Nike, Samsung, Vin Lanana and Tom Jordan put on another fantastic meet in Eugene yesterday, but it would be hard to tell that from the TV coverage – the ratings of which will be used to prop up the argument that nobody wants to watch track outside of the Olympics. While Hayward put on her best dress and brought all her friends as always, NBC once again showed that it has little feel for the sport aside from the sprints.

I want to say this up front: Ato Boldon, (@AtoBoldon) is one of the best track announcers for TV alive. He does credit to the sport – but I say that with the caveat that Ato’s strength lies in the sprints. Ato, love you man, but you just don’t know the distance events and it shows. (UPDATE: Ato and my intrepid commentor below point out that Ato doesn’t cover the distance events. They’re right, and that’s lazy work on my part. My apologies to Ato, and his willingness to engage on this is one of the reasons he’s…well, he’s Ato. Love the man.) Aside from Ato, however, NBC has a sad cast of characters out there. Dwight Stones, bless his heart, is just not good. He knows his jumps, but hearing him cover them just drains them of excitement (although being forced to cover every field event in two 20 second bursts could be the problem, more on that later). I, like many track fans, watch the Diamond League meets online at Universal Sports, and have been spoiled by the British announcers there – despite being a bit too prone to comments about the weight/appearance of the female athletes, these guys know the sport. They know the athletes, the tendencies, the tactics, the times. They’re the Monday Night Football crew of track.

But aside from that, the actual coverage – aside from the sprints and the Bowerman mile – is atrocious. The production decisions lack any sign that there is a familiarity with the sport. Let’s review:

  • Women’s 3000 – NBC covered the first 1600, when the pack is essentially jogging behind the pacers and nothing is really happening, then just as the racing started, cut to Dwight Stones doing a standalone about field events under the stands (with no clips of the action he was describing), then commercials. After commercials, we were treated to the last 200 meters of a Moroccan woman running by herself. Even I was bored by the action on the screen. You guys! The viewing public doesn’t understand pacers, and watching the crowd circle the track together isn’t good TV. Show us the start, do your field bit and commercials, then let us see the racing after the pacers drop out and have someone in the booth who understands distance racing to paint the picture. Like this guy. Watching a woman win all by her lonesome is bad TV. Watching her make moves and pull the pack apart makes that finish intriguing and exciting and contextual. AND IT TAKES THE SAME SCREEN TIME.
  • Field events – We saw three brief clips of high jumps (a Chaunte Lowe miss, Shkolina miss, and Chicherova’s winning jump), one bad Britney Reese jump, two clips from the shot, one hammer throw, one triple jump. All of these clips lacked any sort of context, and we saw one winning effort (Reese Hoffa in the shot). Women’s pole vault and discus, and men’s javelin just didn’t exist. And a lot of closeups of Dwight Stones talking. We got no visual showing us the final standings in field events. For this, Runnerspace was contractually forbidden from showing or discussing Friday night’s triple jump, discus and hammer throw? There were some really good stories in the field, and they were largely ignored – but hey, we got to see every possible pre- and post-race second of a rather pedestrian 200 meters, so I guess it’s okay.
  • The women’s steeplechase had a world leading time and a great race, and if all you did is watch the TV coverage, you’d have no idea there was even a steeplechase run. To reiterate: NBC spent well over a minute of airtime showing the blowout finish of the women’s 3000, but zero time even mentioning the world-class and thrilling steeplechase that had just happened.
  • I understand that NBC isn’t going to spend air time talking about A and B qualifying times, because that’s more complex than the average viewer really needs or probably wants to get. But as Ryan said, how can you not at least mention Olympic implications? For the millionth time, context is everything.

The shame of this is that the Pre Classic is a TV-ready event. It’s scheduled to work on TV, and NBC still blows it. Universal Sports covers these events, and manages to show all the events – granted, they don’t have the commercials to run that NBC does, but even that is workable – add 30 minutes, make it a 2 hour show, and use the last 30 to provide a good, rich recap of the events that weren’t live. Doing it the way NBC is doing it isn’t just robbing track fans, which I can imagine they wouldn’t worry about, but it’s robbing themselves of an opportunity to grow a new audience and expand their sports platform.

I know we’re supposed to be glad that NBC covers the sport at all, and I am glad of it. The frustration is not that I didn’t get to see every second of the men’s 5000 (by the way – NBC handled the 5000 very well, so credit where credit is due!), but that I watched 90 minutes of mostly missed opportunities. Partner up with Runnerspace and FloTrack – these guys know the venue and the sport intimately! Use their knowledge and let them pick up some knowledge on professional coverage. There’s talent in them there online streaming fellas – why not recruit and put a better product on screen? I get that you don’t want your Saturday coverage blown by Friday streaming, but did it actually serve any purpose to forbid them to cover the triple jump? Heck, put one of your producers in the Runnerspace booth and make a judgment call on site. Barring a world record or something equally shocking, it’s unlikely their stream is going to be picked up by CBS and spoil your scoop that Christian Taylor jumped 57’9”. So your guy says yeah, go ahead and cover the TJ, but don’t mention the American Record that just happened in the hammer throw – but you can tease it for TV, and here’s how. See how you just made your broadcast better? And it would take two hours of a producer’s time.

What are your thoughts? Ideas for improving TV coverage of the sport? Where am I wrong? These are just my observations and opinions, but I know I’m not the only one frustrated by what we see on American coverage.

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