Aths media must evolve

Patrick: Track media coverage must evolve

Technological advances change everything, including how sports are covered and consumed.

In the second of six installments of The Inside Track, a guest columnist series in advance of the adidas Grand Prix, former USA Today reporter Dick Patrick says that if track and field can harness the changes, it could help resurrect a sport that began to lose relevance in the 1970s.

By Dick Patrick, Special to Universal Sports | Posted: Apr 20, 1:15p ET | Updated: Apr 20,

While reading Steve Holman’s column about the need for the sport to change its presentation, I started thinking about changes in coverage-both those that have occurred and those that need to occur.

Back in 1990s, when people were reading newspapers and Holman was running 3:50 miles and 3:31 1,500s, I thought I had a great job at USA Today. During the summers, I’d call athletes like Holman in Europe and get stories in the paper regularly. How quaint. Who knew that newspapers would soon be as outmoded as cinder tracks?

I remember the time I suddenly realized that print reporters were on the endangered species list. In July 2007, Alan Webb set the U.S. record in the mile. An hour or two later, while attending my son’s baseball game on a Saturday afternoon, I talked to Webb as part of a conference call set up by USA Track & Field. Got a quick story on the Internet and was told to file a longer piece for the Monday paper.

My first thought: isn’t this new technology great? I can be at a baseball game in Virginia, speak by cell phone to an athlete in Europe and get a report online in a few hours.

Then came a more sobering revelation while doing further research Saturday night for the Monday story. I came across a video of the race in Brasschaat, Belgium, and a post-race interview of Webb. Suddenly it dawned on me that my Monday story would be old news. Any diehard track fan by then would have seen the race and heard Webb talk about it. Even an obscure meet in a small town in Belgium could be accessed immediately by fans around the world.

When I mentioned feeling obsolete to friend and mentor Jim Dunaway, who is in his 80s and has covered the sport since the 1950s, he had these consoling words: “You’re covering a dying sport in a dying medium.”

That may be too harsh an opinion, but obviously the media world is in the midst of a revolution. If track and field can harness the changes, it could help resurrect a sport that in the 1970s began to lose relevance as football, basketball and baseball began to capture increasingly larger shares of television, relegating athletics to essentially niche status.

Television remains important. But the web appears to be the wave of the future and is where the real opportunity rests. The international federation (IAAF), USATF and meets themselves need to use the Internet more to promote the sport, and they appear to be on such a path. Make it easy for fans to see stories about athletes, watch meets and get results.

The hard-core will love this. What about the masses? Can we gain their attention for more than nine days every four years during the Olympics?

That’s a question that has been discussed in hotel lobbies at meet sites around the world for decades. How do we get all those hundreds of thousands of high school kids in the sport to become passionate about world-class athletes? How do we get all those millions of recreational runners trying to break 50 minutes for 10K or four hours for the marathon to regard runners like Kenenisa Bekele or Ryan Hall with awe?

Somehow the potential converts have to be reached. And newspapers, while they can’t be neglected by the sport, are probably not the answer. Here’s how things have changed with papers:

In 1987, after I had been awarded the track beat at USA Today because no other reporters desired it, the sports editor told me to make travel arrangements to attend the world championships in Rome and then follow the European track tour for a month prior to attending an International Olympic Committee meeting in Lausanne. Looking back, it’s amazing that about a half dozen other U.S. reporters also went to Rome and subsequent European meets.

Most of those papers haven’t covered the sport seriously after the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Twenty-three years after the editor told me, “Get the feel and flavor of the European circuit,” I was told last summer that the paper would not be covering either the U.S. championships or the world championships. The paper wanted to save money to cover the swimming world championships-Michael Phelps’ star power trumped track & field. Sure, star power would help athletics. But the sport has stars, Usain Bolt being the perfect example. How do we get the masses to notice them?

The problem isn’t a lack of stories. My dilemma as a print reporter was which ones to tell when covering a meet. There was never enough space to accommodate the successes, the failures, the surprises, the offbeat occurrences and the fascinating human interest situations that happen at every meet.

The stars are there and always will be. We have to find ways to promote them and exploit their popularity. The drama is there and always will be. We have to find ways to trumpet it.

Newspapers used to try to be all things to all people, though finite space made that impossible. There are no limits with the Internet. Track and field can have blanket coverage. The sport needs to keep exploring and exploiting new media.

With that, I want to end with a “high five” of my top most favored memories gained from print media coverage. There are too many memories, performers and performances to count or rank, so these are five that resonated personally. With careful planning by the sport’s leaders, all future highlights and special moments will be accessed with just a few key strokes by any fan in every corner of the globe and at any time of day.

In no particular order:

Abdi Bile of Somalia winning the 1,500m at the 1987 Worlds. Has anybody had such extensive changes in life? Wandered the desert for his first seven years. Improbably wound up at George Mason University with innovative coach John Cook. Ran 1:46 for his last 800 in Rome. Might have won Olympic titles if not injured at wrong times.

Usain Bolt of Jamaica in 2008. His 100m record in New York and 100/200 records in Beijing were mind blowing. Never seen a sprinter like him, combining height, turnover and power. Scary. Transformative performer with showbiz flair.

American Rich Kenah earning 800m bronze in 1997. Watched this kid grow up at Georgetown and agonizingly miss the 1996 Olympics by a fraction of an inch. Saw him overcome adversities of the U.S. post-collegiate system. Proved to me that you could excel without using drugs and while pursuing academics and a post-running profession.

Jonathan Edwards of Great Britain breaking the 60-foot triple barrier multiple times at the 1995 Worlds. How did this guy, so unimposing physically, create such explosiveness? Really fun to watch him cover the equivalent of the distance from the pitching rubber to home plate in three bounds.

Americans Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor winning marathon medals at the 2004 Olympics. Proved that U.S. distance running wasn’t dead. Outstanding people beyond their athletic ability. Meb’s 2009 victory at the New York City Marathon was icing on the cake.

Dick Patrick is one of the most respected athletics beat writers in the world, having spent the past 23 years covering running for USA Today. He also worked in Geneva, N.Y., Binghamton, N.Y., and Rochester, N.Y. At all stops no one else was interested in covering the sport. At USA Today from 1986-2009, he covered six summer Olympic Games, 11 World Athletics Championships, two World Cross Country Championships and dozens of major marathons. Patrick is currently pursuing a freelance career.