Europe's Dwindling Crowds

Action is needed before athletics loses its lustre

Steve Cram
Tuesday June 6, 2006
The Guardian

There are those who would have you believe that all of the world’s environmental problems can be entirely explained by global warming. Similarly the imminent World Cup is ready to take the blame for everything from domestic violence to deciding the result of the next general election and athletics is not about to miss the opportunity to shovel a fair dollop of unpalatable responsibility in the direction of the fated golden orb.

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Friday night saw the first Golden League meeting held at the Bislett Stadium in Oslo in front of a far from sell-out crowd. For those who are unfamiliar with the convoluted nature of the athletic season the Golden League consists of the six big-money meets that are meant to be the showpiece events outside of the major championships and as such are given the prime slots in the summer calendar.
In the heady days of the 80s the Oslo meet was early in July and was broadcast on BBC and ITV and taken live by ABC in America. The terraces were packed so tightly that standing was the only option and the old stadium shook to the noise generated by nearly 25,000 fans with many more hanging from the windows and balconies of the surrounding buildings straining to get a view.

It often clashed with Wimbledon or perhaps the open golf and occasionally football. But it was an appointment event in its own right. This year’s event was moved forward by more than a month to avoid clashing with even the most mundane of World Cup matches and for the first time in recent memory it failed to appear on TV of any description here in Britain and in many other European countries. The superbly refurbished Bislett is now an all-seater stadium with a much-reduced capacity and still there were a significant number of empty seats despite the fact that in purely athletic terms they probably had some of the best fields ever assembled in that meeting.

These are worrying times for the sport and the hotel bars and lobbies are filled with agents, managers, promoters and occasionally forward-thinking athletes all trying to come to terms with dwindling crowds and most alarmingly the lack of exposure on television. Inevitably football and the World Cup are put forward as the guilty culprits.

What passes for our annual team event, the European Cup, has also been moved to a midweek slot so as to accommodate TV’s needs relating to the football and to fully run the white flag up the pole BBC Radio 5 Live will not be broadcasting any of this weekend’s grand-prix meeting at Gateshead despite it being a season curtain raiser for many British athletes.

The World Cup is undoubtedly difficult to compete with for all sports. However those involved in the planning and structure of the international athletics calendar need to get heads together sooner rather than later to address the more deep-rooted issues that are affecting a once popular sport that is now becoming a scarcity on television screens outside of the Olympics and the world championships.

The balance between maximising returns on rights selling and widespread exposure needs to be redressed in favour of the latter. Viewers cannot be expected to get excited about athletes they haven’t seen before. To attract more TV interest the meetings and the right packages need to be more imaginatively structured with less attention paid to the desire to somehow create a unifying image or brand across the range of events and meetings.

For instance a lot of time and effort and no doubt funding went into a world-ranking system based on points that is completely ignored by everyone except the IAAF. While the international federation continues to expand territories and products it seems to be blind to the decline in interest in the sport’s traditional heartland Europe. The standard of this summer’s European Championships when benchmarked against world standards will bear testimony to that.

Thankfully in Britain 2012 has given the sport an opportunity to buck the trend and certainly the London grand prix in July will be a sell-out with the big budget ensuring world-class athletics. Gateshead on Sunday is also experiencing encouraging ticket sales and with good weather it too could be mostly full.

As I mentioned last week the appearance of the joint world-record holders over 100 metres, Justin Gatlin and Assafa Powell, would have given things a much-needed lift. At least after asking around in Oslo I managed to get to the bottom of Gatlin’s non-appearance. Apparently he wants to watch the World Cup.