Fixing USA Track & Field (Commentary)

Tue, 21 June 2011 - 2:53 p.m. MT
Credit: Dave Watt - American Running Association

Fixing USA Track & Field (Commentary) 

Most followers of the National Governing Body for track & field  (road racing and marathons too) are aware that USA Track & Field has been without a CEO for almost 8 months.  The USA Track & Field Championships kick off this week (June 23 – 26) in Eugene Oregon.  

 USA Track & Field may not have a visible paid executive at the moment, but the sport of running and track meets are carrying on as if nothing has changed in the executive offices.   Some would say just let a committee run things right through the London 2012 Olympics.

Track & Field can be argued is the most visible of the Olympic sports.   Sure, swimming and gymnastics have their moments every four years.   Yet Track & Field and marathons and all road racing dwarf these sports in participation numbers.  Swimming is on the rise and has one of the more envied developmental models for other sports.   The swimming club system is directly tied to USA Swimming’s elite athlete development.  On any given weekend, a USA Swim Meet could have events that include age group swimmers in elementary school and elite contenders for spots to compete on the USA Olympic Swim Team.  Their stars will agree to swim and compete at Regional or National-level age group meets year-round.   They garner media coverage and the age-group swimmers get to rub elbows with the stars.  Media coverage is pretty good and generally favorable.

So why do people cringe when asked if they would like to go watch a track meet?   Quick, name one USA star athlete?  Sorry, Usain Bolt is Jamaican.  That’s not what some of our youth think.   Stardom, marketing and charisma have made Bolt a household name.  He is the exception in track & field.  No wonder current top ranked track athletes like David Oliver wonder why media coverage of track is so scarce and at times downright negative.   We do not do a good job promoting our athletes, our college system and the competitive meets themselves.  The other element going against track & field is a disjoint system at the developmental level and the professional ranks.   How often do we see well-promoted and attended track meets? 

One meet stands out and has a winning formula, the Penn Relays.  Penn Relays is to track and field as the Boston Marathon is to marathoning.  Both events have evolved over their 100+ year histories.  Both are located in major US metropolitan cities.  Both have huge fan bases.   Both are on the east coast in April.   What can we learn from the Penn Relays and bring it to other areas in the country or infuse in current track meets?

 

  • One, tie in high school and collegiate athletes.  Guess how you can fill the stands and fans?  Have parents and friends see their sons, daughters and friends compete.
  • Invite select foreign competitors to drum up rivalries
  • Incorporate relays from youth to Professionals (e.g., 4x400 and 4x800)
  • Insist that Professional athletes have meet & greet sessions with fans (e.g.. Nascar, PGA Golf)
  • Run under the lights (put key events in a 90 min window for broadcast TV purposes)
  • Hold the meet in a stadium in a city

 

Festival atmospheres at big meets or events work.  Look at the successful marathons?  They always had EXPOs and music.  Add in some marketing dollars and better venues, courses and destinations and you end up with lots of attendees and competitors.  Track needs to be an experience that is fun and exciting.  At the PENN RELAYS, Nike Running had a minor presence as a sponsor until two years ago.  Nike’s running crew heard all the buzz and realized they had been missing a major opportunity to engage track fans.   Go ask any attendee at the “Relays” the past two years and I bet they will mention the cool Nike Spike Bus and the free braiding and hair cuts.

Track geeks like me will still be in the stands, yet many potential fans are bored.  Even my daughter who competes in track & field in college considers meets long and boring; she loves to run and compete and look at her reaction!

I could go on with new ideas.  I think you get the point.  The sport that had the “Dream Mile” televised on ABC Wide World of Sports in the ‘70s has to get back to the basics to entice the public to notice.   USA Track and Field can boast all they want about increased participation levels in high school and youth running.   Does the public notice and do these competitors care beyond their own participation?



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