Is Track & Field Dying in US? NO, but it is complicated, by Larry Eder

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Demus_LaShinda-Shanghai10.jpgLaShinda Demus, 2010 Shanghai DL, photo by PhotoRun.net

How often do we have to see this story? A BBC writer, wrote this piece about Is Track & Field a Dying Sport in US (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/olympics/18083154)?

At the Olympic Summit, LaShinda Demus noted, and I quote, ""When we get on the track we know we are taking part in a dying sport,". Understand the sentiment, but for an athlete who is making a nice salary from the sport, is that the smartest thing to say, in front of the largest media gathering for Olympic sports outside of the Olympics?


Now, I love LaShinda Demus. I have written about her since she was a junior in high school. I loved watching her win her gold medal and set the AR in Daegu. Her life story is enough for a movie that is captivating to sports fan and just plain human alike. And, the truth is, she has her perception of the sport, and perception is reality.

Part of our problem in this sport is our obsession with minutia. In that obsession, we forget that most fans could care less about wind-aided, altitude this or that. They want to watch a close, gutty race, or a last gasp shot put throw that takes the win. And they want to watch it in an hour, ninety minutes tops.

My first issues with Mr. Slater was, that, again, the answer to his question requires that someone know a bit about the sport. His theme is fine, his facts are a bit off.


Matt Slater,  the BBC writer went on to note that Allyson Felix had run fastest time of the season in Qatar. Wrong. The fastest time for 2012 is from Carmelita Jeter on May 5. Allyson Felix's 10.92, a brilliant win over what will be her competition in London should not be underestimated, but not fastest. Same for Justin Gatlin. Gatlin took some names in Doha as well, but good old Usain Bolt has fastest time in world, of 9.82 for 2012.

Perhaps the problem is, it is easy to write about our sport and how it lags behind major sports, especially for those who cover it once every four years. The demise of track & field and the drug stories are the easiest ones to write. They are also wallowing in half truths. But, unless one looks below the surface, one can not see the issues that are dragging down the sport, and not allowing it to take its place in the global world of sports marketing.


ESPN sports center showed Usain Bolt running against Prince Harry. To my best recollection, they did not show Bolt running 9.82, Yohan Blake running 19.91, or Allyson Felix running 10.92. They do not show the top 100 meters each week, or a great finish of the week. However, if someone in the sport does something stupid, it would make ESPN. It is hard not to be cynical over that. It is hard to imagine that sponsors do not make a comment on that front either. 

Unless the money is in front of them, ESPN and other media groups will not cover a thing. Remember the Golden League? In 2003, I believe, we got it on ESPN at last minute. I know, I sold the sponsorship for the seven meet shows to FinishLine and Nike. Money shows up, wow, amazing, our sport goes on TV. Don't be shocked, I am just amazed that we still do not have a weekly highlights show. And that is with ESPN admitting that track & field events are quite profitable for them. Why? Well, essentially, because, like anything else not produced by ESPN (and owned by them), ESPN gets the shows packaged, paid for and some free ad time to sell. 

What NBC did in 2008 was disappointing. NBC cut track & field coverage for other sports. Imagine that! I always wondered,  was the USOC castigating USA Track & Field for not playing well with others?  Hence, Doug Logan, a man who gave the USOC warm and fuzzy feelings, became CEO for about sixteen months?

However, can you blame NBC? They saw the drug stories on track & field, the stories on the sport's demise all hurting their ad sales. When you pay billions for rights fees, you kind of like to make that money back, and then some. Track & Field did not fit into their ad sales cross hairs. Gymnastics did, swimming did.

Bolt_UsainAutograph-Ostrava11.jpg Usain Bolt and his fans, 2011 Ostrava Golden Spike, photo by PhotoRun.net

Usain Bolt changed all of that. NBC loved Usain Bolt. Next to Michael Phelps, Bolt rocked the Olympic world. In Bolt's paradigm changing approach to track & field, I see the beginning of an answer for our sport.  

In the US, high school athletics has 1.4 million 14-19 year olds running, jumping and throwing in American high schools. That makes cross country, and track the largest sports in high school sports. 9 million high schoolers in sports in 2011-2012, so 1/8 is a track or cross country athlete.

In 2007, I had an intern call all 50 state associations and we estimated paid attendance at the 48 state outdoor track & field meets to be over 356,000. Yep, that sounds like a dying sport.  


The collegiate system has just under 200,000 athletes in cross country and track. In fact, athletics is the kicking boy in college sports. Many reasons. Football & Basketball makes the bucks and Title IX supporters see track, swimming and soccer as three sports to kick around, as they fight for  what remains of  that smaller and smaller dollar for non-revenue sports. But, how can you blame an AD, when a track program has 8 away meets and one meet at home? Can you build a local following? Coaches have to play politics too.   


The USOC loves to brag about how track & field is such a medal winner, however, their inability to work a plan for post collegiate, non-sponsored athletes to train at universities or college campuses is a big question. Many of our potential athletes just do not have anywhere to train. And, they have no money or means to support that training.

For example, this evening, a world class athlete I know, jumped a fence to perform his warm-up for a major meet tomorrow. He could not gain access by legal means. That is a problem that could be cured by some USOC funds and would be well received by US public. 


Our major issues are at the elite side. US track & field athletes are major players in Europe & Asia, and the major meets in US, Nike Pre and adidas Grand Prix outdoors, and New Balance Indoor are sponsored by footwear companies. New Balance Armory, sponsored by NB. In fact, footwear companies are the most consistent and largest sponsors of the sport, on a national and global level. 


Footwear companies sponsor elite side of track in US because they believe it is good for the sport. Road racing in the 1980s nearly killed US distance running, with easy money for mediocre racing, now it is just the opposite.
Today, road running is about finishing, and most elite US runners, with the exceptions of USATF Road Championships, use races only when they help in their long term goals. 

