ONE OF THE TOUGHEST PARTS of my job as the editor of T&FN is juggling what the readership wants to hear on one side and what my analysis of what’s best for the sport overall on the other, because the two aren’t necessarily taking the same number of steps between hurdles. Hardcore fans—and there are no fans more hardcore than you, dear readers—can’t get enough of track and/or field. The problem is that there aren’t enough of us to keep the sport viable, domestically or internationally. This was true when I started at T&FN almost a half-century ago and it has only become more true with every passing year. (Was it really way back in May ’91 that we had our infamous cover “What If They Gave A Track Meet And Nobody Came?”?).
We’ve now gotten to the point, after years of deteriorating popularity with the general public—sporting or otherwise—where our beloved sport has to reinvent itself. This certainly isn’t a new concept; it’s one that has been addressed in this column multiple times through the years. In my February ’15 offering I riffed on the news that down the road the IAAF might have to consider cutting events from the Olympic program and offered some thoughts on which—from a purely pragmatic point of view—might be best as candidates to bite the dust. The obvious answer for T&FN readers is “D, none of the above,” but the current exam, which relates to the IAAF’s signature invitational series, the Diamond League, doesn’t offer D as one of the options.
The Monaco braintrust believes that the 2-hour TV window that has marked recent years’ offerings from the DL is too much, and that distance races simply drag on too long, so the new plan (beginning next year) is for 90-minute shows with nothing longer than the 3000 being offered up. I’m no TV marketing guru, and my mindset is certainly decades away from what needs to be the DL’s target audience (key word: “needs,” not “is”), but from what I absorb from the modern digital world that surrounds me, the IAAF has a point. The shows need to be punchy, quick-in/quick-out action-filled things. You know, like Game Of Thrones, only better.
That feeble attempt at humor aside (although, man, can the king of the White Walkers throw a javelin or what?!), I am completely serious when I say that the IAAF just might be—and I hope they are—onto something with their version of DL-Lite. At this point, allow me to reiterate: this is me with my good-of-the-sport hat on, not my hardcore-fan one. I’d be quite happy to hear the general-public audience say, “That was a great watching experience” even if the hardcore fans had a take of, “Wow! That was way too short.” It’s a simple numbers game.
Did I say simple? The length-of-window number was simple to come up with, sure. But there are, of course, some elephants in the room. The series will drop from 14 meets this year to 12, based on IAAF meet-rating criteria. But which meet is going to step up for the significant task of hosting the 1-meet final? Are longtime 2-part hosts Brussels and Zürich locked in some backroom death struggle, or are both of them saying, “Fugetaboutit!” leaving the IAAF to look for a Plan B?
Why Plan B? Because at the same time the number of events to be part of the DL menu is dropping from 32 (100, 200, 400, 800, 1500/Mile, 3000/5000, steeple, 110H, 400H, HJ, PV, LJ, TJ, SP, DT, JT—all for each sex) to 24, which means that the single DL Final will be staging all 24, instead of the 16 each did in the past. Obviously (or is it “obviously”?) there can’t be any plans to somehow shoehorn that into a 90-minute window.
The other pachyderm to consider is which 8 events are going to get the chop. Will it simply be the same 4 events for each sex or will they get creative and have it vary? One could craft a setup where each event remains part of the overall program, just not for both sexes. And what happens to the events that don’t make the grade? The hammer has never been part of the DL, but the IAAF has instead created a “Hammer Challenge” category that finds it contested in non-DL meets; will similar Challenges be created for the newly orphaned events? Or does the IAAF’s longterm master plan figure to tighten the sport overall with an eye towards removing them from recognition altogether? Will the IAAF perhaps change the roster of events from year to year, so that if the ’20 version of the DL has no (just for sake of argument) TJ, the ’21 version will, but will drop the LJ?
As a hardcore fan, it distresses me to see the sport I love being in a position where it needs to answer questions like this. I love all the events. But as a pragmatist, I know the questions have to be asked and some bold steps need to be taken. Let’s just hope that Coe & Crew have done their homework and have read the potential audience for our sport correctly. Its very survival may depend on it.
One place where I think they haven’t done their homework well is in placing so much stock in their world rankings. They love to trumpet how the public will have a greater understanding for the sport when its athletes have a rating, like tennis players or golfers. It may well work out for the DL setup, but how do you sell it when you get to the World Championships and Olympic Games, with their 3-per nation stricture, and some member nations using their Trials results to formulate their teams, not the world rankings? In some events, many of the top 10 won’t be at the WC/OG. How’s that a positive spin for the sport? □