State of the Sport

Hey all. It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post, but I’ve been inspired! I did an interview on Runnerspace with Paul Swangard last week (you can view it HERE) about the state of the sport and what could be done between now and the 2028 Olympics to improve it, and ever since then that topic has been on my mind. Part of it is because I wasn’t really satisfied with my answer. I rambled on about the problems without suggesting any real concrete solutions. So I want to make up for that (sorry Paul). And the other part is I really do have strong feelings about this. I’ve been a sports fan since I was five years old, a track fan since I was 12, and I’ve been involved in all aspects of the business side of running my entire adult life. As such, I do believe I am seeing these problems, and the potential solutions, through an experienced lens.

Saddle in though. This one takes a while. It’s sort of like listening to a 90-minute podcast, a good one I hope. One that really explains context in a way that just can’t be done in a 15-minute interview, a five-question Q-and-A, or god-for-bid—a tweet. Here goes:

The basis for all of this is one question Paul asked me last week (and I’m paraphrasing), “What do you think can be done between now and the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles that would have the sport in a better spot than it is now?”

My answer was this (paraphrasing again), “I hope that by 2028 we’re in a place where the Olympics is no longer the pinnacle of our sport.”

What I meant by that, and what I’ll try to explain below, is that for about the last 50 years being classified as an “Olympic Sport” has not been a good thing. At least it hasn’t been good if you want your sport, and those involved in it, to make money, and if you want it to be a part of the mainstream sports consciousness more than once every four years.

 

This is a screenshot of the ESPN.com dropdown menu from its navigation bar. The NFL, NBA, MLB, Soccer, NCAA Football and MMA have direct links on said nav bar. The dropdown menu features all other sports. We fall under “Olympic Sports.”

 

So what was the sports landscape like fifty years ago and what changed? I’ll tell you. And be forewarned, I’m speaking mostly of the sports landscape in the United States at the time, but it’s become very much a global landscape ever since. In 1970, we were two years removed from a very successful, but controversial Olympics for the U.S. in Mexico City in 1968. These were the Games where Tommy Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium and raised their fists, with black gloves on, in support of the Olympic Project for Human Rights after winning the Gold and Bronze Medals in the 200 meters. These were the Games where Bob Beamon broke the world record in the long jump, a record that would stand for nearly twenty-three years. Al Oerter won his fourth straight Gold Medal in the discus and Dick Fosbury (of Fosbury flop fame) won the high jump. These guys were all household names. Contrast that with the relatively little fanfare outside of the running world for Matthew Centrowitz, the 2016 Gold Medalist in the 1500 meters. Shoot, in 1969, Steve Prefontaine—a high school distance runner, was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. That’s inconceivable today.

But you know what’s not inconceivable? A 21-year-old Tiger Woods being on the cover of any number of magazines in 1997 when he won the Masters—golf’s most prestigious tournament, or Serena Williams—tennis’ most dominant player of the last 20 years being called one of the greatest athletes of this century. Dale Earnhardt Jr, Jimmy Johnson, and Danica Patrick—NASCAR drivers—are all household names today. But track? We have one. He’s retired. His name is Usain Bolt.

But enough negativity. Let’s get back to how the heck this happened. How did golf, and tennis, and race car driving (and the list goes on), pass up track and field? The answer is very simple; they became professional in every sense of the word. In the case of golf and tennis, arguably the two most parallel sports to our own, it was one man who made it happen. His name was Mark McCormack. A lawyer, McCormack began organizing one-off golf exhibitions in the United States in the 1950s. At that time, golfers really didn’t make much money. The winner of the 1955 Masters, for example, pocketed $5,000—$48,000 in today’s economy. These exhibitions were chances for the players to make money above and beyond what was being offered within the confines of their sport. Then, in 1960, McCormack founded IMG (International Management Group) and signed Arnold Palmer as his first client. Almost immediately, he turned Palmer’s stardom into dollars, negotiating endorsement deals with golf equipment companies unlike anything Palmer, or any other golfer, knew was possible. He’d eventually sign Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as well, and by 1970 the Masters winner was making $25,000—$166,000 today. And the sport has never looked back; the 2019 winner took home a check for just over $2 million dollars, thanks in part to a bump in the sport’s popularity this century from the aforementioned Woods.

