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is track and field "bowling alone"?


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  • is track and field "bowling alone"?

    I recently finished reading the book "Bowling Alone" by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam. As I'll elaborate below, track and field spectatorship appears to fit the characteristics of a "bowling alone" phenomenon.

    The book is concerned with declining social and civic participation in the United States in recent decades. Whether it's the PTA, the American Legion, or (of course) the American Bowling Congress, participation is way down. Other indicia of staying connected to society such as reading the newspaper also show declines.

    This declining participation is NOT an across-the-board phenomenon, however. In other words, it is not the case that all segments of society have been withdrawing from social participation.

    Rather, it is a generational phenomenon. People born before 1945 (especially before 1929) have participated at a high level throughout their lives and still do. Both of my parents, who were born in the 1930s, have been very active their entire lives, from my mother participating in the PTA when my siblings and I were in school to currently volunteering at a hospital. My father still has his weekly card game. Putnam calls people of this age the "long civic generation."

    In contrast, the baby boom and younger generations have had poor to mediocre participation levels throughout their life spans. As the older generations fade away, younger people begin to comprise a larger share of the total population, thus driving down the overall average rate of participation.

    In fact, the book opens with descriptions of groups that had been meeting weekly for upwards of fifty years but collapsed because of a failure to attract new members. As one example:

    "The Charity League of Dallas had met every Friday morning for fifty-seven years to sew, knit, and visit, but on April 30, 1999, they held their last meeting; the average age of the group had risen to eighty, the last new member had joined two years earlier, and president Pat Dilbeck said ruefully, 'I feel like this is a sinking ship'" (pp. 15-16).

    How does track and field fit in? Well, I've gone on three Track & Field News tours (2000 Olympic Trials, 2001 USATF, 2003 USATF). These years were roughly around the time of my turning forty and, as best I could tell, I was either the youngest person or one of the youngest persons on each of the tours.

    The average age of T&FN tour participants is not yet eighty, as in the above example. But, to the extent the tours are representative of spectatorship in the sport at large (albeit at a more intense level), fan support of track and field looks headed for a bowling alone-type demise.

    Interestingly, one of the few exceptions to declining social participation described in "Bowling Alone" is live attendance at college football and basketball games, pro sports, and NASCAR. For whatever reason, track and field appears to resemble the American Legion more than other sports.

    One obvious difference between track and field and other civic institutions, however, is that the competitors are obviously young and this could be a bridge to potential younger generations of fans. I'm not too optimistic, though.

    I'm very curious to see other fans' reactions to this.

  • #2
    Re: is track and field

    I'd fully agree cultural mores change over time.

    And there's a very direct correlation between AGE and INTEREST in T&F.

    Similarly, taking the Penn Relays as an example, I'd also say ethnicity is a good predictor of interest in T&F.

    An aspect of the touring concept is disposable income and disposable time.

    Retired people tend to have more free time, can't fully comment on the disposable income aspect.

    On the whole, I'd fully agree , T&F has a severe generational appeal problem.

    And, as with matters of cultural taste, I don't see much to be done with it.

    I'm speaking about the USA in everything above.

    I've done the WC, beginning with Stuttgart, and my observation is, YOUNGER people in Europe have a greater INTEREST in T&F than do YOUNG Americans.

    I can't measure this against what INTEREST used to be amongst Europeans 50 years ago.

    As to the future of T&F in the USA, fads are a fabric of our life.

    But what about our interests, how will they evolve??

    I don't have much positive intuition here.


    • #3
      Re: is track and field

      Interesting ideas with some truth to them, I believe. The question is why young people drift away to either different activities or to self-indulgence. Seems to me that increasing institutionalization plays a part.

      Does it seem to others that pole-vaulting is a good case in point? When I was being introduced to track and field all the craziest, ballsiest most reckless guys were pole vaulters. Vaulters began at the 7th grade level, with cheap, simple equipment, minimal coaching or supervision and proceeded to mainly teach themselves highly dangerous, even life threatening physical stunts with lots of injuries and minimal lawsuits involved.

      Now things have changed, vaulting is recognized by lawyers as a paralysis producer, trampolines and ropes from gym ceilings are no where to be found in public schools, expensive equipment and structure supervision is required. What is the result? Lots of the same kids who used to be nutzoid backyard vaulters are now using their athleticism to break their bones skate boarding instead. Less structure, more grassroots availability, more danger and edginess percieved. Soon, probably, they will move on to something else. When sports lose accessibility to the average kid then they lose the energy and enthusiasm needed to thrive.

      I think baseball is headed the same way... what % of MLB players are from developing countries now? How many kids play sandlot ball down at the school yard all summer? Uniforms and ego-driven parents and fund raisers and proof of birthdays and and instructional videos and whatnot have driven out the fun kids used to have. There has to be a sense of ownership for participants... no volunteer organization gains members if potential recruits see the whole thing as an institutionalized business venture.


