Why is it so hard to watch track?

Track is on TV plenty, but the top athletes are not.

If you are a lover of track and field and a citizen of the web - as I presume you must be since you are reading this blog - you are familiar with the idea that there is something wrong with The Sport. Namely, that it is not popular enough. People explain this great tragedy many different ways, some of which I hope to cover at a later date, but a common contention is that track meets are too hard to watch. They are behind too many paywalls and not on TV often enough. If the powers that be could look beyond the short sighted quest for quick revenue and simply make the sport more available to a mass audience, it would take off.

I believe this argument is only half right. Track is indeed difficult and expensive to follow comprehensively, but this is not because it is not available on your TV set or for free. It is because the decentralized nature of the sport that means many of the best competitions are conducted outside of the most widely available production channels. You cannot fix this problem with new broadcast models: you have to change the underlying structure and incentives of athletes and coaches.

Track is on TV a lot, actually

Here’s a pair of tweets from a back and forth I had with Steve Magness a couple years back on this that I think covers the general sentiment quite well.

Now I don’t want to pick on Steve in particular, I just think his sentiment is fairly widespread and worth responding to1. The thing is: USATF is already doing what Steve recommends! This SI article from 2016 announces a new USATF TV deal with NBCSN. One of the key selling points? It reduces the production costs USATF has to pay NBC from nearly $2 million dollars a year to some unspecified amount. 

So what do we get for our money? Excluding the Olympic Trials and Olympics, in any given year the USATF Indoor and Outdoor Championships, the Millrose Games, the Boston Indoor Games, the Prefontaine Classic, the rest of the Diamond League, and the World Championships are broadcast by NBC Sports. Pre, Millrose, some of USAs, and sometimes BIG even get played on NBC proper- no cable subscription required! The others are on NBCSN which is not exactly broadcast Siberia. The Tour de France, for example, is a very profitable and popular event and is almost exclusively on NBCSN. In addition, ESPN broadcasts both the New York City Marathon, the indoor and outdoor NCAA Championships, and this year added the NINE meets of the American Track League. That’s a lot of track on TV!

To go back to Steve’s example, UFC has NEVER been on broadcast television. It started on Spike TV before migrating to pay per view and then to a deal with ESPN. Even now, the biggest fights are still pay per view and are available only if you have the special ESPN+ package. To watch the most recent McGregor/Poirier fight (which I assume is a big deal because people in my group chats were talking about it) you had to pay $69.99 ON TOP of a $5.99 monthly subscription. USATF.tv seems cheap by comparison!

So why is everything bad?

And yet, the experience of actually being a track fan - particularly of the distance variety - is one of navigating a seemingly endless array of different broadcast venues and subscription services to find out exactly where you can watch and whom you have to pay to do so. So how do I fix my mouth to say that track is on TV enough?

The answer lies, I think, in the example of Yomif Kejelcha’s indoor mile world record in 2019 that set Steve and I to debating. After he set the record there was some consternation on Twitter that to watch the race you needed a USATF.tv subscription. Even Darren Rovell chimed in to wonder at the absurdity. What was lost in that discussion was that Kejelcha had previously gone for - and barely missed - the record at the Millrose Games, broadcast live on NBC. I watched it on my phone as I was boarding a flight via the magic of YouTube TV. It was as easy and available as you please. Had he set the record there, all would have been well. But he missed and instead set it at the Bruce Lehane Invitational at BU. 

You can be forgiven for not having heard of the Bruce Lehane Invitational since, as far as I can tell, the 2019 event was it’s only iteration. It was a “meet” that consisted of only two (very, very good) professional mile races after IC4A’s- itself a somewhat obscure event a week before the indoor NCAA championships that no one outside the Acela corridor cares about. The problem here is not that a tiny meet that was created, announced, and completed within a two week period was not available for free on your TV. The problem is that important - indeed, career defining - events in Track and Field happen at meets like that at all! Even if the stream were free, it was more or less impossible to know about the attempt if you were not already immersed in the world of track.

Widely viewed events can be organized on relatively short notice, but the key word there is organized. Track and field has no central authority that controls - or at least shepherds into being - all the events on the calendar. A UFC fight can come together and be promoted in a relatively short window, because there is a central apparatus built to do that organizing and promoting. Not only does that organization learn by doing, but it has standing relationships with a broadcast partner that will then have a stake in promoting the event. Track just has a bunch of people freelancing towards their own ends.

The Inmates Are Running the Asylum

The main issue here is that neither USATF nor World Athletics really controls the schedule. The coaches and athletes do. Now look, it’s not a terribly popular opinion to argue that a big problem is athletes and coaches have too much freedom and what should happen is some centralizing authority should come in and take that away. People like athletes. People do not like bureaucrats. That is probably as it should be. The diagnosis here raises the status of the Bad People while lowering the status of the Good People and no one wants that, least of all me. But it does have the inconvenient quality of being true. A truly enjoyable and accessible viewing experience for fans means a more centralized one. People have warm feelings towards the idea of small, independent businesses, but they spend their money on Amazon.

