Flotrack.org recently posted an interesting op-ed (essentially) on how track and field is presented on TV, and some ways it could be improved (to put it nicely). I don't normally comment on sports on this blog because they tend to fall just slightly outside my made-up parameters for my posts. I can also get a little competitive with teams I follow, and so sometimes it's best to just let things go. I found this particular commentary from Flotrack really interesting from a TV programming perspective, however, and I wanted to add my two cents.
Let me preface this by saying I'm a big running geek. I ran cross country and track in college, and these days I try to follow what the pros are doing as much as I can. Let's be honest, though: to seek out info on professional runners, you have to want it. The interwebs have made it exponentially easier to follow the sport, and sites like Flotrack.org and the pot-stirring LetsRun.com have given track fans the opportunity to come out of the woodwork much more than when I was in high school. But it's not exactly the NFL.
US TV coverage of track meets and high-profile marathons has increased in the last decade, and it seems to me that track fans are actively trying to raise the profile of track events and American track and field athletes. It's fantastic to see athletes like Alyson Felix and Lolo Jones appear in national TV ads and on the covers of non-running magazines; Kara Goucher has also been a great national spokeswoman for distance runners (pro and amateur alike) who are also mothers. They're still not exactly household names, but at least some track and field athletes (who not coincidentally happen to be really pretty) are getting some advertising love for the sport. NBC's network Universal Sports has also given track fans the opportunity to watch international meets on TV, usually only 3 or 4 days after the meet actually happens. Because coverage of running events has previously been so sad, we tend to take whatever we can get!
The Flotrack article I cited above, however, makes some really valid points about the health of TV track coverage as we currently know it. It's an Olympic year, which is traditionally the one year in four that regular folks (e.g., not track geeks) actually pay attention to outdoor track, so the way broadcasters choose to show track meets proves especially important this year. When, as Ryan from Flotrack argues, announcers slag off the athletes in these meets, constantly harping on what they view as technical flaws, the announcers inadvertently create a kind of sport narrative that only gives credit to the best of the best athletes, while tearing down the ones not setting world best times and marks. I've noticed this on track broadcasts, as well, and have found it to be a bit disrespectful to these professional athletes who are at the top of their game. I guess one could argue that it's the same with football, basketball, and baseball commentators, but even if an NFL or college quarterback is having a rough game, you'll rarely hear the commentators rag on his lack of skill. It seems like a weird, critical double standard that we let slide because we don't have much track to watch.
This kind of approach at the very least does nothing to draw people into the sport. Sure, people who are watching a track meet on ESPN2 are probably into it already, but, like I said, in an Olympic year the track narrative broadcasters construct should be at least a more positive than a negative one to help people get excited about the sport. These athletes all deserve more respect for what they're able to do, even when they have inevitably rough seasons along the way. If average viewers rely on the announcers to tell them what they should be looking for, the announcers should be taking that responsibility seriously.
The Flotrack post also suggests that track broadcasts should follow through with their coverage of certain athletes they profile. I found this annoying during the World Champs this year, when they would build up certain athletes, giving us stories about them and interviews with them, only to forget to tell us that athlete failed to medal in the final. When you force me to emotionally invest, I want to share in both the triumph and the tragedy! I love athlete profiles because they humanize what can be a really technical (some small-minded folks might say "boring") sport. The human emotion at the core of competition, that primal urge to push through pain to win, is what makes this sport special. Humanizing the competitors is an excellent way to help viewers care.
As Ryan from Flotrack seems to argue, this sport can be extremely entertaining even if it's not built for entertainment first, and you don't have to be a runner (or sprinter or jumper or thrower or vaulter...) yourself to get it. I do hope that the Olympics this year opens up viewership of future track/running events, even though I know it probably won't. In the meantime, I agree that TV coverage could be a lot better.