Popularity of Athletics on The Decline

Is this the death of athletics?

The hype surrounding The London 2012 Summer Olympics is now a distant memory. And nothing highlights this more than the apparent death and decline in the popularity of athletics.

We may be being a little dramatic here and could accuse us of writing a ‘click-bait’ headline. Since athletics as a sport isn’t dead yet. But the popularity of attending a professionally organised athletics meet is certainly waning.

As framers of sports memorabilia we can attest to a lower demand in this arena. The demand for framing athletics apparel and memorabilia has fallen dramatically. And in over just a few short years.

We framed vests and bibs for Olympians in 2012. In 2016 less so. And the 2020 Olympics (held in 2021 due to Covid) seemed a complete washout. At least from the memorabilia framing perspective. But much of that can be attributed to the global pandemic at that time.

The pattern for fans framing athletics memorabilia has broadly matched this pattern. The exception being having ones own items framed. In this arena at least we have seen an increase in business.

The two sides of the athletics game

Participation and spectatorship are poles apart. As backed up by our own anecdotal evidence. Whilst spectatorship of athletic events is at rock bottom, participation at least is on the increase. The BBC shows every Diamond League event. The live TV schedule, Red Button and iPlayer share coverage.

The long form races are seeing vast declines in viewership. The 100m was always the darling of the sport. But marathon distances have historically been popular too. Especially in the UK where we have been lucky to have a steady stream of competitive runners in this discipline for many years.

But now this appears to be in serious decline too. Viewing figures are sketchy and difficult to obtain at best. However figures from 2018 show a peak audience of 5.6 million tuned in to watch the London Marathon just before midday. Representing exactly half the audience that tuned in to watch at some point during the race.

This was the highest viewing figure since 1998 too. Whilst the London Marathon is still extremely popular it does shows a general decline in viewership. And perhaps points to a more systematic problem. It is widely believed that the public don’t have the attention span to watch longer content.

Blame the internet if you must, with the rise of short form video content like TikTok and alike. But Formula 1, American Football and Darts are still extremely popular in the UK. And despite efforts to speed the games up cricket too.

Is this the only evidence for a decline in the popularity of athletics?

Sadly not, prize money for elite athletes continues to decline. Most likely due to declining viewership and live audiences. Making it harder to earn any kind of income from this ‘professional’ discipline. Outside of big ticket events like the London Marathon, The Great North Run and Diamond League events TV coverage is dismal. And if it is on TV you’d only need to tune in for mere moments to notice the venues are half empty at most meets.

The other side of athletics

Yet participation in athletics is on the increase. Specifically running and cycling.

Unsurprisingly we are excluding events where participation is hampered. Either by the need for specialist equipment, a running track, coaching or health and safety protocols. Think discus, javelin and high jump for just a few examples.

These sports considered on their own could arguably put their decline down the education system. An ever health and safety conscious school system declining to offer these events in PE. But school is where at least when we were young we got our first taste of these sports. Talents were first recognised and nurtured. Health and safety gone mad I hear you cry. For now though that is a separate discussion which beyond the scope of this article.

The growth in running and cycling, and to a lesser degree swimming. more than makes up for the declines in the other disciplines.

Biathlons, triathlons, iron mans and alike are all more popular than ever. Park runs are scheduled all over the country each weekend, organised and managed by armies of volunteers.

Charities are asking us to walk or run 5k to raise awareness and money. All because they know people are keen to get involved in these types of events.

And some of this popularity can be attributed to the pandemic. With people looking to get fit, or keep up their daily activity during lockdowns. And also the impetus to be as healthy as possible to stave off the worst of the ill effects of the virus. But not only that but the barrier to entry into these events is low. Beginner equipment is inexpensive and coaching is not required to start out. Or even to maintain a basic level of fitness.

What is being done to reverse the popularity trend

The Highgate Harriers’ Night of The 10,000m PBs turned athletics into an entertainment production. That isn’t a criticism at all either. They did the impossible and turned a UK distance running meet into a spectacle. There was beer, food, entertainment by way of acrobats and fire-breathers.

An event the whole family could enjoy crammed full of attention grabbing highlights. Much the same as American Football has done for years. With half time shows, tailgate parties, beer, beer and more beer. All designed to keep your attention over the average duration of 3 hours for an NFL game!

Eilish McColgan even discussed allowing fans to bet on athletes in her BBC column. As someone who frequents football and rugby games regularly, gambling isn’t an uncommon part of the ritual. Placing an accumulator on the journey to the game to make things ‘more interesting’ is often a group event. With your travel companions doing the same and discussing their picks. The entire article has another take on the decline of the popularity in athletics. 

And whatever your views on gambling it certainly works. It adds an element of competition among friends then. But is this workiable in athletics where outcomes of athletics could be influenced by individuals. Certainly this needs careful consideration and safeguards in place.

The hype surrounding The London 2012 Summer Olympics is now a distant memory. And nothing highlights this more than the apparent death of athletics

How to get involved and help

We can help reverse this decline too. Visit a local meet this year, look out for those such as the Night of the 10,000m PBs or a England athletics sanctioned event

And try athletics for yourself, you may love it. When you have something to celebrate we’d love to frame your memorabilia!

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