What this boils down to is coaches and athletes have very strong incentives to focus all of their effort on two things: succeeding at major championships and setting records. The nature of track is that the best way to prepare to do those two things is to gear your entire training racing schedule towards that goal. Coaches, by nature, also love to control as many variables as they can. Thus you have coaches- like my own coach, Jerry Schumacher2- creating events that fit the specific needs of their athletes without thought to the wider marketing needs of the sport. What ends up happening in those circumstances is the coach picks a date, a distance, and a location and then goes to the relevant college/high school coach who controls the facility and works out a schedule with them. Then at the last second someone thinks, “oh we should stream this” so they go to one of the established streaming companies and offer the meet to them. The thing about streaming meets well is that it takes a lot of equipment and is decently expensive, so no one is going to do it for free (remember all those production costs USATF is paying for?). You might suggest that USATF bite the bullet and pay for all these meets to be streamed, but they are dealing with a constrained budget and it really doesn’t make financial sense for them to offer a free service at a huge loss to promote events that they don’t have a long term economic stake in.

Now most coaches don’t have the power to create events from scratch. They do, however, have the power to get races organized within pre-existing college meets, which was the move du jour before the recent spate of self organized affairs. Even for the track junkie, watching 6 heats of 1500s to get to the couple races with a few pros and top college kids you want to see does not make for a great viewing experience. If an event is not going to attract a lot of eyeballs, it’s not going to attract a lot of sponsorship dollars for a broadcaster, and so you will probably have to pay someone to do the broadcasting. And by “you”, I do mean you, Dear Reader.

Recently there have been a series of entrepreneurs who have sprung up to try and meet coaches’ demand for certain types of competitions (for distance running, think: well paced races on cool, west coast evenings). Sound Running, Portland Track, Trials of Miles, etc have all put on really good meets that have attracted some fairly high level talent. I like all the people behind these events and I think they are doing good work, but while experimentation and entrepreneurship are good in the abstract, the result for fans is a confusing and fractured mess of different streaming options and payment models. Another problem is that there are massive returns to scale in broadcasting. If one event series had a stranglehold on all the top events and talent, that would be a very marketable product to take to sponsors and TV broadcasters. The more fractured the event landscape, the less desirable any one property, the more likely it is to be confined to a niche streaming option. Moreover, a big reason for the success of these meets is that they are catering in some way to the scheduling desires of the coaches. This limits their room for maneuver. If they begin to pursue the demands of marketing to the exclusion of coaches’ preferences, the coaches might defect to a competitor that will cater to them. At the most recent Stumptown Twilight, the schedule was originally set for the early evening so that the highest level races were in a compact “hot window” that wasn’t too late on the east coast. It was, however, a hot day and so the coaches and agents of athletes in the fast heats of the 5,000m lobbied to get them moved back 90 minutes when it was cooler and they were thus detached from the rest of the top heats. The meet could have resisted this lobbying effort, but then it would impair its ability to attract that top talent in the future. 

Prove It

That’s been a lot of anecdote and supposition, let’s put some numbers behind what we’re talking about here. There were 9 professional men in the 1500m Olympic Trials Final3. They have raced 36 total 1500m or mile races outside of the Olympic Trials this year, but only 14 of those race performances were on TV (that includes some at the same event). “Now Chris”, you might be saying, “this proves nothing, how many opportunities did they have? We’ve been trying to tell you track isn’t on TV enough, haven’t we!?” 

So glad you asked. The answer, by my count, is that there have been fully 13 men’s 1500m or mile races on TV this year. I might be goosing the numbers here a little, as 5 of those races were Diamond Leagues and only one American, Josh Thompson in Stockholm, has run a DL race this year. As the Diamond League is the sports highest profile non-championship, I would say that states the problem pretty squarely, but some people complain that they really have to be domestic meets to count. So fine, that still leaves us with 8 races on TV this year. Fun fact: none of those 9 men ran more than 8 1500m/mile races in 2021. Which is to say, every single one of those 35 performances could have been on TV if the athletes were willing to craft their schedule around that goal. The problem is they are not. Or rather: that no one is making them.

Can I make this somebody’s fault?

Whenever a coach, agent, or athlete sets up a meet or picks a race schedule that is obviously suboptimal for the sport’s broader popularity, there is a lot of hand wringing and anger. “Don’t they care about THE SPORT?!” people intone. I understand that reaction, but am less inclined to it. Not to be all “takes Econ class once” guy, but people respond to their incentives. The incentives in track are built around fast times, major championships, and the fast times it takes to get you into major championships. No one coach or athlete can change that system and so on the margin no one person doing the “right thing” will have much of an impact. What we’ve got here is a classic coordination problem. What track needs to solve it is what every other popular sport has: a strong central authority that can plan the schedule and arrange marketable matchups. In my next post I’ll discuss some ideas for doing that. 

Thank you for reading! If you’d like to yell at me, you can do so in the comments or on Twitter at @CDerrickRun.

1

Plus his argument perfectly tees up mine and as a newly minted Struggling Writer™, I need to get my shots up when I can.

2

Yes, yes, I understand the irony of a Bowerman athlete saying the problem is people don’t race enough/in the right places. But who better to understand the mentality?

3

I swear this was the first event whose numbers I looked up. I chose to exclude the three college athletes and college meets since they are generally not in the same competition pool fewer people complain about how NCAA track is covered.