In tennis, McCormack followed much the same playbook, signing the game’s top player, Australia’s Rod Laver, in 1968. But he didn’t stop with the players. He and IMG also took on Wimbledon—tennis’ equivalent of golf’s Masters, as a client. Why would he represent a tennis tournament? So he could sell the television rights. And sell he did. As recently as 2016, the year Arnold Palmer died, three of IMG’s biggest clients were still Palmer, Wimbledon, and golf’s Open Championship (aka the British Open). The bottom line is golf and tennis took off. The combination of star players like Laver in tennis and Nicklaus and Palmer in golf, plus the amplification of each sport’s biggest events—known as the Grand Slams in tennis, and the Majors in golf, sent these two “country club” sports into a whole new stratosphere. Meanwhile, someone like McCormack was nowhere to be found in our sport in the 50s and 60s, and couldn’t have been if they’d wanted to. Our sport was essentially being run by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Avery Brundage—a curmudgeon who believed in the ideals of amateurism and fought hard against the commercialization of the Olympic Games.

Brundage, an American and an Olympic decathlete, became the president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), track and field’s governing body at the time, in 1928. For all intents and purposes, USATF is today’s AAU just for context. As early as 1929, one year into his tenure, we know that U.S. sprinter Charlie Paddock complained that the sport’s officials were making money by using his image and likeness while Paddock, an amateur, made nothing. Sound familiar? Brundage’s reign continued in much the same way for the next four-plus decades. He became IOC president in 1952, and remained so through 1972. During his reign, certain Olympic sports like, you guessed it—tennis, were more liberal than others in fighting back against the idea of utter and complete amateurism. Boxing was another. But track and field, firmly under Brundage’s thumb, never budged. However, it wasn’t for lack of trying on the athlete’s part. The list of track athletes who fought against Brundage, and against amateurism, is long and includes names like Babe Didrickson, Paavo Nurmi, and of course—Steve Prefontaine.

And I’ll get back to Prefontaine in a second. After the ’72 Olympics and after Brundage’s tenure as IOC president had come to an end, a professional track league, called the International Track Association, was formed. The idea was to mimic the transformation happening in golf and tennis and to professionalize track and field. There would be a series of meets (aka a tour) featuring the sport’s biggest stars. A man named Michael O’Hara, who had worked in basketball and hockey, was behind it. Now we were getting somewhere. In the league’s four-year run from ’72 to ’76, 51 total meets were attended by half a million spectators and seen by more than 300 million television viewers. Not terrible. But it could have been so much more. The problem was, once again, the AAU and the Olympics. The AAU immediately announced that any athlete that competed in the ITA would be banned from all its competitions and would not be allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. The IAAF (now World Athletics) announced that any records set in ITA competition would not be ratified. The athletes were faced with a tough decision; forego your Olympic eligibility to turn professional and get in on the ground level of an unproven entity, or stick with what you know and what you’ve been dreaming about since you were a little kid; becoming an Olympian. If you’re reading this you’ve likely seen Without Limits, so you know what Pre did.

