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Not too many track & field fans in Eugene, or in Rome

The NCAA Track & Field Championships in Eugene were compelling and even spectacular in places, with lots of surprises and star performances from Mississippi’s McKenzie Long, Florida’s Parker Valby and many more … but not so many fans.

No official attendance figures were noted, but the 12,650-seat new Hayward Field – which was pretty much full for the Prefontaine Classic on 25 May, was at best perhaps 35-40% of capacity on the first two days, including the teams sitting in the stands.

For the final days for men and women on Friday and Saturday, it wasn’t much better, perhaps 45-50%? And everyone was crowded into the home straight, with the backstraight full of empty seats. There’s a good reason for that: if you’re sitting in front of the roofline, it’s pretty hot on that side.

Eugene has hosted 10 of the last 15 NCAA Track & Field Championships (2010-24) and will host 2025, 2026 and 2027. In the same period, it has also held the U.S. nationals (USATF) eight times and the 2022 World Athletics Championships.

Add in the Pre Classic, and while Eugene is clearly “TrackTown USA,” it no longer supports the sport as strongly as it used to in terms of attendance. There are too many meets, and in 2024, the local choice has clearly been to go to the one-day Pre meet and then go to the U.S. Olympic Trials from 21-30 June. The NCAA was the odd-meet-out this year.

Whether that changes in the future is anyone’s guess, but what appears clear is that the community’s attachment to the new facility is not nearly as close as to the original, much more modest venue that opened in 1919.

Eugene is not alone, and it may be worse in Rome, as the much-larger Stadio Olimpico appears to have about the same number of fans as Hayward Field … for the European Championships!

Veteran British observer Pat Butcher, in his “Globerunner” blog, noted last week:

“[T]he gulf between spectator and [TV] viewer will be emphasised even more, because there weren’t even 10,000 attendees in the revamped stadium which hosted the 1960 Olympic Games. And given that at least a thousand of those were knots of vocal foreign supporters, it’s worth asking ‘whither stadium athletics in future?’ at least for this event whose proximity to the Olympic Games in Paris has severely affected entries.”

He observed that the meet was (unusually) being shown on two Italian channels and wondered if this “suggests that some sports may be better confined to the box.”

The Italian newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano – The Daily Fact – went further, with Lorenzo Vendemiale explaining in detail last Friday:

“As revealed by Il Fatto in recent days, just a few hours after the inauguration, just 80 thousand tickets were sold over six days of competitions, including those discounted or given away. We are stuck at 30-35% of availability.

“And we are talking about a capacity that has already been reduced from the usual 65,000 at the Olimpico to less than 40,000 seats, due to the needs of athletics (jumping platform, giant screens, technical and photographer area, etc.). The average is around 15 thousand spectators per day, but if we consider that Saturday evening with [Lamont Marcell] Jacobs‘ 100 meters will be almost sold-out, there will be sessions with 4-5 thousand present. It’s true that the numbers of athletics are certainly not those of football, but here you risk making a fool of yourself.”

His report further noted that this edition of the Europeans is being supported with €13 million in public funding (about $14.0 million U.S.), and that European Athletics chief executive Christian Milz (SUI) said in an email message seen by the newspaper that “To be honest with you, this is a disaster.”

After the pre-event sales were low – “either due to the marginal importance of the event itself or due to the lack of promotion” – tickets have been heavily discounted and “now the tickets are practically given away, with the initiative of 1 euro entry for students and teachers on the opening day, in a desperate attempt to fill the stands.”

Observed: This is what is heard increasingly from athletes, who see themselves more as performers, but too often without an audience to perform for. Their on-the-track excellence has not been matched by the promoters.

Butcher’s comments that track & field’s future may be a television sport and not an in-stadium spectator event is worth considering against the backdrop of the noisy crowd at 5,000-seat Icahn Stadium in New York for Sunday’s NYC Grand Prix.

There were stands only on one side, but there were repeated comments from the athletes about how they loved the noise.