Dear NBC, Your Track Coverage Sucks. Here’s How to Make It Better.

Elite legs

Dear NBC,

You’re a great network. Really, you are. You gave us Seinfeld, Friends, Saturday Night Live, and cover the glorious biennial spectacle of the Olympics. But speaking on behalf of distance running fans everywhere, your track coverage sucks.

Every race, every track meet you televise, you let us down. When we see that a meet will be televised and eagerly DVR it, we dare to hope that this time will be different, that this time we will be able to watch our running heroes compete from start to finish. We grab our popcorn, settle in to watch, and…we’re left cursing at the TV as the network airs a total of five minutes of inanely-commentated distance races interspersed with commercial breaks and the preliminary rounds of men’s discus.

I get it, covering track can be hard. It might even seem like it’s just people running in circles. So let me help you help us. Here are some tangible suggestions that won’t leave track junkies (me) shaking their fists and turning off the TV in disgust.

Know your audience

Let’s be real, the people who are tuning into almost every televised track meet are already fans of the sport. The one big exception is the Olympics, when the nightly coverage introduces many newbies to track (which is great!). But for meets like the USATF championships or the Diamond League, the viewers are a self-selected bunch. So for the love of God, stop taking time to explain basic rules or point out the obvious. Everyone knows that the steeplechase has a water pit and that the 800 cuts in after 100 meters. You do not need to spend 5 minutes declaring how 25 laps for a 10K is “omg SO LONG!” Instead, use that time to talk about tactics, the background of athletes, issues in the sport (see below) — literally anything else.

Stop cutting away from distance events

I get it, distance track races can be long. You need to show commercials to make money and cover field events. Keep in mind, however, that the people who have tuned in want to see the whole race! Even in a 10K, the drama builds from the very first lap and knowing who set the pace at the beginning or surged at the halfway mark is useful, interesting information for people who care about track. There is strategy in 10k racing just like there is strategy in baseball, football, and soccer, but no one gets to see it when you only cover one-third of the race. And it’s not just the 10K: I’ve honestly seen a broadcast cut away from a women’s 1500m race, which is barely 4 minutes long. And don’t, ever, show the men’s race in its entirety, and give the women the short shrift.  If you can’t see that this coverage bias is unfair, look at the marathon completion numbers, and you’ll see that your track viewing audience might also be women.

My solution? Use split screen or picture-in-picture to keep showing distance races while cutting to commercials or field events. They do it in other sports all the time — heck, they can show about 10 games at once on NFL RedZone. This is an easy way to keep distance fans happy while still satisfying ad buyers and pole vault junkies.

Quick! Stick a microphone in her face! Photo credit.

Give athletes a chance to breathe

We’ve all seen these interviews. Someone has just sprinted across the line, and, mere seconds later, the trackside announcer is shoving a microphone in their face: “GASP I just want GASP to thank God and GASP my coach and GASP [hands on knees] I just executed my race plan GASP GASP and I’m so happy GASP.” OK, maybe if someone just won a gold medal or qualified for the Olympics, their immediate reaction is noteworthy. Otherwise, let the runners recover! Even waiting 10 minutes would give them a chance to catch their breath, reflect on the race slightly, and provide a much more coherent, substantive, interesting interview. (In fact, maybe just call the FloTrack crew for help on this one.)

Be creative with technology

For years, broadcasts of swimming events have featured a moving line that indicates world-record pace. This would be an excellent thing to institute in track coverage, especially in meets that are geared toward fast times. It can be hard to get a sense of speed when watching running events on TV. Seeing athletes chase a benchmark would put their pace in context and provide added excitement and tension as the race unfolds.

Identify the rabbits

This suggestion was inspired by my recent viewing of the Berlin Marathon, where the pace-setters were wearing distinctive black-and-white-striped singlets/dresses that made their role as pace-setting rabbits clear. All too often, I’ve turned to Mr. Thyme to say “WHO is that in the lead?” only to see them drop out halfway through. Sometimes the announcers mention it, but not always (or, let’s be honest, I’m too busy rolling my eyes about something else to hear properly). Having rabbits wear a specific color or singlet would clarify matters from the start.

No time wasted wondering what fool is trying to keep up with Eliud Kipchoge. Photo credit.

Don’t be afraid to talk about doping

Of course, performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) are a sensitive subject, and I’m sure networks are wary of potential controversy or libel lawsuits. But when a 38-year-old sprinter is setting PRs or someone runs a world-record 10K and is barely breathing heavily, everyone is thinking doping. Doping is a huge problem in track, and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Broadcasts need to dig deeper and acknowledge how much cheating has affected the sport.

I suppose I should be grateful that you are airing track at all. But I just want to watch Emma Coburn be a badass from the gun to the finish. Is that too much to ask?

How do you think broadcasts could improve their track coverage?

I am a museum curator, a former competitive high school and college runner, and a track nerd. I've struggled with chronic injury throughout my career and hope to shed light on the physical and mental challenges of being frequently injured. I live in the Washington, DC, area with my fiancé and black lab mix.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.