And he wasn’t the only one. The ITA’s inability to persuade the sport’s biggest start to jump ship is almost inarguably the number one reason for its demise. Think about other sports leagues that have popped up over the last fifty years from basketball’s ABA, to football’s USFL and more recently, the XFL—it’s always been the lack of top players willing to leave the more established league that doomed them. Of course, in our sport, it wasn’t deciding between two professional options. It was deciding to remain an amateur v. turning professional. But if you’re saying to yourself, “Gosh, I wish the athletes would have banded together and all gone pro—then surely the AAU, and the IAAF, and the IOC would have caved,” I ask you to really think about it. In fact, think about it even today. There have been countless times over my 25-plus years in this sport where our American athletes have expressed their disgust with USATF, and World Athletics, and the IOC, over one thing or another; from uniform guidelines, to Rule 40, to compensation (or lack thereof), and the list goes on and on. But to my recollection, only once has an athlete ever actually not gone to an Olympics or World Championships in defiance of one of these rules—Nick Symmonds, who passed on his spot at the 2015 World Champs rather than sign USATF’s policy regarding exactly when and where he would be required to wear his USATF-issued Nike gear in Beijing. His sponsor at the time was Brooks, and Symmonds found the policy confusing and restrictive.

“This is hopefully the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and maybe, finally, leads to an overhaul,” Symmonds said.

It didn’t.

Okay, I’m being negative again, but bear with me. I like what Nick did. But I also understand why more athletes don’t. It’s the same problem Pre faced in 1972. The Olympics (and today to a lesser extent the World Championships) were, and still are, ultimately the best way for an athlete in our sport to make money. Not directly of course. The money a U.S. athlete receives for competing at the Olympic Games is paltry. U.S. Track and Field Trials first, second, and third place finishers receive $10,000, $8,000, and $6,000 respectively. Better than zero I suppose, which is what it was in 1972. But in both cases, competing at the Olympics was worth money to individual sponsors. In ’72 those payments were under-the-table, and today they are above board, though still cloaked in secrecy via non-disclosure agreements. Either way, exposure is the name of the game, as it is in all sports—particularly television exposure. And for track and field, the Olympics is still the platform, far and above all other available options, that provides the most exposure.

But can we change that? Boom. Told you we’d get back to answering the original question. And I think the answer is yes. I mean, of course it’s yes. Of course it’s possible. I’ve already shared how golf and tennis did it. Heck, I’ll give you an even better example; the marathon. I told Paul that my hope was that the Olympics would no longer be the pinnacle of our sport by 2028. I would argue that’s already the case with the marathon. The Abbott World Marathon Majors have followed the golf and tennis playbook and created signature events that occur every year, at the same time on the calendar, and those events have grown and grown in every measurable way from entries, to television ratings, to advertising dollars, to athlete compensation (though more through appearance fees than prize money). As such, these events now provide an athlete more exposure than the Olympic Games. Anecdotally, what do you think of first when you think of Meb Keflezighi? Is he the Olympic Silver Medalist or is he the Boston and NYC Marathon Champion? What about Des Linden? Is she a two-time Olympian or is she the first American female to win Boston since 1985? And of course this took time. You have to be in it for the long haul. Deena Kastor, at least in my mind, is the Olympic Bronze Medalist before she’s the Chicago and London Marathon Champ. The Majors, when she won them in 2005 and 2006, were still on the rise. Remember how badly Paula Radcliffe wanted an Olympic Medal to validate her marathoning career? Nowadays that would be nice, but I certainly don’t think Eliud Kipchoge’s 2016 Gold Medal is held in higher esteem than his performances in Berlin or London. Let’s be real, it’s not even held in higher esteem than his sub-2 time trial.

So there you go, it’s possible. And I’ve established that when I say “our sport,” for the purposes of this post, I am talking about track and field (aka athletics). I believe strongly that road racing and track and field should be two different entities. They remind me of Formula 1, INDYCAR, and NASCAR. There is obviously overlap in terms of not only athletes but also fans, however, they are too different to all operate under one umbrella. It’s too complicated. And in many ways the World Marathon Majors do operate almost independently from World Athletics. Which, it’s hard to argue, is a good thing because look how well they’ve done. But I digress. That’s for another post. Let’s get back to the task at hand—concrete ideas for track and field’s growth.

