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November 24, 2020

I Like Track (And So Should You)

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.

In the summer of 2008, I was a student at Grover Cleveland High School in Portland, Ore. while the Olympic Trials were being held just down I-5 at Hayward Field. I was a varsity member of the track team with mediocre grades, a meager social life, no cable, a slim DVD collection, and I didn’t like to swim or hike or gain life experiences—in short, nothing preoccupied me. Some of my teammates and friends went to watch the trials in person and many watched on TV. I didn’t watch a single step.

When I was told that Oregonians swept the men’s 800 meter final (spoiler?), I said, “That’s cool,” and forgot all about it. I had no excuse for ignoring the trials except that I was convinced that track was boring. And no one contradicted me. I would like to take this opportunity to correct myself.

The way sports “entertain” fit into four categories (that I can think of): Excitement, Suspense, ‘Engrossing-ness’, and Comedy.

Comedy is mostly irrelevant (and usually involves the steeple). By ‘engrossing-ness’ I mean that a fan has a vested and rooting interest in the outcome. The first two categories are the most important.

Distance races are always suspenseful because the pack usually stays together most of the way – the more tactical the more suspenseful. If someone breaks away, the suspense becomes: How fast will they go? Additionally, people could drop or get boxed in at any moment. It is exciting seeing how runners get out when they surge and the kick finish. Sprints are always exciting during and plenty suspenseful beforehand, if not throughout. Field events can be comparable to the sprints. There are 19 regular events at a championship track meet for each gender, producing 38 (if I have my math right) dramatic outcomes.

For those ready to complain about lulls in invitationals due to an abundance of heats: keep in mind that the ball is in play for only twelve minutes in an average football game. I can go to Youtube and watch a video compiling every made field goal in an NBA game and that will take at most twelve minutes as well. Perhaps you already agreed with me that track is entertaining. But if we’re right, why isn’t it more popular? I’m glad I asked (I’m not jumping for joy or anything, but yeah, I’d say I’m glad).

The problem with track (and most things) is that you have to pay attention first and then know what you should pay attention to specifically.

People start watching sports because their parents or friends watch. They may also have a city allegiance that compels them to care about the outcome. However, track fans don’t force their fandom on their peers and children; we act as if we’re unusual for liking it. Fans don’t beget more fans. Track is a cult sport; you have to know what and where to search in order to find out about what’s going on. Plenty of aspiring track fans have never heard of Heusden.

When people do watch, most watch from a place of ignorance. Some people think when they watch a race with a slow winning time that they haven’t witnessed an impressive athletic feat. But when Matthew Centrowitz wins the Olympics in 3:50, he didn’t just win tactically, he did something that was very impressive physically (to say the least). People who want to watch a 3:30 race do so because they want to see something impressive. Well, that 3:50 in the Olympics was impressive (you can tell because he won the Olympics). You can trust me or check the splits or neither. When someone wins a 200 meter final from lane 8, or 9, as Deajah Stevens did at USAs in 2017, you need background knowledge to understand the novelty. If you don’t know what splits someone needs to hit, how can you be worried or excited? I can go on, but won’t. If you don’t understand what you’re watching, you can’t appreciate it.

So how does track become more popular?

I don’t have a gimmick solution to offer—or even a bold or interesting or especially monumental one. My plan is for us to chip away, grassroots-style, peer pressuring our friends into following a sport that’s fun and rewarding to follow.

If there’s a major marathon or a big meet on, invite friends over who wouldn’t watch otherwise. Bring a friend to a meet. Treat it like a baseball game. If you saw an exciting race, use it as an anecdote. Don’t just tell people the result, but what happened. People get recommendations for movies and music and shows. Why not sports?

There are a lot of people that are good candidates to follow track, but do not. Track has the highest participation numbers among high school girls and is the second most popular sport among high school boys (behind football) in America. Those kids (and people who were, and will be, those kids) are all potential fans, but we don’t seem to try very hard to convert them. Additionally, 18.3 million Americans ran a road race in 2017. I don’t think any of them would mind watching the upcoming Sound Running Track Meet.

Yet, the attitude I encountered with runners who discovered that I was not a fan of the sport was resignation and occasional agreement. No one seems to want to fight for the simple concept that track is really fun to watch. We assume people aren’t fans and we concede that they shouldn’t be. Baseball and soccer fans deal with similar criticisms of their sports, yet push back. Being a runner and not following the sport should be an embarrassing indication of ignorance. If you get bored spectating a track meet it’s your own fault.

Watch the Olympic Trials 800m final that I didn’t and tell me track isn’t entertaining.

Or watch a million other fantastic races that I could list if you asked me to. When I witness something entertaining – be it a show (Pen15 is good), an argument on the subway, or a clever thing I said – I want to tell people about it, so they can appreciate it too.

If you want to make track more popular, don’t ask how to make it more entertaining. Don’t let anyone tell you that it isn’t already.

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