 U.S. elite distance running is coming back, with the support of Nike, adidas, New Balance, Saucony, Mizuno, Brooks and PUMA, among others, sponsoring athletes and events. Footwear companies are already spending over $100 million a year on athletes, track & field and road running in the US. How much more can be asked? 

Running USA, a trade organization for road running, is not attended by the major footwear companies, as they see it as another event that fills an already filled schedule. Why? Because they are inundated with requests, less than professional sponsorship offers, and, most importantly, they do not see the benefits to their businesses. Running USA is actually asking some of the right questions, and well meaning race directors raise significant money each year to help distance training groups across the US. But, does it fulfill a role such as the PGA? Do we have a professional trade group in the sport? Nope.


Road Running, in the US, outside of major events is a happening, not really a sport. Road Running in the US is highly profitable, and the sport of running continues to grow. Elite races are found in Marathon Majors, or in Europe, in US, there is sometimes better competition at a local 5k than at a large 5k or 10k.   

At the coaching level, the US Cross Country and Track Coaches Association has developed into a lobbying organization for the sport, and is the one very meaningful event for college coaches to attend each year. Sam Seames and his team, focused on one goal, giving coaches a voice and giving them a conference each year that they can be proud of. 


USA Track & Field has dug itself out of a financial and ethical hole under Craig Masback. The next almost three years have been cumbersome, and in fact, the IAAF and USATF relationship, which has always been like two ships in the night, accepting each other's presence, but not sure how to not hit each other, continues. Much of the credibility of the NGB fell over the past two years, and yet, in that time, we had a strong showing in the World Champs in Daegu, and had a fantastic showing in Istanbul at the recent World Indoor. Some asked, rather loudly, if we even needed a CEO, as acting CEO Mike McNees kept a low profile and we won medals. 


It is sad that no World Outdoor championship has been held in US. Truth is, a Stanford bid, which could have been well done, was shot down in the late 1990's. The late Dr. Leroy Walker held a US versus Africa meet in 1994 in Raleigh, NC. The blame for not hosting a  World Championships in US has enough blame for all to share.  


If the IAAF and USATF really want a world championship in the US, then find a compromise. A stadium with 20,000 seats, a way around government guarantees. Both governing bodies make it or break it over sponsorship. Surely, a well run World Champs would open eyes of many potential US based sponsors.


It is a vicious cultural circle. Until a World Champs comes to US, major global sponsors, most based in US, will not consider track & field a place to spend $50 million. For the sport to go to the next level, global marketers are needed.  

It is all about presentation and return on investment. I am sure that NASCAR, NFL, MLB and NBA would not look kindly on an athlete calling the sport she makes a living from a dying sport. Yet, said athlete had a point to make, and if she sees the sport like that, how do others see it?


USATF communications mogul Jill Geer was only partially right, when she said that Track & Field in the US has a lack of media. With the digital world growing, there are more and more media groups, from Flotrack, Runnerspace, milesplit, that cover the prep and elite areas of the sport. In fact, from vertical media, there has never been more bloggers, video, digital opps to view the sport. Part of the issue with this plethora of coverage is that, it is hard for the really great coverage to rise above the absolute junk. But, in that plethora of media options, young athletes are more committed than ever to the sport and much more media savvy. 

Rights, such as NBC's world and everything rights for 2012 and especially 2016-oh, don't get me started there! NBC has laid claim (look at their 2016 press release) to technologies not yet developed! Pretty cool. So, in that line of reasoning, I lay claim to any developments on cold fusion in the future.

I actually think, if someone at NBC is really bright, they will open media for 2016 to all online, providing their video and encouraging other video. The truth is, the more coverage of an event, the more value their event has. Track & Field benefits with more coverage, not less. The big idea here, make your coverage unique and interesting.  

Groups like Runners World and Running Network, along with Competitor group, cover road running and track & field. But it is tough, as very little money comes in for track & field coverage, and the few sponsors are inundated with marketing requests and proposals. Freelance writers in track & field and road running? Good luck!

In this challenging time, I still believe that we have the opportunities and market to grow the sport and change the way we are perceived. Over the last four years, I have learnt much from writing on my blog each day. The comments from readers tell me that we have a strong audience and that there are strong ties to the sport, but only if we cover the sport at a higher level. Runblogrun.com gets more readers, the more serious events I cover in track & field. Surprise, surprise! 

Dying sport? Why does Usain Bolt make a reported $28 million over four years? Is it because he transcends the sport of track & field as it is, and makes people laugh and enjoy his competition and post competition? Does he bring something back to PUMA? Trust me, the CEO of PUMA is a smart businessman. If PUMA was not seeing benefits, they would be able to find other places to spend that money.

The opportunity for our sport to grow is there. Elite and emerging elite athletes have to see financial benefits and growth, or they will continue to complain out loud in such events. I am not sure any sponsor is going to get excited about seeing the BBC article on their marketing head's desk and suggesting better ways to spend the millions that they are spending. 


The issue in the US is complicated. Max Siegel, new USA Track & Field CEO, has his hands full. There is another point. USA Track & Field hired Max Siegel, and it was only when I interviewed him, did we find out that the guy has worked in NGB world since 1990! Imagine that, someone who might understand the absolute land mines that are part of the NGB world?

And, is USA Track & Field doomed to failure by having too many responsibilities? 

The success or failure lies in the hand of those in the sport. For the sport to grow, we need new sponsors and a modern approach to media coverage, and ad dollars to support better media coverage. 

So, to answer Mr. Slater's query, Is Track & Field in US Dying. I would say, No, but it is very complicated.

 


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