The Sports Examiner: Does terrible USATF Nationals attendance mean Eugene is no longer TrackTown USA?

Hayward Field during the USA Track & Field Championships: lots of empty seats.

● From our sister ●

“Can one desire too much of a good thing?”

The answer to William Shakespeare’s question from As You Like It, around 1600, is yes. It applies more than 400 years later to last week’s USA Track & Field National Championships at the new Hayward Field.

With the World Athletics Championships coming to Hayward Field in a couple of weeks, Eugene – population 179,887, ranked 146th in the U.S. – is nearing the end of an unprecedented series of high-level track & field meets all held in one place:

● May: Pacific-12 Conference Championships
● May: Wanda Diamond League Nike Prefontaine Classic
● June: NCAA Track & Field Championships
● June: Nike Outdoor (High School) Nationals
● June: USA Track & Field Senior & Junior Nationals
● July: World Athletics Championships

So far, not one of them has filled the magnificent new facility. In fact, the decline in attendance has been widely noticed by the track & field cognoscenti, but the USATF meet was especially glaring.

The Pre Classic, which has dependably drawn crowds of more than 12,000, hosted 6,447 this year. The NCAA meet, in which the Oregon team has been a consistent feature, drew 8,466-8,451-9,258-9,162 for a total of 35,337 or an average of 8,834.

The official ticket sales figures announced by USA Track & Field:

● 23 June: 2,751
● 24 June: 3,314
● 25 June: 3,664
● 26 June: 3,577

That’s 13,306 or an average of 3,327 per day. And it didn’t look even that full. The last USATF Nationals held in Eugene – at the old Hayward Field in 2015 – drew 38,795 over four days, or 9,699 average per day. The 2016 Olympic Trials at Hayward averaged (!) attendance of 22,122 over eight days.

Wrote David Woods – who has followed the sport for more than 50 years – in the Indianapolis Star:

“Clearly, there is track fatigue in TrackTown because attendance over four days totaled 13,306, as announced by USA Track & Field. It was the lowest ever for a meet that was a world trials, according to official figures.

“Let’s face it: Indianapolis would do better, as long as IUPUI’s Carroll Stadium track were resurfaced. But there has not been a major meet here since the 2007 nationals, and USA Track & Field has taken no action to bring one to its home city.

“Maybe having the World Championships in Eugene, and the extensive NBC coverage, will expand the sport’s niche. More likely, it will not.

“That’s not on the athletes. Never have they been better.”

Tweeted Tokyo Olympic women’s shot put silver medalist Raven Saunders:

Seriously though we had more fans in Tokyo and we weren’t even allowed to have fans !!! Thankful to everyone who did shore up (sic) and show love – we appreciate you guys still”

And it was too much to ask of Eugene fans, given the size of the market, to support all of these meets. Too much of a good thing, and they were taken for granted.

The Pac-12 meet will move on, and while the Pre Classic will return in 2023, the NCAA meet will go to Austin, Texas for a year before coming back for three straight years from 2024-26. The World Athletics Championships will go back to Europe, in a new facility being completed in Budapest, Hungary. No announcement on where the 2023 USATF Nationals will go yet; since 2008, it has only been held in three places: Des Moines (four times), Eugene (eight times) and Sacramento (twice).

Expect strong attendance at the World Championships, with added seating that will expand the Hayward Field capacity to about 17,000. The tickets are fairly expensive, and there is little doubt that Eugene fans voted with their wallets to see the first-ever Worlds in the U.S. vs. competing meets which come to their city all the time.

The question is really not whether Eugene is no longer “TrackTown USA,” but even worse. It’s whether there is any U.S. city which can any longer be called the sport’s hotbed in 2022.

While the stands at Hayward Field were mostly empty, television viewership for the USA Track & Field Nationals was up a little from recent NBC broadcasts of U.S. invitationals. The four hours of the USATF meet available on network and cable drew:

● Jun 24 (Fri.): 214,000 viewers on CNBC
● Jun 25 (Sat.): 1,050,000 on NBC
● Jun 26 (Sun.): 1,052,000 on NBC
● Jun 26 (Sun.): 208,000 on USA Network

Sunday’s USA Network hour turned out to be a delayed broadcast of the distance events moved to the morning due to high temperatures in Eugene. The two broadcasts on NBC were up slightly from the audience of NBC-telecast meets from the prior month:

● May 28 (Sat.): 977,000 for Prefontaine Classic on NBC
● Jun. 12 (Sun.): 835,000 for NYC Grand Prix on NBC

The USATF meet was far behind the PGA Tour Travelers Championship on CBS for both Saturday (1.95 million viewers) and Sunday (2.59 million). But the USATF meet did out-draw ABC’s MLS soccer matches on Saturday (427,000 for Seattle-Kansas City) and Sunday (460,000 for LAFC-New York).

In comparison to the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials held exactly a year earlier, and also at Hayward Field, the 2022 Nationals did poorly, down 67% from 2021 The eight hours of Trials coverage on NBC averaged 3.18 million viewers, more than triple the 2022 network audience.

Cable audiences for track continued to be dismal, with 214,000 on CNBC on Friday and 208,000 on USA Network, but in line with the NCAA Championships on ESPN’s networks two weeks earlier. The NCAA first-day program (8 June) drew 187,000 viewers on ESPN2; the Friday men’s finals had 263,000 on ESPN2 and Saturday’s women’s finals were better, with 603,000 on ESPN.

In comparison to the 2021 Olympic Trials, the 2022 USATF Nationals audience on cable was down by 63%, averaging 211,000 viewers vs. 573,500 on NBCSN in 2021.

None of the 2022 Wanda Diamond League meets, excepting the Pre Classic, have drawn even 200,000 U.S. viewers so far. As Woods noted, the year on the track and on the infield has been stellar, fabulous and inspirational. But not in the stands, or on television, at least so far.

The 2022 World Athletics Championships start on 15 July.

~ Rich Perelman

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