Sunday, May 27, 2007

What Killed Track and Field As a Spectator Sport?

Fred writes with this challenge:

"This one is multi-faceted: choose one, two or all three:

1. Pick an element of the sport you'd rather not write about, and write about it (political, cultural, long-term effects on the athletes' health, positive effects of doping, etc).

2. Write a T/F op-ed that is convincing but antithetical to your own beliefs.

3. Explain the relative lack of interest in T/F (and in other more European sports, like soccer and rugby) in the U.S.

Must be a long weekend. I'm feeling a bit contrarian today."

LOL! Dude, you ARE bringing us down with your negative vibes! No, seriously, those are all good topics. Since you're giving me a choice, I'll begin with what's behind door number 3.

I can't speak to the reasons that the sport of soccer is a flop in the U.S. as a spectator sport, so I'll let the internet do the talking for me. Theories, rational and otherwise, fly on the internet more thickly than a flock of cowbirds converging on a Taco Bell dumpster. The most popular seems to be that the best talent goes to the biggies NFL, MLB, and NBA, which leaves little talent left for sports that are huge in other parts of the world but here are consider second tier, soccer included.

I can't buy that one, at least not for track and field, which is a track and field powerhouse in the world despite the NFLs of the world. It may be true for soccer, I don't know.

Another theory attributes that lack of interest in soccer to Americans' short attention span. I'm not sure what that means and I don't have time to go into it.

This humorous article chronicles the history of attempts to introduce soccer to America. The author mentions various reasons that have been offered for American's lack of interest in soccer, including "it’s hard to interest American kids in a sport in which they can’t use their hands." I'm not quite sure about the logic behind that one, but I keep picturing placekickers on the sidelines of football games bowing their heads in shame at the thought of being discovered for the frauds they are, "I knew there had to be something fundamentally wrong with a guy whose name is Garo Yepremian!" the Miami Dolphin's fan exclaimed during Super Bowl VII. "Now I know it's because European kids never use their hands during sports like the good Lord intended them to do!"

Here's an interesting, fire-breathing post from last year's World Cup. It offers several reasons for soccer's lack of popularity in the U.S., including the theory that "America is xenophobic and nationalistic to the point of hollow jingoism."

Now, please allow me to speak about something I know a little bit about, the sorry state of televised track and field in the United States. Why is track and field unpopular in America? I'm inclined to go with the Short Attention Span theory. I blame the media, or more specifically, ABC's Roone Arledge, for killing the popularity of track and field as a U.S. spectator sport. Arledge's marketing strategy for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was to introduce the concept of human-interest stories to sports television. Arledge made the decision to primarily focus on the human-interest permutations of Olympic television coverage in order to increase ratings among women viewers. Doing so left little time for coverage of the actual live events. Thus began the sorry practice of cutting away from live events as they were unfolding to go to commercials. Dick Ebersol at NBC has continued the sorry practice and has taken it to the extreme.

Now Americans have to be spoon-fed their athletic drama in the form of vignettes of courage and mini soap operas about athletes having to overcome significant obstacles just to be able to show up to the competition, rather than being allowed to watch the drama of a meet unfold before their eyes right there on the track. We've sat through 23 years of this melodrama now, watching what used to be exciting televised track turn into Oprah with running spikes. Imagine Mike Tirico turning away from a 4th and goal situation at the end of a closely-contested 4th quarter during Monday Night Football to introduce a piece about how the starting quarterback had to overcome a childhood full of drugs, gang-violence and dyslexia just to be able to make it to the stadium tonight. It's never going to happen in the first place, and, if it did, football fans wouldn't put up with it for a second.

Track fans, I'm afraid, have grown too accustomed to it to stand up for their rights as viewers. Either that, or they simply turn off the TV, not wanting to put up with it any longer. ABC killed the popularity of track and field as a spectator sport by shrinking our attention spans, year by year, meet by meet, vignette by vignette. Is it too late to do something about it? Maybe not. A reader has suggested another challenge about this very thing in my post titled Constructive Criticism About Televised Meets, Part 1. Part 2 of that post will detail ways to fight this scourge of bad televised track. Stay tuned for the next compelling installment.

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