In my rambling during Paul’s interview I used the cliché, “think outside the box,” and I went on and on about a number of things including the factions even among track fans—sprints, jumps, throws, and distance. I am not saying I was completely wrong. I do think we need to think outside the box in regards to some things, and I do think the clear factions in our sport are a problem. However, I was intrigued by what Paul said when he mentioned the success of the festival atmosphere at certain track meets. While I may not have been completely wrong, I don’t think Paul could’ve been more right.

The Olympic Games. The World Championships. The U.S. Olympic Trials. The NCAA Championships. The Drake Relays. The Penn Relays. All of these meets are multiple days, with every single official track and field event being contested (more in the case of Drake and Penn). And they are all wildly entertaining and successful. To clarify—I never said the Olympics weren’t super fun—only that I think we can do even better. But these are the meets I started thinking about when Paul used the word festival. And then I started thinking about the majors in golf, which have become week-long events with fans paying top dollar even to watch Monday and Tuesday practice rounds (cue Allen Iverson “practice” rant). And I started thinking about the grand slams in tennis—two week affairs held at venues that have become shrines to the sport. I’ve been to the U.S. Open twice and I can tell you that from the moment you walk through the gates you are at a party.

So after all these thoughts about the fun I’ve had at the U.S. Open, and at the Olympic Trials, and at Drake, etc. I started thinking about the Diamond League and the recent moves by Seb Coe and World Athletics to shorten the length of the meets by cutting events. Moves, by the way, that when originally announced, I wasn’t necessarily against. For what the Diamond League is, packaging the meets specifically for a certain television time block, and a certain television audience, is probably fine. But as I told Paul, the Diamond League just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t get it. I watch it and it doesn’t seem exciting at all. I don’t understand what’s on the line. They try to have it culminate in a Final but the Final doesn’t really look much different than any of the other meets. And it’s run by World Athletics, the sport’s national governing body whose number 1 and 1A focus is the Olympic Games and the World Championships. So they inherently have no incentive to create something that surpasses those events in prestige.

Now to this point, I’ve been very factual and grounded, borderline cynical even. But if we want to take a crack at creating something new, I have to delve into some hypotheticals. I have to skew optimistic. So here we go. Let’s create some “majors” for track and field—four annual events that can showcase the sport at its highest level, that can attract fans from all over the globe to attend, can look good on television, and can eventually be more meaningful to the athletes than the Olympic Games. Here’s what I think they could be:

1) THE PREFONTAINE CLASSIC – Eugene, Oregon, United States of America: Right off the bat we buy this out from under from the Diamond League. You know those World Athletics big wigs don’t like slumming it in Eugene anyway. Held in late May (prime track season in the U.S.), we transform “Tracktown” like Vin Lananna did in 2008, 2012, and 2016 for the Olympic Trials. The meet becomes a week-long celebration of the sport, and a full-on party, complete with patrons chugging beers at the Deschutes Brewery Tent during the meet and heading over to the Wild Duck every night for a few more afterward. Every single event is on the docket (yes- even racewalking). But we split it up. We don’t make sprint fans sit through the 10,000. And we don’t make distance fans watch the 200. Each day is packaged into two “blocks.” Field event fans can buy a day pass on Wednesday to watch the Throws. Then we clear things out and distance fans can watch back-to-back 10,000s on Wednesday night. And so on and so on, you get the picture. It becomes a huge deal to win a Prefontaine Event. Winners get something unique. I heard a Green Jacket is already taken, but I am sure someone smarter than me can come up with a winning idea.

2) THE CHAMPIONSHIPS – London, England: Those Brits are so pretentious. We wanted to name this one after someone like Paula Radcliffe or Daley Thompson but, like the Open Championship in Golf, they have to be different. Okay, whatever, that’s fine. Held in late June, this thing tries every year to out-do Prefontaine. They too, have beer—lots of it. And don’t even get me started on the fish and chips. Plus, this is the longest of the four meets. They technically hold the opening ceremony two weeks before the meet ends, but that’s just so they can call it a fortnight. Otherwise, it’s pretty much the same format as Pre (it’s going to work so why mess with a good thing). The big difference is the fans, who break out into organized chants just like they do at their other favorite sport—football (aka soccer).