      • #4
        Re: is track and field

        what about the monetary aspect of all this? speaking as a "younger" fan, i've got to say that the lack of money in the sport has probably led to a lack of interest. the one thing that sets basketball, baseball, hockey, whatever, apart from track is that there was participation from most kids in these sports, and not just at an elementary level. as more kids decide to stay in hockey for the pipe dreams of making "the show" (the nhl), they gain a greater respect and interest for the game which stays with them their whole lives. it's hard to convince one of the greatest runners in the country (an example from my high school days), to give up his dreams of being a second rate hockey player for distance running, since a second rate hockey player makes more in a year than all American distance runners combined. i think some of this has to do with hockey being a "macho" or "cool" sport, but surely, a lot of it also has to do with the prospect of making money and making it into the show.

        it's the chicken and the egg though, as we can't exactly establish an American running league without the interest, and it's hard to get interested youngsters without that sort of future prospect.


        • #5
          Re: is track and field

          >How many kids play sandlot ball down at the school yard all summer? Uniforms and ego-driven parents and fund raisers and proof of birthdays and and instructional videos and whatnot have driven out the fun kids used to have.

          I feel sad when I drive by a schoolyard baseball field on a nice day and find it...empty. We used to be able to get up a ballgame by word of mouth, with no parental involvement and simply walk or ride bikes to the field. Today, kids won't go anywhere unless they are driven in the family minivan by their parents. They've probably never used rocks or boards for bases. And the parents hover over their kids constantly, even attending practices, which are now almost as well attended as the games. Talk about pressure. And it makes things tough on the coaches, too.


          • #6
            Re: is track and field

            I've never been able to understand how such a high participation sport at the lower age levels can have so little fan interest from those same participants. I'm sure it's due to many factors. Track doesn't have a tangible league to aspire to like most sports, i.e. MLB, NBA etc. It only has the abstract notion of running arbitrary track meets around the country or over in Europe. Most youth, high school or college athletes don't envision themselves joining the track league and making substantial amounts of money. Although monetary gains are possible, it is only for a small percentage. Most of this may stem from a inherent flaw in track and field and other sports of its ilk, i.e. wrestling (the real kind), swimming, gymnastics, etc. The flaw being the individuality of the sport. This does not lend itself to the kind of widespread admiration as the other team sports. When your college elligibility is up, what can you do? Well, it probably often seems daunting, who will train me? Where can I get the camraderie of a team that I'm used to? Who will support me? This individuality leads me to another observation in that despite the vast participation in track, how many people have a viable chance at aquiring the prize money, or the medals? The answer is quite a small percentage. All this can be very discouraging. In track, you have to be at your peak physically in every respect, and compete against others vying for the same thing. If you're not the fastest, then you're simply not the fastest. In football, for example, you don't have to be the fastest to succeed because sports like this encompass more than the basic attributes of athleticism, i.e. speed, strength and jumping. Since track is, more than any other sport, limited to these basic attributes, only a very select few will be successful enough to make it a viable professional endeavour.


            • #7
              Re: is track and field

              to finish my last thought...
              and consequently, only a small percentage of people will be drawn to the sport, especially spectatorwise.


              • #8
                Re: is track and field


                Wow, you hit the nail on the head. Very perceptive. I agree 100%. And, unfortunately there isn't much that can be done to change things. At least participation at the hs level is still very high.


                • #9
                  Re: is track and field

                  Track has a difficult task in winning new younger fans. First, TV is an important part of an American child's introduction to many things. Unless you are already a fan track on TV is not thrilling, and not likely to win fans. Bad announcing and bad production values aside, most channel surfing kids will pick the X-games-motorcycle-skateboard-adrenaline-rush program over a bunch of people running. The beauty, skill, and sheer excitement of track is first experienced in person. Most people have never been to a good track meet. Once you've seen how incredible, say, a performance like a 7' HJ is, or how fast, say, a sub 4min mile is in person (both well shy of a WR) track on TV and the sport in general become much more interesting.

                  Second, track and field practice is not initially fun to many participants. It takes a while to learn the skill or get in good enough condition to actually start enjoying the process, but by that time many have written it off. Initial exposure to sooccer, basketball, baseball, lacrosse, volleyball, etc. are fun right out of the gate. They work comes later the better you get and the longer you participate, but by then you're already hooked and you are willing to sacrifice. Plus you can be in pretty bad condition and play a decent game of B-ball into your 40's. Not true with T&F.

                  T&F should be simple; running/walking, jumping, throwing. But so many coaches I've seen, or had, run meets or practice like its a military camp and suck all of the simplicity and joy out of it. I've seen relay teams DQ'd for having members with different color socks. I've seen people get really pissed of to the point of wishing failure, at someone they don't know, like Gabe Jennings, because he is too expressive for their taste; a reason that has nothing to do with the simple act of running, jumping, throwing.

