Track and Field News (TFN), the self-proclaimed “Bible of the Sport,” recently announced that the December 2017 issue of the monthly magazine would be its last. From now on, TFN would provide only online content. When I read the news, my first reaction was sadness at the passing of a venerable institution that I had first encountered as a high school runner in the 1970s when my Track coach brought in the latest copy to share with the team. My second reaction was a sense of guilt, because I was one of many who benefited from its presence, but never ponied up the price of a subscription.
It turns out that very few of us subscribed to TFN. According to its publishers, circulation peaked at around 30,000 in the early 1980s but has declined to about 7000 in 2017. The average age of T&FN subscribers today is 65. In a world of almost instantaneous access to real-time results, photos, and streaming video, it’s not hard to see why a monthly print magazine would struggle, no matter how elegant and iconic.
But my sense of guilt is not really about the transition from print to online, which has affected all old-school print media. It’s about the fact that even before the Internet and the rise of online sites like DyeStat, LetsRun, and others, TFN represented the grown-up source for running (and throwing and jumping) news, and it was like the serious books that you feel you ought to read, but you never get around to. In short, I was never quite fan enough to support TFN by being a subscriber. And the real fans, the true fans and subscribers that have been keeping TFN alive are dying off, perhaps with the sport that they once knew.
“But how can this be?” I hear you cry. “You coach Track and Field! How can you not be a fan?”
It’s a fair question, and one for which I have no ready answer. Maybe I can explain best by describing the first time I observed a true track fan in his native element. It happened at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento. My family and I attended several days of the trials as part of a longer, two-week vacation to the West Coast that included visits to friends in San Francisco and Santa Rosa. It was an experiment to see whether the whole family, with each of us having different amounts of patience for watching track and field competition, could enjoy a high-level meet. That’s how we ended up spending a scorching afternoon sitting high up in the bleachers on the back straight at Cal State’s Hornet Stadium.
It was not at all crowded, and we could pretty much sit where we liked. Since the Women’s High Jump final was that afternoon, I picked a spot that gave us a good view of that event, as well as an excellent view of the finish line across the infield. As the HJ got underway, there were also sprint trials going on – for the Men’s 200, I think – so there was plenty to watch. That’s when I noticed the fan.
He was a middle-aged gentleman with Khaki pants, a short-sleeved white shirt, and a hat with a broad brim that shielded his face from the sun beating down from the California sky. He sat a few rows in front of us, allowing me to observe him without getting his attention. I noticed he held a medium-sized notebook in his hands, and after every attempt at the bar, made a quick entry with a pen. At first, I thought he might be a reporter jotting down notes for a story. But the brevity of the notes (if such they were) and their regularity suggested some other explanation. I must have watched for 5-10 minutes before I figured out that he was keeping score. Specifically, he was recording every attempt at every height as a make or a miss, in a table like this:
I used to keep score at baseball games, but it had never occurred to me to do the same at track meets. Inspired by his example, I started a crude score sheet myself, and I discovered that when you keep score, you understand the significance of every jump, which adds to your enjoyment of the event. To express it another way, by tracking the makes and misses, I was no longer merely admiring the aesthetics of the jumpers, I was following the competition. And it was much more exciting.
(I might add that the way we choose to televise Track and Field in this country makes it almost impossible to experience field events as competitions. There is no continuity, and the viewer never gets to experience the ebb and flow of emotions as individual jumps elicit surprise, satisfaction, or disappointment. For example, when you are keeping score in a live competition, early fouls ratchet up the tension considerably. There’s nothing quite like waiting to see whether the Gold-medal favorite who has fouled the first two attempts will manage to land a legal third jump and qualify for the finals…)
Alas, simply adopting the habit of keeping score didn’t turn me into a true fan. Although it enhanced my enjoyment of the meet, in the end it didn’t make me care enough to follow High Jump, or Discus, or Sprints religiously. When TFN would announce their athlete-of-the-year an it was some hammer throwers I’d never heard of, I’d have that old feeling of thinking TFN was the adult table, and I was still a kid.
But if I failed to do my part in supporting the institution of TFN, I was glad it existed. In the same way, I’m glad that there are museums in my City, even if I never visit those museums. The analogy seems apt: the print edition of T&FN was a kind of museum for an era when track and field was more newsworthy, when it was considered a major sport, before the modern professional sports leagues took over in a process that began at least 40-50 years ago and continues to this day. It’s a strange paradox that there has never been so much access to track and field data online, never been so much live action available via streaming, and yet never so little fanaticism. I don’t count local enthusiasm at the high school level, participation in youth track and field clubs, and a few isolated pockets of fervor for the pro level. The only exception I would make is for the Penn Relays, which somehow manages to keep the idea of the must-follow track meet alive in the modern age.
I’m aware that many people, including much younger people, are working hard at various schemes to revitalize Track and Field. These include fan-friendly events, community track meets with events for everyone from kids, to novice adult runners, to pros, and street competitions. I have no problem with these things, and I’m interested to see whether they’ll generate a sustainable audience.
But I’m also aware that without the print edition of track and field news, I’ve missed my chance to bring the latest magazine to track practice and share it with kids who weren’t even alive back in 2000. I can’t say my kids will feel any loss; I sense that they find magazines quaint and lifeless. If they are to be inspired to become fans, it will be because of what they find when they follow athletes on Twitter or Instagram, or read online message boards. That’s been true for ten years, and I’m pretty sure there’s no chance of print making a comeback.
So no, my kids won’t feel the loss of TFN, the magazine. And if I’m honest with myself, I won’t feel the loss except as a vague sort of nostalgia for my high school days. I’m happy that I can find almost any result online, follow meets around the world as they are taking place, stream marathon coverage from Japan, and all the rest… and I wouldn’t want to go back. But here’s a belated thank-you to the magazine for the fan in the bleachers, whoever he was, who recorded every high jump attempt, keeping score in a small and precise hand.