By ELLIOTT DENMAN
The bad news out of the 2013 USA National Indoor Championships was that fields in many events were sparsely populated, with athletes realizing they had no World Indoor Championships to point to, and no huge bonus money at stake.
So it's semi-understandable why so many of America's best and brightest elected to keep clear of Albuquerque the March 2-3 weekend. Just nine champions out of the 2012 Indoor Nationals opted to return to "The Land of Enchantment." By quick arithmetic, that meant that 19 of the 28 titleists of 2012 were either injured or ailing or retired, or simply decided to stay home.
But there was good news out of Albuquerque nevertheless. It came a few days after the final of the ABQ finals, despite such happenings as (a) the slowest women's mile race in Indoor Nationals history; (b) just three entrants in the women's high jump and four in the men's 3,000 meters; (c) trial rounds in the women's 800 to eliminate exactly one of the seven runners.
Jenn Suhr's world-record pole vault, Will Leer's distance double, teen Ajee Wilson's 800 win, etc., surely played a major role in overriding much of the previous.
So when Adam Schmenk, USATF's Associate Director/Broadcasting, got his ratings reports,he was all-smiles.
As he happily reported, after a telephone interview, "our Indoor Championships on NBC Sports Network (Sunday March 3) were the second and third highest rated shows of the day (hockey being the highest) on that network. We crushed the viewership of other Olympic-type broadcasting, and showed a 600 percent lift in viewership from our lead-in."
The March 3 action came live 4-6 p.m. EST on the NBC Sports Network.
The March 2 show aired from 6-8 p.m. on Universal Sports.
Two other meets, for a total of three, comprised the 2013 Indoor USATF "Championship Series," compared to a four-meet series in 2012.
Big difference was that the US Open Meet - a late addition to the slate, and a last-ditch effort to retain New York's Madison Square Garden as a viable indoor track venue, became a fiscal disaster and was abandoned after that single 2012 attempt.
But the Millrose Games - which moved to the Armory Track Center in 2012, after a long and gloried run at the Garden - was not included in that 2012 series, while the Tyson Invitational at Arkansas got major USATF support, and was written into the 2012 series slate.
So Schmenk's analysis of all this went this way:
"Our season opener in 2012 was the US Open (at the Garden.) That show pulled a .37 rating vs. the season opener this year (2013) of .26 (the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix out of Boston's Reggie Lewis Center) which aired on the same weekend (first weekend of February.)"
As Schmenk and Jill Geer, USATF's Chief Public Affairs Officer, noted, there were many factors that played into those ratings figures - such as the meet's lead-in and time slot, etc.
The 2013 Boston action was aired live on Saturday, Feb. 2, from 6-8 p.m. on ESPN3.
The following day's recap (2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3) was screened on ESPN2.
Sure, all of America's most ardent track and field devotees would like to see more of their sport on their home screens, but a huge number of factors are entailed in putting major events on the tube.
Big-big one, of course, is cost.
Putting a 90-minute track and field show on the air would generally require a minimum of $200,000 in production costs alone. And that's totally above and beyond all the costs of staging the meet itself. Sure a good track meet, in the view of adherents, is the very
best kind of reality show, but consider all factors, folks, when making demands for additional coverage.
Another track fans' lament, in the USA anyway, is that typical TV coverage is "way too much fluff" and far too little of the actual action.
The complainers often attempt to draw parallels between whatever coverage they can snare out of European and international events, and the coverage they're dealt on the
But that's not really a fair analysis, either, because European and/or international coverage invariably is sourced from an international feed, thus designed to give the viewers all over the map the whole show, not merely their compatriots running assorted distances, leaping vertically or horizontally, or heaving the heavy implements that once were the articles of war.
A major thrust of USATF track and field coverage has always been the building of a brand.
And to build a brand, a must is the building of personalities.
"The bios are very important to us," reminds the USATF's Geer.
"They are a big part of our content. Our public needs to know who the athletes are."
And that brings up the painful point that the sport lacks the genuine American superstars that the other sports seem to possess in abundance.
We had them years ago - Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Jim Ryun, Michael Johnson, Dan O'Brien, et al - but it's sad to say that there's no one out there at the moment who'd be immediately and generally recognizable to any sports-minded citizen strolling down Main Street.
For sure. for sure, the sport's most dedicated USA enthusiasts are enthralled with the exploits of Ashton Eaton, Aries Merritt, Allyson Felix, Sandra Richards-Ross & Co. - but to the bulk of the American public even these greats exist in virtual anonymity.
Looking beyond these shores, there's probably just one trackman who'd be properly recognized by a man or woman on an American street.
And Usain Bolt doesn't show up in our vicinity very frequently.
Much of that personality-shortfall blame can be charged to NBC's Olympic broadcasters.
How-how-how, have they allowed such once-afterthoughts as gymnastics, beach volleyball, and all those stunt-sports right out of The X Games to become the heart of mainstream Olympic viewing?
Ashton Eaton - surely the world's greatest athlete -was asked last summer whether the fact that he wasn't earning the recognition he absolutely deserved was a major bother.
Gentleman that he has always been, Eaton gave his answer as "no"
Basically, he philosophized that "I know who I am, my family and friends know who I am, those who really, truly follow my sport know who I am, and that's enough for me."
But it's not OK with the sport's truest loyalists. They just can't stand their sport being dissed by those not giving it a fair chance to put its greatest performers on general display.
"The world's greatest athlete," a young fellow ready and able to push all the decathlon records to the outer limits of the stratosphere, deserves better, a whole lot better.
But it won't happen - to Eaton or any of his other world-pacing contemporaries - without
the embrace of biggest-time network TV attention.
In its official reports, USATF reports major bottom-line progress, as follows:
"From an organizational perspective, USATF has been one of the greatest financial success stories in sport, more than doubling its overall revenues since 1997. The organization currently has an impressive line-up of sponsors and suppliers that includes Nike, St. Vincent Sports Performance, BMW, Lynx, Gill Athletics, Gatorade and Ludus Tours.
"This surge in revenue has coincided with a hefty increase in the number of track meets broadcast on television and TV ratings. Our sport has upwards of 40 national TV broadcasts in any given year, and average Nielsen ratings for track and field broadcasts are higher than those of the NHL, the WNBA and Major League Soccer.
" In addition to securing national TV coverage, USA Track & Field has worked with ESPN, NBC, Fox Sports Net, Universal Sports, ESPN3 and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to bring same-day, prime-time coverage of major international events to the American airwaves throughout the summer season."
Gaps nevertheless exist. The man/woman on the street isn't getting the sport's message. Still, there's always hope that that perception will take an upward bounce.
You may call the Albuquerque ratings a definite positive, the forerunner of an upward swing toward an improving future.
Here's USATF's TV "Championship Series" menu for the next three months:
Saturday, April 27 - "USA Vs. The World" at the Penn Relays.
Saturday, May 25 - The adidas Grand Prix/ the Samsung Diamond League comes to Icahn
Stadium, Randall's Island, New York, New York.
Saturday, June 1 - The Prefontaine Classic / the Samsung Diamond League comes to
Hayward Field, Eugene, Oregon.
Wednesday, June 19 through Sunday, June 23 - The USA Outdoor Nationals Championships/ the World Championships Trials come to Drake Stadium, Des Moines, Iowa.
And then it will be on to Moscow's World Championships in August.
As ever, check your local listings. And hope for the best.
Bottom line: through it all, fans, remember that you're always playing your sport's ratings game, the forever fact-of-life that will surely determine your sport's direction in the big picture.