3) THE GERMAN OPEN – Berlin, Germany: Track fans in this part of Europe are awesome. There is no way you could have a set of majors without one being in Berlin. You hold it in late July and you let the Germans do their thing. They are going to put on one heck of a show. After all, this is the same country that hosts the Berlin Marathon after party at a full-on night club and had Eliud Kipchoge walk through the crowd like he was a heavyweight boxer entering the ring before a fight to the tune of We are the Champions after he set the World Record.

4) TOKYO MEET OF CHAMPIONS – Tokyo, Japan: I don’t know why we called it the Tokyo Meet of Champions. High School Meets here in the U.S. are sometimes called that and they seem pretty cool so we tried it. This is the last “major” of the calendar year. The athletes bring it because this is the end of their season. We hold it in mid-October, the same time that the 1964 Olympics were held. Hey- some callbacks to the Olympics aren’t the worst (even if we are trying to outdo them). The fans in Japan roll out the red carpet for the athletes—they’re treated like kings and queens from the moment they step off the plane. While no major outshines the other, secretly it means a little more to the athletes to win in Tokyo.

Answers to questions I know you’re asking:

Q: What about money? Who’s going to pay for all of this?

A: Well remember this is all hypothetical, but in that hypothetical world some billionaire who also happens to be a track and field fan fronts the money to get this thing started as its owner. But he or she pays a management company (like an IMG) who knows what the heck they’re doing to manage it, to sell advertising, etc. By the way this scenario isn’t crazy—Donald Trump started his own football league and so did Vince McMahon—twice. Neither worked but let’s not think about that.

Q: Will fans come from far and wide?

A: Yes! Think about this; believe it or not there actually are a lot of track and field fans in the U.S. But do they fly across the country to watch the Payton Jordan Invitational? No. Dan Lilot drives over from Mountain View but that’s about it. And yet, Drake and Penn sell out every year. Fans love atmosphere. They like the multiple day format. It makes the trip worth their while. Imagine if the U.S. Open Tennis tournament were only one day and featured just a handful of matches? No way that works. It’s the festival piece that makes it what it is.

Q: How do you figure out who gets to compete?

A: Oh boy. That’s a toughie. The nutshell version is that this as-of-yet-unnamed organization will have to also have lesser events, non-majors, which serve as qualifiers for the big dog events. That’s a whole other blog post, but you know what I’m going to say—if golf and tennis can figure it out so can we.

Q: What about teams like yours? Will there be a team component?

A: Thanks for thinking of us, but no. I honestly don’t see full track teams at the professional level being a “thing.” Sprinters needs to be based in warm weather. Distance runners prefer to be at altitude. Coaching staffs would need to be way too large. I think we’d be better off to continue to have teams like ours produce athletes that could compete in these events. So there’s absolutely a place for teams, but not team competition.

Q: What about uniform rules?

A: We encourage multiple sponsors on athlete kits! The more money flowing through this thing the better.

Q: What about all the other events that already exist in track and field?

A: That’s the beauty of it! Very little of what exists already has to be eliminated to make this work. Would this bury the Diamond League? Yeah, probably. But National Championships, and the World Championships, and the Olympics would still exist. The idea is that they just wouldn’t hold the same cache’ that they do now. Again, there are plenty of sports in the Olympics that aren’t “Olympic Sports.” That’s the category we want to be in!!

Thanks for reading.

– Coach Ben

Disclaimer: All the opinions above are mine and mine alone, and though I am 100% serious about the question I believe we need to answer, that does not mean what I’ve described as a solution is what I believe to be the one and only way to go about it. Just having fun thinking about the possibility.

 

Nick Symmonds quote from Business Insider, 2015
Olympic Trials Prize Money totals from USATF.org (2016 Trials)

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