Hockey’s back, bad news for track. How can we popularize our sport?

The NHL has returned, and filled the P.K. Subban-shaped hole in Canadians’ Saturday nights. Waiting for hockey to return, I wondered whether some other, niche, sports like box lacrosse or women’s hockey, had pushed hard to take away professional hockey’s air time. And then I wondered about track and field, and where we stand in the public’s estimation of destination programming.

Last weekend at McGill, we hosted the largest indoor track meet in Canada, with athletes from 7 provinces, and a few Americans, too. Attendance, other than injured teammates and a few parents, was around 350 over the two days, while around 1500 people watched online. Those are pretty good numbers for track, but compared to other sports, even those outside of the big three, we’re still quite small. Women’s volleyball at UdeM had 800 spectators last weekend, for example.

I’ve canvassed a few different areas to figure out what we can do to make track more popular: I asked the question on my facebook wall, in a local running club forums, and on twitter. I’ve spoken to one of the few members of the Canadian media who seem to understand and appreciate track and field, CBC’s Scott Russell; I’ve talked to IAAF agent Kris Mychasiw, who spends the summer in Europe, watching track in packed football stadia; and I asked McGill Athletics Communications Officer Earl Zuckerman what track can do to improve our image.

The answers present themselves in a couple different categories. There’s an issue of comprehension: people aren’t clear on the rules, and aren’t sure why they should care. Another issue is atmosphere: going to a track meet in Canada is not a fun experience; for most, even those competing, it can be a bore!

According to my non-running facebook friends there is a problem of understanding. People relate very quickly to a hockey game: the goal is to “score the puck in the net.” But what many enjoy about Canada’s national sport are the subtleties: “goals, big hits, nice passes, 2-on-1s, shots, saves, etc. There’s a long build-up to an uncertain outcome, with many bits of excitement before it’s decided.” You would think a footrace would be quite compelling as well, but apparently there’s not enough variety for Joe Canadian. Those of us who do love track, however, experience a track race differently. We can be quite compelled, even by a 10,000m race. The difference is not that one sport is inherently more interesting than another; it is the depth of knowledge of the fans. So we need to educate the population.

“Popular spectator sports are a well-defined, cohesive ‘game,’ not 15 things going on all at once and stopping at random” says Katy Chancey, an RMT in Ottawa, and a former varsity swimmer at UNB. Another reason why sports fans find it hard to get into track and field is because it is an individual sport. There’s no team to cheer for, according to Miriam Fortier, a local fashion designer: “In hockey, for instance, you can be a die-hard fan of a team while not a single player from the “original” team you liked remains. In track and field the results are individual.” This is again a case of misunderstanding. Especially in following the university circuit, one can absolutely be a fan of the McGill Martlets (#rednation). There are team scores at each meet. We just aren’t very good at telling people about it.

Earl Zuckerman’s job is to tell the media about our meets at McGill, in an effort to get coverage, and hopefully, bring some fans to the stands. But he outlines several issues with the way competitions are structured and promoted that make his job very difficult. First of all, Earl says, we need “more clarity in producing meet results that are easier for media to interpret. We need to use a standardized nomenclature (names and/or abbreviations) for teams. For example, most meets in Quebec involve athletes from club teams, as well as university teams. This causes great confusion when looking at the results.” The team scores are usually buried at the bottom. When you look at a hockey summary, the first thing you see is the team score, and the individual stats follow.

Not to say the individual stats aren’t important. People love stats. We just have to get them out there in an understandable way. Zuckerman suggests “having live stats online and a live webcast. This can help create awareness of the sport and makes it easier to follow, while providing the media, as well as the public, with instant information.” The live webcasts are starting, and we took a big step forward in that area this weekend. Included in the stats should be a list of records, and there should be a PA announcer at the meet who has all these numbers at his or her fingertips, ready to make a big deal about it when it happens. At the McGill Team Challenge, there were a couple provincial, meet and fieldhouse records, as well as a Canadian junior indoor record. We got out in front of this information, but sometimes the athlete doesn’t even know. We suffer from poor information management.

Another issue is that a track meet is a big investment of time for a spectator. It’s a big investment for everyone: the meet director, volunteers, officials, coaches and athletes all routinely spend a solid 12 hours at the track in a given weekend. Sometimes more. And we love to complain about it. So why would we expect spectators to sit around for that long? Even in Track Town USA, Eugene, Oregon, they suffer from this problem. How can we fix it?

