The Marketing of Track & Field, A Response


This evening, just as I was closing my computer down, I found a well written and researched article by David Woods of the Indianapolis Star newspaper. The article suggested that our sport still does not know how to market itself. While it has made some progress, and they noted, for example, USATF's Ivan Cropper and his success with Nike, AT&T, VISA and Hershey's, it was also noted that the sport does not have the money nor attention of other sports. Then, David quoted Carl Lewis, who has very little good to say about anything in the sport but himself. Look I think Carl Lewis was an amazing athlete, and his 1996 Long Jump medal is still, in my mind one of the most underrated medals in all of track and field, but he does get a bit of the old ego in the stories. He deserves his praise, he was a trail blazer both on and off the track. But, he continues to play the same broken record.

Here is my two cents:

The sport of track & field ignores its strengths and salivates on its weaknesses. Our strengths are the ties to the Olympics, competition, and the quality of the athletes and people in the sport.

Until recently, we have spent so much time criticizing everything that is wrong with the sport, that we scare potential fans away. The three meets this spring, adidas Track Classic, Reebok GP, and Nike Prefontaine were three of the best meets in the world in the past year. Why? Focused format, great competitions, TV focusing on the competition, great meet management, interested sponsors and strong crowds in the right size facilities.

Carl Lewis did change the sport, with the Santa Monica Track Club, and hats off to Joe Douglas for getting out the money for his athletes at that time. But the sport has changed, and athletes who are no longer on the scene criticizing the sport, it just does not make sense. Some agents have become professionals, some have not. Most of the have nots do not survive anymore. Their athletes are college educated, focused in their sports and in their goals, and they just won't have it. They, the athletes want someone who will work for that ten or twenty percent fee. And the top firms and agents do work for their money.

Sanya Richards, Jeremy Wariner, Yelena Isinbayeva are elite athletes and business people at the same time. When they go to a meet in the UK, they are there early, they do Pr events, just like they do at meets on the elite circuit this spring. They get interviewed, on TV and in print. The do the job and they do it well. If they don't do their job, they don't get invited back, it is that clear and that simple.

For sponsors to find our sport worth investing in, they need to see fans, they need to see interest from the media, and they need to see people who they want to buy products-Latinos, African Americans, teenagers, families, etc. Track & Field has all of that, we just have not figured out how to truly market our sport. Our strengths are in our diversity. Our diversity is not only color, but events, sprints, throws, middle distances, jumps, an event for most fans to check out or be curious about. That is the challenge.

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