The USATF Outdoor Championships were last weekend. But unless you made the trek to Eugene, Oregon, or you knew exactly where to watch at exactly the right time, you might have missed some (or all) of the action.
Even if you managed to watch the meet, you might have been left wondering who actually qualified to represent Team USA at the World Athletics Championships from July 15–24. Why will sprinter Christian Coleman run worlds after skipping out on the 100-meter final, despite running the rounds? But Jonathan Davis, who finished second in the men’s 1500 meters, did not qualify? There are answers to these questions, but such answers require prior knowledge of an elaborate qualification system that’s bound to confuse the casual viewer.
Those unclear qualification parameters, along with schedule changes, expensive travel and lodging, and an inconvenient number of streaming services, turned a celebration of athleticism into a Twitter gripe-fest, led by some of the sport’s biggest stars.
That’s not to say the U.S. championships weren’t exciting. Quite the opposite, in fact—the best part of the championships were the athletes’ performances. But everything outside the physical races, throws, vaults, and jumps was simply not on par with other professional sports’ presentations.
How can running become a more accessible sport to the general public? A lot of factors are at play, but critiquing the current shortcomings is step one.
Eugene is difficult and expensive to get to
Hayward Field is undoubtedly a historic venue in track history, and its home city, Eugene, is often dubbed Tracktown USA. So it makes sense that it should host major U.S. meets. But that doesn’t mean it should host all of the important events.
Between Memorial Day weekend and late July, the University of Oregon stadium will have hosted the Prefontaine Classic, the NCAA Division I Outdoor Championships, the USATF Outdoor Championships, and the World Athletics Championships—the four best meets in the U.S. this year.
It’s definitely an outlier year—the World Athletics Championships are on U.S. soil for the first time—but that means the NCAA championships and USATF Outdoor Championships should have been held elsewhere. (The Prefontaine Classic won’t and shouldn’t leave Hayward, because of Steve Prefontaine’s connection to the state and university.)
But track fans who live outside the state face complicated and expensive trips to make it to just one of these meets, let alone four over the course of two months.
An estimated 55,000 people will be in Eugene for the World Athletics Championships, and it shows in hotel supply and demand. Oregon Live reported that the Best Western close to Hayward Field costs $110 per night on a typical week, but it will skyrocket to $596 per night during Worlds. Add in the cost of a flight to Eugene—or a flight to Portland, plus a rental car—and track fans could likely only afford one trip this year, skipping the U.S. championships in favor of Worlds.
The attendance numbers speak for themselves. Only 13,306 people showed up for the 2022 USATF Outdoor Championships—an average of 3,327 each day in a stadium with the capacity for 12,650, expandable to nearly 25,000. In 2019, the last World Championships year, 30,367 fans traveled to Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa, to watch the U.S. national meet.
The takeaway isn’t simply to host the U.S. championships elsewhere, however. Hayward Field hosted the 2015 U.S. championships that qualified for worlds and 38,705 people were there. (It also hosted the Olympic Trials last year, though Olympic years generally have higher attendance numbers.) USATF needs to encourage other venues to bid for a chance to host the U.S. championships—preferably in locales more accommodating to large sporting events.
Unfortunately, hosting the national championships is a big undertaking, and USATF doesn’t recommend new cities go straight from nothing to hosting the big one. Hayward Field already has the infrastructure in place to put on big meets—but so do Hornet Stadium in Sacramento, California, which hosted U.S. nationals in 2017, and Drake Stadium. In a unique year like this one, USATF should do more work to ensure fans aren’t stuck paying big bucks to go to the same stadium four times in two months.
Fans at home navigate increasingly convoluted streaming and broadcasting schedules and costs
If the prevalence of “how to watch this event” articles tells you anything about track, it’s that viewing the sport at home requires multiple streaming subscriptions, a beefy cable package, and hour-by-hour knowledge of which network shows which events.
This year, the USATF Outdoor Championships were broadcast across three different channels: NBC, CNBC, and USA. All three are owned by NBCUniversal. The meet streamed on two services: Peacock, which is NBC’s streaming service, and USATF.TV, a partner site on Runnerspace.
To catch every event live, you had to bounce around. Day one was only streamed on USATF.TV. Day two streamed on Peacock and broadcast on CNBC. On day three, the first hour of competition was on USATF.TV, while the rest was on Peacock and NBC. Every full-length field competition streamed on USATF.TV.
The final day didn’t go as planned. It was supposed to stream on Peacock, while the first half broadcast on NBC and the second half on USA. If the broadcast splitting into two networks mid-meet wasn’t ridiculous enough, a last-minute schedule change (due to high temperatures in Eugene) pushed some events earlier in the day, which disrupted the broadcast and streaming schedule.
Therefore, fans had to again turn to USATF.TV for the updated portion of the schedule, then log back into Peacock or turn on their televisions for the rest of the events.
