(1) Lots of EXPOSURE, as in TV time. Not twice a year. Every week or more often (in season).
(2) HOMETOWN fans/support.
(3) Fans know athletes as FACES with STORIES and PERSONALITIES.
Now, we tried to make this happen in track before on a global scale. We'd have a couple big names that everyone knew and loved who represented their home COUNTRY, the good ol' USA, against the baddies from the USSR or wherever. But this only works for a couple superstars and only every 4 years.
So what should we do? Simple: You need PROFESSIONAL track TEAMS, that's full squads that compete against each other in MEETS during a track SEASON with weekly televised competitions. These need to be SCORED meets with WINNERS and LOSERS featuring teams with NAMES and MASCOTS and HOME CITIES.
How do we accomplish this? Pretty much every pro track athlete in the US is on a team. Your sponsorships are separate from your team membership so brooks and adidas and nike athletes can all be teammates. You do not need to move to the home city of your team but you need to live and mostly train in your team's REGION (Southeast, Southwest, New England, etc.). You show up for meets and run hard. Even if you are running for sixth place because your team needs POINTS. Get viewers excited about scoring 3 points in the javelin and 4 points in the disc cause the team title is on the line. Double back and run some RELAYS.
Don't like my idea for the pros? Fine, it's a pipe dream anyway. But we should at least be doing more of this on the NCAA level. Let's say you're a Florida football fan, you flip on the telly and you see that good ol' University of Florida is two events away from WINNING IT ALL at the SEC Championships, are you gonna flip the channel? Maybe not. NCAA track could make it big on school spirit if someone put some effort into making track meets watchable. That means keeping you posted on team scores minute by minute. Telling you who to look for in which events. The works. It means more SCORED MEETS during the season and promoting conference championships.
All it would take is (1) televise the meets as described above, (2) ESPN just adds a few track tidbits in their daily routine (preview of the SEC meet, who've you got? A&M looks good, etc). Give people the impression that it's NORMAL to watch track, and it will be. People will watch what you put on TV. And track on TV could be so much more exciting with a bit of effort. Team scores! Backstories! Split screens, multiple simultaneous events! Seriously, why would anyone get excited about the high jump when they only show it once every 25 minutes and don't tell you what happened in the meantime? But how could you not be excited if your team needs 4 points to win and you just saw this jumper who lives in your hometown barely miss her last clearance and she has one more attempt left?
Now before you start naysaying, let me add that I've seen all of this sort of stuff happen live in person. It was not two weeks ago at the NCAA finals in Eugene Oregon.
1. Everyone in Eugene knows it's track town USA, people go to multiple meets a year, it's ACCEPTED and NORMAL to watch track for many people. It's a HABIT. Track isn't watchable? Tell that to these people (they are not all runners either).
2. Even at a live event we got some backstories from the announcers, like on Dukes in the 200m or whoever. It's not hard to put some stories with the names. Then all you need is for people to see the names more than once in their lives and you have fans.
3. There is a HUGE hometown fanbase just going crazy for UO in every event. Women's shot? Check. Men's 1500m? Triple check. Men's jav are you kidding me? You know how excited that crowd got when their boy Crouser passed Dykstra on his final throw to win it all? And I saw fatties with their portable stadium chairs and hotdogs who had probably never run a step in their life going crazy jumping up and down when the women's 200m came around the bend. You know why, cause GO TEAM, that's why. I dare anyone to go to that meet and tell me track can't be big in the US.