches. Centrowitz has correctly pointed to track & field’s problem of the sport’s stars competing too sparingly, almost invisible outside of their national championships and when their events are in the Wanda Diamond League circuit of 14 meets across 16 weeks (with a month’s gap in the middle).

This issue is especially timely given the recent conclusion of the second season of the International Swimming League. Funded by Ukranian energy billionaire Konstantin Grigorishin, this concept places swimmers on 10 teams, with contracted pay, who compete in quadrangular meets.

In this Covid-19-challenged year, the ISL shoehorned a 10-meet schedule plus two rounds of playoffs into just 37 days (!) in a sequestered program in Budapest (HUN). That meant star swimmers who usually race once or twice a month at most during the spring and summer now were racing multiple events – as in college dual meets – in two-day meets as often as twice a week!

And they loved it.

Whether ISL can survive will depend on whether it can attract sponsors, television support and spectators, all impossible to do in 2020. But it’s out there and with high, if overwrought, television production values. And it has raised the profile and set the table for emerging U.S. Olympic superstars like sprinter Caeleb Dressel and breaststroker Lilly King.

Centrowitz has identified one of the keys to future success for track & field, especially in the United States, in the availability (and promotion) of its stars … not just the availability of meets. Whether gambling is the right way to achieve this needs more discussion, but as Infantino said, more discussion among the stakeholders – athletes, coaches, meet directors, broadcasters and sponsors – is exactly what is needed right now.

Rich Perelman
Editor

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