The BBC coverage of the World Athletics Championships has included some excellent montages from Championships past – both Moscow’s Olympic moment, and past World Championships.
What strikes you, apart from how dated the footage looks, is that they are almost always taking place in front of packed crowds.
The montage of past 100m finals, the most popular spectator event in Athletics, showed this markedly.
It seems that in the 80s and 90s the audience for Athletics was greater than it has been in the 00s and now in the 10s.
This year’s 100m final was played out in front of a half-full Luzhniki Stadium - and that’s only half full of the reduced capacity stadium. Morning sessions have long been desolate affairs, London Olympics as the startling exception, but the evening sessions are being sparsely attended in Moscow too. What has changed? Are people just not interested anymore?
It can’t be claimed to be a one-off case of morose Muscovites. World Athletics Championships have downsized from sellouts in the grand cities of the world - the likes of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico and Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium – to reduced capacity shows in Moscow and Daegu.
Berlin 2009 counters that argument, but even on 100m final day in the German capital there were plenty of seats not occupied.
Have years of drug scandals diminished athletics’ appeal? That must be part of the answer, although an Olympic Games wherever in the world shows that the appeal of the blue ribband event of the Games is healthier than ever when set in the right context.
Without the extra glow of Olympism though, the sport is clearly in something of an audience doldrums.
Drug stories alone can’t be the only answer – Cycling provides a neat counter-argument there, more popular than ever despite years of abuse and arguably the biggest sporting scandal of all time, eclipsing Atheltics’ own dark days of Ben Johnson.
What about the customer experience of Athletics? Is it just not exciting enough for the modern day audience? Much was made of London 2012’s musically enhanced stadium experience last summer, but I think the problem goes a bit deeper than that.
There are long spells in an evening of Athletics where there is simply nothing happening. Or if there is something happening it is the distant site of someone hurling a discus. A lot of the time there just isn’t much going on.
Should the programme be shortened in order to have more events in any given session? Should separate morning and evening sessions be scrapped to squeeze the action together a bit more? Or is that simply punishing the athletes’ recovery to cater to the short attention spans of the audience?
I don’t know the answer, but the banks of empty seats in Moscow, for the World Championships of the sport no less, suggest that something needs to change to bring back the appeal and the crowds.
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