The incredible, shrinking (Olympic sports) press box

LOS ANGELES, Sep. 11, 2011 – What if they held a World Championships and no one knew about it?

The reality of the recent world championships in swimming and track & field is that for the non-obsessed American sports fan, that’s just about what happened.

• At the recent World Track & Field Championships in Daegu, South Korea, there were just four – count ‘em – four accredited writers from U.S. daily newspapers (Eugene Register Guard, New York Times, Pensacola News Journal [covering Justin Gatlin] and USA Today) and Tim Layden from Sports Illustrated. Moreover, only two of these were staff writers; three were stringers.

• At the World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai, China earlier in the summer, the turnout was even worse: two U.S. newspapers (USA Today, Washington Post), one magazine (again, Sports Illustrated).

These are the two biggest sports in the Olympic Games and sports that the U.S. dominates. Yes, there were a few others representing specialist magazines and sites: Alan Abrahamson of 3WireSports, who attended both and provided the media line-up data, Swimming World in Shanghai and Track & Field News, Flotrack.com, LetsRun.com and RunBlogRun in Daegu. Karen Rosen, writing for USA Today, was also covering for the AroundTheRings.com Olympic news site.

(Apologies to any not mentioned here; please let me know of omissions and these will be added. This list does not count, of course, the worldwide Associated Press news service, which is U.S.-based, but has a worldwide clientele, or similar services like Reuters, Agence France Presse and others.)

How little U.S. media interest was there? Here’s another measure: on the ESPN news crawl that summarizes scores on the bottom of the screen, the swimming championships received just a handful of mentions, mostly for the exploits of Ryan Lochte, who won six medals (five gold) and barely any video coverage of the meet on the ESPN News channel.

For track & field, it was much worse. The ESPN news crawl noted only Usain Bolt’s false start in the 100 meters, his win in the 200 meters and the two 4×100-meter relays, won by the Jamaican men in world-record time and by the American women. That was it.

The only good news for track was the extensive television coverage – live and taped – on NBC and Universal Sports, and the IAAF did an excellent job on its own site with first-rate live results, a terrific live blog during each session, photo galleries and after-the-fact video highlights.

But for the casual Olympic sports fan living in the U.S., it was quite easy to miss both events altogether. There just wasn’t much coverage; in fact, the NCAA Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa were better covered this year then the Worlds, with eight outlets from track-specialist publications and online sites and eight print outlets from outside of the state of Iowa.

This is a problem. Out of sight is out of mind and despite outstanding American results – 54 medals between the two championships this year – there was hardly a ripple to break the cycle of baseball, football, soccer, NASCAR and UFC coverage in July, August and September in major U.S. newspapers and the large all-sports Web sites.

One can say that those interested in track or swimming can find the results online, but the point is that as far as the general sports fan in the U.S. is concerned, Olympic sports are literally becoming a once-every-four-years phenomenon. And there is no watershed opportunity to raise the bar as soccer did by hosting the 1994 World Cup in the U.S.; in fact, neither event has ever been held in the United States despite multiple bids from USA Swimming and USA Track & Field over the years, and there are no current plans for either to bid again.

Moreover, reaching the general sports fan is still about newspapers and all-sports sites like ESPN.com, FoxSports.com and SportingNews.com, which are still the primary generators of actual news coverage. And if Olympic sports are covered at all in these outlets, they are often buried deep in the sports sections or behind several layers of menus online.

So what can be done?

For one thing, the issue is not new. Prior to World War II, many Major League Baseball clubs paid the road travel expenses for newspaper writers to continue to cover the team when the newspapers themselves couldn’t afford it. This practice continued for some clubs into the 1950s. More recently, when newspapers (and Web sites) were interested in live coverage, they arranged for temporary assignments via local stringers. Some years ago, I covered some college football games for smaller newspapers in Alabama or Oklahoma when their teams came to play UCLA or USC in Los Angeles. But the interest has to be there first.

This is where the United States Olympic Committee can play a helpful role.

The USOC has the responsibility to distribute the U.S. allocation of media credentials to the Olympic and Olympic Winter Games, and still receives high interest for Olympic media accreditation. As the NCAA does with accreditation for its high-profile Division I basketball tournaments, the USOC has based its accreditation decisions in part on the interest in Olympic sports shown by news media outlets requesting Olympic credentials. This not only gives it leverage to reward additional coverage of Olympic sports in the U.S., but also wide access to sports editors offer increased coverage opportunities:

• The USOC could create its own Olympic sports news feed through a cooperative effort with the American national governing bodies like USA Track & Field and USA Swimming similar to what college sports information departments do for the myriad sports at their schools.

This would bring coverage of all Olympic sports into one package that could be sent to targeted newspapers and Web sites on a continuous basis. In this way, instead of sorting through dozens of items from individual federations, newspapers and magazines – which see Olympic sports as a unit anyway, rather than as 40+ individual sports – would be able to have a comprehensive package of content available to them daily.

• The USOC, working in conjunction with the national governing bodies, can extend its ties with the Associated Press Sports Editors organization (APSE) to develop more digestible ways to offer Olympic sports content to its members and member newspapers, both big and small, for news and features.

• Part or all of this new news feed can be made available to the public via a specific Web site (something like “OlympicSports.com” since the USOC, by law, controls the use of the word “Olympic” in the United States), or limited to a password-protected site offered as a premium for donors, or for subscription.

Ben Franklin didn’t have the USOC, USA Swimming, USA Track & Field and other national governing bodies in mind when he said at the signing of the Declaration of Independence that “We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” but that is the situation in which the dearth of coverage of Olympic sports in the U.S. has placed the American Olympic Movement.

Sadly, if the U.S. national federations do not hang together to reverse this situation, they will not only hang separately, but there will be no coverage of their executions.

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

4 Comments

  1. It wasn’t so long ago that anybody thought that a golf channel would
    make it full time. I agree with a lot of your article but I also believe that
    the power in track and field need to work on getting sponsers for a weekly show on ESPN. Use your central information agency to send the
    information to the networks.

    I also believe that there needs to be more meets duing the summer for
    the athletes so they can continue to develop.

    The athletes themselves need to get envolved and shoe some personality like Bolt. Draw attention to their sport.

  2. There are meets going on all summer long. The Diamond league goes from July until Sept. These meets are covered by the Universal Sports network. They show every meet during the summer including this years’ World Championships. The problem with this is that not everyone gets that cable channel and many probably wont susbscribe for it. ESPN or some other basic cable channel needs to pick up these meets and show them.

  3. Interesting thought, but the USOC would never agree to put out unbiased content. The organization is only interested in marketing a positive image.

    Also, the USOC doesn’t have equal control over all of its NGBs. The NGBs are fiefdoms, and the rich ones have more resources, sponsors, and therefore, more independence.

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