Streaming is normally the simplest and most cost-effective way to watch the U.S. national meet. To watch live sports on Peacock, you have to pay a $4.99 per month fee. A USATF.TV subscription is more costly—a monthly pass costs $12.99, and a yearly pass costs $119.88, which works out to $9.99 per month—but also gives you access to all other Runnerspace content. And if you only wanted to tune into the U.S. track championships, you only had to pay $18 total for a one-month subscription to each—that’s much less than a ticket to most sporting events.
But here’s the trouble: if you’re a running fan who diligently follows the sport, you can’t watch every event on those two services alone.
Flotrack owns the rights to stream many of the major invitational track meets across the U.S., and they charge $29.99 monthly or $12.49 per month with an annual subscription. ESPN owns the rights to the NCAA championships, some major NCAA conference meets, the American Track League, and the New York City Marathon, which are only streamable if you have a cable subscription. The website Cable TV analyzed 381 plans across 15 providers and concluded that the average cost of cable is $79—and that’s without an internet bundle.
So how much does it cost to be a track fan that wants to watch most events live? Over $100 per month with annual subscriptions. That’s not cheap—especially when coverage is across disparate platforms subject to change at day’s notice and varies in quality.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy solution to this problem. While a singular running broadcast hub would be fantastic, it’s simply not feasible. Each network and service has rights to certain events and control them as such. But there are two things track fans can demand: clear and timely communication from USATF about where they can watch events live, and the respect of cable television networks, like NBC or ESPN, to show meets in their entirety on a single channel—without cutting to commercial mid-race.
It’s exhausting to explain the world championships qualification process to a casual viewer
Before 2019, USATF selected world championships qualifiers based on two main factors: whether you finished top three at the USATF Outdoor Championships, and whether you had the world qualification standard. The world standards are put in place by World Athletics—the international governing body of track & field—to limit the global championships to the best athletes.
If the top three finishers did not have the world standard, they were allowed to chase the standard for a period after the national meet ended and before the world meet began. If one of those athletes did not get the standard in time, the next person in finishing order at the USATF Outdoor Championships would qualify instead.
For example, athletes A, B, and C get first, second, and third at the U.S. championships in their event. Athlete C, however, did not achieve the world standard mark. Athlete C chases the standard, but fails to achieve it in the allotted time frame. Athlete D, who finished fourth, does have the standard, and will compete at the world championships instead of athlete C.
Does that already sound a bit confusing? Well, in 2019, World Athletics introduced a world ranking system, where “athletes score points based on a combination of result and place depending on the level of the competition in which the result is achieved.” This adds a new dimension to qualification, which assists athletes who might not achieve the standard but have been performing well in highly competitive meets, like the Diamond League circuit.
At the U.S. championships, this is normally not an issue. The top three athletes usually either have the standard or have a high enough world ranking that they qualify. At this year’s championships, however, one event caused everyone in the track world to scratch their heads.
The men’s 1500 meters is often a slow, tactical race, which leads to unconventional outcomes. Four men in this year’s final achieved the world standard mark of 3:35.00. But only one of those men placed top three—Cooper Teare, who won the race in a pedestrian 3:45.86. Second-place finisher Jonathan Davis had neither the standard nor a high enough world ranking, because he competed in the NCAA for the University of Illinois all season. Third-place finisher Josh Thompson similarly did not hit the standard, but he did have a high enough world ranking in 39th. The next two people with the world standard were Johnny Gregorek in sixth, and Yared Nuguse in 11th. But because this race counts toward world rankings, someone in between Thompson and Gregorek, like Eric Holt in fourth, could potentially jump the world rankings list to snag the third world team spot. However, Holt would have to land in the top 45 on the world ranking list—he sat 73rd before the race.
Chaos ensued over the next few hours as journalists, athletes, and fans deliberated over Twitter about who would actually qualify. But when the dust settled, there was no definitive answer. By the end of the last day of the U.S. championships, June 26, World Athletics released new rankings. Davis jumped from 110th to 93rd, while Holt remained the same. Neither earned the World Championships berth, as the qualification window closed on June 29.
Such a convoluted system isn’t just a blight for fans. Athletes like Davis, who ran the race of his life to earn second place, miss out on a chance to represent the United States. And those opportunities don’t come often.
“It was a little bittersweet,” Davis told Runner’s World. “It’d be really nice if it would have been similar to past years, where a top finish would possibly get you into the world championships. But [my coach and I] knew this was a possibility and that we have to deal with it.”
Davis believes emphasizing national meet placement would be more fair—and that the NCAA championships should have more impact on world rankings. But overall, he was happy with his performance and not too worried about missing out on worlds. “If I’m back next year, we’ll make sure I have the standard and get into some better races to increase my world rank,” he said.
But when asked directly about his thoughts on just how confusing the qualification procedures are, he laughed and said, “I’m not going to explain them to my grandparents.”
The world rankings are still a work in progress, according to World Athletics: “As we develop tools and processes to further expand the reach of our statistical service, these figures are destined to grow steadily and consistently.” In the meantime, athletes suffer, fans get confused, and casual viewers remain apathetic.