The first thing is that the meet should run on time, but even then, a full meet takes several hours more than most people are willing to sit through a sporting event. A potential solution would be more frequent, but smaller meets. More frequent to give all athletes a chance to compete, but smaller to make them more palatable for spectators. The NTL series approaches this, with a limited number of events for elite competitors, that take around 2 to 2.5 hours to complete, but length is just one piece of the puzzle.

The suggestion that came up the most among non-track people was that track meets need to serve beer. Indeed, the beer garden was a popular spot at the Olympic Trials last summer. Waterloo Warrior alum Chris Payton acknowledged “I’d love to stand in a beer tent heckling runners as they go by.” Put the beer tent next to the steeple pit and you are in business. In those sold out European stadiums, they sure do sell beer. Scott Davis, head coach at St. Thomas University, suggests simplifying things with matching, solid-colour uniforms. Carded Paralympian Guillaume Ouellet suggests adding music during some of the longer events, as he experienced at a nordic ski world cup race in Quebec City.

All of these are good ideas, and as change-resistant as the people in our sport can be, none of them are unrealistic. The question is, though, how far do we want to go with changes to our competitions? Why do we want to chase fans? And is beer enough to bring them in? The NTL had a short schedule, elite athletes, and beer. It still wasn’t on tv, and while there were more people in the stands than at your typical mid-summer Quebec track meet, we’re not talking Tom Longboat-era crowds here.

Scott Russell of CBC Sports suggests a few reasons. “Europeans get Track and Field in a way we don’t,” he says. “Europe is willing to accept a diversity of sport. Maybe were more into the “Team” concept as opposed to individual sport. It’s a tough one.”

In terms of getting on TV, the chicken and egg scenario plays out like so: if more people watched the meets, it would be worthwhile to put on tv, but in order to get more people to watch, well, having meets on tv would help. This summer you won’t be able to see IAAF Diamond League meets on CBC. Russell explains why it’s not a draw. “Because Track and Field is largely a summer season activity in Europe and since our summer season on television draws fewer ratings we see it as less a priority – other than at Olympic time.”

On the other hand, he says that Diamond League meets in North American time zones (New York and Eugene have potential) might interest broadcasters a bit more.

“We tend to like events with large crowds happening at home and in our own time zone. Right now TV is all about live coverage. It’s the last vestige of destination programming. We need to be able to see big stars in exciting races and in our own backyard.”

Track and field in Canada doesn’t really have a ‘star system.’ Sure, people know who Usain Bolt is, but that’s not enough to get them to watch events in which Bolt is not competing. The assumption is that a star system bringing in fans would lead to more interest from sponsors, possibly advertisers and a potential tv deal, and maybe even a line of sports cards. (Oh wait, that already exists.) This exposure would allow money to flow to athletes, and that, in theory, would allow them to better achieve their goals. But is that really how it would shake out? Does track really get less exposure than any other amateur sport?

A fair warning might be to be careful what you wish for. Everyone wants exposure, but anything critical is viewed as an attack, not necessarily by the person being criticised, but by others in our small community, who, perhaps with good intentions, are worried that the bad press will be harmful. I guess no one in the track community has heard of the idea that any press is good press, or being talked about is better than not being talked about at all?

So after this long examination, where do we stand? We are a niche sport. We probably shouldn’t aspire to be like the NHL, or other professional sports. But everyone reading this has some love for track. How did we get it? Why do we care and other people don’t? There are two possible avenues we can go down here: we can figure out how to make everyone love track, or we can focus on marketing it to people who already do.

The play-by-play on television is clearly geared towards people watching for the first time. Maybe this is a mistake. If there is a limited audience, and that audience is turned off watching, numbers will be even lower. If people who love track are not even watching, how can we expect to build an audience in the rest of the world? Simple explanations, maybe on a shared website, could allow interested viewers to get a quick primer on the various events.

This has been a long way of saying: I don’t know. But at least having the discussion is a starting point. In the end, the least we can do is to share our sport with people, invite them to meets, and explain to them why we think track and field is so cool. If our goal is to promote the sport to a new, wider audience, we need to listen to potential fans, and let go of some traditional aspects of our events. Instead of being stuck in our ways, we can bring new energy, an attractive quality, that will perhaps inspire some new folks to pop their heads in and have a look at all the great stuff we’ve got going on.

runners what I do