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Head to Head: Do Marathons Have a Message for Track?

May 01, 2012 at 11:15am EST | by Barbara Huebner, NYRR News Service

By all accounts, marathons are a boom industry. Last year, 518,000 runners finished a marathon in the U.S., according to statistics from Running USA, and some of them paid $150, even $200 for the privilege of entry. Millions more lined the streets of New York, Boston, Chicago, and other cities, waiting for hours to cheer for their friends, family, neighbors—and even total strangers. With the professional outdoor track and field season about to kick off, what can that arm of the sport learn from the marathon world? Or should track be looking in another direction entirely for lessons on how to grow its fan base, fill the stands, attract sponsors, and help people feel a connection to its athletes? Neil Amdur, former sports editor of the New York Times, and longtime broadcaster Toni Reavis take on the topic.

Neil Amdur: Track and field has a serious identity problem in the United States You have the sport flourishing at the participant level in high schools, with crowds of 40,000 for an event such as the Penn Relays. But outside of a hotbed like Eugene, Oregon, with its great running tradition and built-in fan base, the sport has almost disappeared from mainstream media consciousness.

In an Olympic year, with a new executive just appointed, the timing is right for a reexamination and resurgence. But the thinking has to change to a market-driven mentality. In much the same way that the ING New York City Marathon has a diverse, lively week-long set of activities and NASCAR markets itself with a series of events in whatever venue it plays, track and field needs to create a “jamboree” multi-day setting for its meets. It was done successfully in the past, with the USA-Africa meet in Durham, North Carolina, ages ago. But it needs updating, and I’m not sure the international fathers really care whether track and field succeeds in the United Stares. They have their European playgrounds where money, over and under the table, is plentiful.

Toni Reavis: Thanks, Neil.  And you want me to argue with that?! 

The problem with pro track is that nobody wins the track meet the way someone wins a marathon; it’s all a series of unconnected individual events sharing a facility. High school meets and the Olympics are successful, in part, because the stakes are high and understood to be so, and the competition is widened beyond the scope of individual events. We keep score at those meet. Teams compete and fans are engrossed.

The purists have allowed track to become a lab experiment in speed, distance, and height that no one but the hard-core can find interest in, because track is organized around the athletes, not the fans. I think we should start bringing roads to the track and track to the roads: We see the Boston Athletic Association stage high school and invitational road miles the day before the Boston Marathon. Well, stage street high jumps, hurdle races and the like as well, with only kids and heroes competing. Stage a road race the morning of a track meet, with entry into the meet included in the race entry fee. For heaven’s sake, do something!  I know—make every event a charity-based competition devoid of excellence and watered down for mass participation. That’s worked pretty well for the roads.

NA: Now we’re talking, Toni. But do you think the leaders of track and field have the vision to pull this off? I also wonder if the pro track and field athlete has the willingness to wade into this game. NASCAR drivers are so plugged into their promotional market that they religiously shill for sponsors and fans and even create their own feuds on and off the track to stir the pot. From what I can observe, the agents in track and field live in glass houses and prefer to keep their clients there, too.

There was a time when track and field athletes in this country enjoyed the same name recognition as baseball, football, and basketball stars. Bob Hayes didn’t have to play pro football to be recognized as someone special; he was the “World’s Fastest Human” and everyone knew it. The Ryun-Liquori “Dream Mile” captured national attention. Al Oerter could light up a room with his physical and verbal presence, besides trying to psych out his discus rivals. Bob Beamon is still the only long jumper most Americans can recall, and his jump of 29’ 2½” was more than 40 years ago. Where are the stars to sell? 

TR:  Neil, when we were young reporters, American and European athletes were much more dominant, because the developing world was still coming out from beneath its colonial yoke. The athletes you listed organically understood the media necessities before them. And you had reporters who covered marathons and track like a regular beat. Look at the late Jerry Nason of the Boston Globe, who coined the term “Heartbreak Hill” in 1936 and used to do write-ups about the Boston Marathon months out to build interest in the big race. There were far fewer sports to compete against, and our sport held a special importance as subtext for the Cold War rivalry between the Soviet Bear and Uncle Sam.

Major marathons have created events of spectacle and pageantry [such as ING New York City Marathon's Opening Ceremony, see photo]. They hold week-long or days-long press conferences, they stage expos, and they celebrate the sport as industry conclaves. For many cities, its marathon week is one of the highlights of the year. But except for Hayward Field in Eugene, there isn’t a showcase track venue in the country, and every meet is a one-day, here-and-gone proposition. Officials, not showmen,  are running the store. No matter the quality of the athletes, without the proper stage on which to present them, it all looks a little down-at-heel, and with so many other sporting/entertainment options, the audiences have voted with their own legs.

NA: Here’s my suggestion to track and field’s incoming breed: Consult with America’s marathon officialdom and develop a strategy for creating a showcase pilot event that combines track and field, road racing (perhaps a half-marathon) and cultural activities (a music fest, children’s events) that can lure participants, spectators, and the entire community. Make it a win-win proposition for everyone.  

TR: What makes the New York City, Boston, and Chicago marathons such public spectacles is that they run through where people live. I remember when I was a boy in St. Louis and I went downtown one summer’s day to meet my father for lunch near his office. This was not routine, by any means. What made it special was that on that day, two of the top men in the tennis world were staging a demonstration match on Olive Street between Eighth and Ninth in front of the grand Old Post Office building. The net was set up and the great Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall took up positions opposite each other as shirt-sleeved crowds pressed in from all sides, while other spectators leaned out from open office windows up above. It was all part of the ballyhoo for that week’s pro tennis tournament in town. 

By bringing track to the streets in a block-party-like setting, we would at least introduce the sport to casual viewers—and maybe sell a ticket or two more for the meet itself.  We recently saw world number-one Jesse Williams give a high jump demonstration in Times Square during the U.S. Olympic Team festivities. The event marked 100 days until the London Olympics. Now, I’d rather have seen the demonstration be part of the buildup for the week of the adidas Grand Prix scheduled for June 9th on Randall’s Island. But the concept was right. 

We’ve seen mall shot puts, road miles, and beach pole vaults. Now we need to coordinate promotional street meets with track meets, like a travelling road show coming to the people. By bringing track to the people where they live and work, maybe one day we can entice them to come join us where we work.   

Categories: Marathon News