                  These are three of about seven big problems that T&F faces as I see it (I'm tired of writing and I doubt anyone will read it anyway). The solution...............I don't know. I fell in love with track and field when I won a 100m race in gym class in '83 and coincidently read in some publication that I was 4+ seconds slower than the WR. Something clicked and I wanted to see what a really fast person looked like. I went to a local HS meet with my folks and was hooked. I have been able to get friends and family really interested in certain meets and races. I've brought them all to meets, and they really enjoy it. Maybe that's what we need, a national bring-a-friend-to-a-meet day.


                  • #10
                    Re: is track and field

                    To your original post. I have never taken a T&FN tour. They are just too expensive. They seem to have a fixation on finish line side seating, which may be what the cliental (sp) requires, but those seats are invariably more expensive than any other seating. And, at least in the US, they are worse, because everyone feels compelled to stand at the finish of races (even in Eugene, except there it's for distance races). But the tickets are just a personal choice, and if you ask, they can probably get you the best seats, across from the finish, if you ask. The real problem is with the hotels. They always seem to have "el Presidente" or the equivalent in the name. Luxery hotels are nice on a kick back vacation, but when all you do is sleep in the room, a B&B or gasthaus works just fine, at a huge saving. The big ticket for any of these trips is the airfare. With the internet, it is pretty simple to get decent fares and thats half the battle.

                    My sumise is that the TFN tours clients are realativly close to if not retired. They don't want to be bothered with doing any homework and want to see the meet, eat and shop (not necessarily in that order). I have some pretty good friends who take the tours. Mostly, they fit that category. Although one couple took the tour to the '83 WC as a honeymoon. The good hotel was a real plus.

                    I did take one track meet tour. In '89, my wife and I went to the Barcelona W cup. We had done a 6 week tour of GB (didn't do NI, so not UK) and we had got our tickets for the Euro Cup through a British outfit. We decided that for 4 days, we could save ourselves a bunch of calls and grief if we just booked their tour to Barcelona. There was some markup, but not horrendous. When we got there, we were in a big, modern hotel, miles from anywhere. Friends who had be travelling in Spain and France, came to the meet. They got worse seats, but they had a room (suite of 3 actually) in an old hotel in the Gothic quarter, about 300m from the cathedral. It was cheaper than our hotel (at least by the rack rates on the door in our room) and was just in a much more vital part of town. Barcelona is wonderful, I really enjoyed the time there, and there were a smattering of younger people, but I wouldn't take a tour again.
                    I guess my feeling for this is that people to take tours, cruises, and the like, want to be catered to, and do not want to spend a lot of time planning. I think that this defeats the purpose of travel. And for international meets, the travel is as important as the meet, to me.
                    As to the "community" of track meets, I think that too, is a function of the realative wealth of the people watching. (For eg, see the excellent articles on the Keynan XC champs). The most vibrant meets in the US at which I have been have involved HS athletes. The Cal state meet is always a hoot, for the howling crowd as much as the performances. The HS portions of MT SAC and Modesto are the most "fan friendly". In fact at Modesto, the "good" (cheap) side cleans out a bit after the HS and age group kids are done.
                    I have no solutions as to the health of the sport in the US. I have been attending local HS meets (and middle school) as my grandson is a fairly good middle distance runner. The crowds are mostly family and friends, but is that all bad? The kids seem to enjoy the sport, and I get a chance to catch some rays, and put off yard work for another day. Life is good. (Until the neighbors come by with the pitchforks).


                    • #11
                      Re: is track and field

                      Track never kept it's best atheletes even in the old days, but they would go to an Olympics, now guys with potential don't even do that if they can make the NFL. How many highschool 10.3/10.4 sprinters recieve both football and track scholarships, if they can take the hits they will never hit the track after their senior season. Sane with the weight throwers. Ron Dayne was an all conference thrower for the Badgers, he never bothered to compete beyond college because he had a fat millionaires contract coming to him by the NY Giants.


                      • #12
                        Re: is track and field

                        Actually Dayne never competed in the throws beyond the high school. As a Badger he was already only a football player.
                        "A beautiful theory killed by an ugly fact."
                        by Thomas Henry Huxley


                        • #13
                          Re: is track and field

                          Regarding the state of the sport, the open indoor meet at the University of Washington was completely overflowing. There were 19 heats of the men's 200 meters and 15 heats of the women's 200 meters. While it is just one meet in one state, I just wanted to report some good news for once.


                          • #14
                            Re: is track and field

                            The declining participation being generational particularly shows up in the track & field officiating ranks. We are losing a generation of top officials who are retiring or passing away, and there are not enough younger folks joining the ranks to replace them.


                            • #15
                              Re: is track and field

                              True. Hats off to officials - we take them for granted. I'm one of those who COULD pitch in, but don't because I'm tied up with day-to-day crap that keeps me from doing anything. So, I guess the future of the sport depends on people who DO have the time (nationwide, enough for nationals meets), or the sport will have to produce its own allure - WR-challenging performances(which will be suspect.) Good luck, everybody. I'll still be a fan....