Track and field are still dominating the field

A Minnesota high school athlete propels himself into the air while competing in the long jump.
A Minnesota high school athlete propels himself into the air while competing in the long jump.

Track and field is a sport that Americans have long dominated. While participation rates dropped slightly, all indications show the sport getting its wind back.

Team USA finished its most successful World Athletics Championships in July 2022 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., coming away with 33 total medals, 13 of which were gold. Additionally, more than 1700 athletes from 179 countries competed in the games.

NBC Sports, which aired the World Athletics Championships, stated it was the most-watched track and field championship in history with 18.7 million total viewers over 10 days.

Given that there are an estimated 50 million runners in the U.S., according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, it is not surprising.

Track and field also remain the number one high school and junior high participatory sport according to USA Track & Field (USATF), the national governing body for the sport.

“Volleyball continues its rise in popularity among girls’ sports, but track and field is still the largest sport for youth and teenage girls across
the nation,” says Julie Cochran, director of sport for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS).

About 1.1 million athletes compete in high school outdoor track & field each year, according to the NFHS. There are another 422,710 athletes competing in cross country, while indoor track & field has more than 126,000 participants a year.

The Arizona Interscholastic Association Track & Field Championships were held in May at Mesa Community College.
The Arizona Interscholastic Association Track & Field Championships were held in May at Mesa Community College.

While there was a slight decline in participation since 2020, Cochran considers it a small “hurdle” given recent challenges.

“With the collection data being interrupted the past two years by the pandemic, having a decline of only 4 percent is remarkable. We are optimistic that the trend upward will continue when we track participation numbers for this current year.”

While junior and high school statistics declined, college statistics remain essentially the same.

The sport grew steadily for more than a decade but experienced a slight drop in participation in 2019. After regaining traction in 2021 with 27,304 athletes competing in indoor track and field and another 30,425 in outdoor track in all college divisions, the sports continue to grow according to several NCAA statistics.

When the 2022 NCAA Track and Field Championships were held in Oregon last spring, 170 schools had entries. In the Division I outdoor preliminaries, a total of 4224 athletes competed. For the finals, 648 men and women competed, respectively, while another 336 men and women competed in the indoor championships.

In Division II, the outdoor championship drew 377 men and women (each) while Division III fielded 546 men and women. The indoor championship at the Division II level had 270 athletes per gender, while Division III had 396 of each men’s and women’s competitors.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics held its Men’s & Women’s Outdoor Track & Field National Championships in Gulf Shores, Ala., in May 2022. Approximately 1300 student-athletes from colleges across the country contended for the championship title.

Still, there is concern among industry leaders heading into the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles—can the sport draw more fans before the event?

While the World Athletics Championship went off without a hitch, only about 150,000 tickets were sold to fill stands over six days of competitions.

A discus thrower competes in the New Mexico Outdoor Track & Field Championships last spring.
A discus thrower competes in the New Mexico Outdoor Track & Field Championships last spring.

USATF wants to increase the sport’s popularity leading up to the 2028 Olympics.

The organization is launching a series of elite games for next year with U.S. athletes competing against the best in the world. The series will join the 8000 events USATF already sanctions each year.

The organization has more than 130,000 members. Member organizations include the NCAA, NAIA, Road Runners Club of America, Running USA, and the National Federation of State High School Associations. In addition, 56 USATF associations oversee the sport and its more than 3,000 clubs at the local level. Due to the number of sanctioned organizations all working towards increasing numbers, the main goal across the board is to make track and field the fifth most-followed sport in the United States.

That would require a jump from its current eighth place as the most followed U.S. sport, according to a World Athletics study. Being in the top five would mean surpassing swimming, tennis, and motor racing before following giant sports such as football, baseball, basketball, and soccer.

Will another standout like Carl Lewis or Florence Griffith-Joyner emerge during these games to help aid in becoming one of the elite sports in the U.S.? Only time will tell.

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