Canadian runner suggests changes to Diamond League broadcasts could save events

Canada's Matt Hughes says it's time the governing body for track and field got out of the "Stone Age" and improved the fan experience for online and television viewers.

The national record-holder in the 3,000-metre steeplechase is one of many athletes affected by the International Association of Athletics Federations' recent decision to drop the event along with discus and triple jump as official points-scoring events on the 2020 Diamond League pro circuit due to what it claims is fading interest.

The IAAF wants fewer long-distance races in a shorter, 90-minute broadcast package (down from two hours) to create "a more consistent, action-packed format for broadcasters" and tempt more fans to follow the May-to-September season.

In 2020, Diamond League competitions will have a core of 24 events —12 each for men and women — instead of the 32 from this past season, and no races beyond the 3,000 metres. The steeplechase will be part of the lineup at 10 of the 14 meetings — five male, five female — but won't be featured at the Sept. 11 Diamond League Final in Zurich.

Hughes, who said the decision would have affected him more earlier in his career, believes all 32 events could be included in a 90-minute broadcast by cutting the approximate 10-minute wait between events and introducing split screens to broadcasts.

Access to every event on NBC Sports

"It's almost like [the IAAF] took the easy way out rather than examining how fans are consuming the sport. Why not have individual feeds of every event before cutting athletes out of your sport?" the six-time national champion said in a phone interview. "How do you consume 12 [track and field] events, most of which happen simultaneously? We have the technology to have split screens and watch everything on our phones, laptops and iPads.

It's like reading the start of a book and skipping to the end. You can't consume track and field that way. — Canadian runner Matt Hughes on the Diamond League showing only portions of distance races

"With individual feeds of the events, fans get to choose what they want to watch. I went to a couple of athlete forums this year and the hot-button issue was having to get down to 90 minutes. They were telling us that's the best way to watch [track and field] on TV. Maybe [the IAAF] needs to invest research into how best to view the sport online."

During the track and field world championships in October, subscribers to the NBC Sports Gold live streaming service had access to every event over the 10-day competition in Doha, Qatar.

According to Hughes, the IAAF will often show the start of the 5,000 metres from a Diamond League event, break away from coverage for seven or eight minutes and come back at the end.

"It's like reading the start of a book and skipping to the end. You can't consume track and field that way," said the 30-year-old native of Oshawa, Ont. "I'm a little biased but the best part of a distance race is how it developed.

"It's like the IAAF is stuck in the Stone Age on this 90-minute timeframe [for broadcasts] and hasn't thought of anything else.

"There isn't a union of professional track and field athletes, but if a lot of us came together and voiced our opinion on what we thought would be best for the sport that would be good," he said. "But until a large number of us do, I don't think [the IAAF cares] what the athletes think."

David Ramos/Getty Images/File
David Ramos/Getty Images/File

Back in March, the IAAF dropped the 5,000 from its program for next season, one of the most popular road race distances for any distance runner or casual jogger, according to Hughes.

"Their research shows the 5K isn't a popular event," said the 2016 Olympian. "I would argue it's not popular because you're not broadcasting it. You show one or two minutes of a 15-minute race."

With no clear path now for distance runners to earn money, Hughes is certain those athletes will transition immediately to road racing and he expects a gradual decline in the calibre of racing in the 5,000 and steeplechase.

While he is committed to the Olympics next summer in Tokyo after qualifying at the recent world championships, Hughes isn't sure how much the Diamond League will be part of his future.

"A lot will depend where the event is," Hughes said. "Is the Diamond League going to give [steeplechase athletes] appearance or travel money? They haven't said. And since it won't be a points-scoring event, the Diamond League isn't obligated to give you prize money or travel money.

"I was kind of on the fence whether I was going to keep running [post-Olympics] but the 2021 world championships are going to be in Eugene. I spent a large portion of my career training in Portland and have an attachment to the state of Oregon.

"My contract [with Nike] is up at the end of next year," Hughes added, "and if the company knows that I'm not racing on the Diamond League circuit, what's the point of them investing money in me if I can't be seen with their shoes on or their logo on my chest? I think there's still a lot of information that needs to be given to the athlete."