Track & Field as a sports discipline has mass appeal globally and is practiced widely save for Cricket and Soccer that have a larger following and this is due to the small financial footprint and overall economic demand they place on practitioners.
The question is why has Track & Field failed so miserably to measure up when in fact more people around the ‘world’ participate in it and also know its top stars more than they do that for Cricket, American Football (Gridiron) and Hockey combined?
Track & Field like a lot of sports disciplines out there has suffered its share of mismanagement from the local to the global level but while other disciplines go through their growing pains they are however making progress in development while Track &Field has stagnated significantly and to add to its woes, it lacks the respect most other sports disciplines have out there because of low earnings as a sport. In fact sports websites around the world save for the countries where the sport thrives (Jamaica, UK) do not have a standalone link for news and happenings in the sport and one of the reasons for this is because the sport spends less in marketing itself and using other channels such as a partnership with sports media organizations who will benefit from such connections equally as they in turn have to dedicate resources to covering the sport.
Running an all encompassing website with its own news division by itself as a governing body and not expanding its reach by marketing through other channels is not a winning strategy by the IAAF and until it changes such strategy it will not be able to attract the major sponsors that will help it elevate the sport to its rightful place in the world.
In the USA, a onetime citadel of the sports that produced greats like Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson, Flo Jo, Gail Devers and John Carlos to name a few, lags significantly behind the big five (NFL (American Football), NBA (Basketball), MLB (Baseball), MLS (Soccer) and NHL (Hockey) in every facet today and like the IAAF the USATF does not have the strategy to play catch up.
Track & Field athletes are some of the least paid in the professional sports world; in fact the sport is so top heavy in its earnings and cash payout strategy (meaning only the big names get the bulk of the small financial windfall the sport has) that the up and coming and the veterans who are always around to provide competitions to the big names do not even come close to earning what the few big names make to allow them to earn a living. One can safely say that this is the very reason why some are involved in unscrupulous methods and doping, so they can climb to the very top and be part of the big earners.
In 2011 the IAAF (the sport’s governing body) lost one of its major sponsors in Samsung (a South Korean Multi-National technology Giant) for its Diamond League meet and has yet to bring another Title Sponsor onboard 4 years on.
In the US college and professional sports stadiums that have been built in the last few years do not even have provision for Track amenities in them. One can look at the most recently constructed stadiums in the US; AT&T Stadium in Dallas (Dallas Cowboys Stadium), NRG Stadium in Houston (Houston Texans Stadium) TDECU Stadium in Houston (University of Houston Stadium) to see evidence of this. It used to be when stadiums were constructed it came along with a Track but not anymore. These are evidence that Track & Field is no longer part of a business model for sports organizations in the 21st century (particularly so in the USA).
So what can the powers that be and stakeholders in the sport do to help move it from the time warp and stagnation that it is stuck in?
All sport disciplines mentioned in this piece have major continental and global competition system like Track & Field, so they match well with each other at the global level but at the local level it is a totally different story for Track and Field which still depends on the schools and college models to connect with fans and that is a big problem.
I say it is a big problem because the schools and collegiate competition systems cannot elevate the sports to a multibillion dollar sports discipline status, neither connect with communities save for parents of athletes and college and school alums that they compete for. Besides there are restrictions for athletes competing as students and corporate sponsorship is only for the benefit of the institution and not the athletes, who besides a scholarship offer cannot enjoy the trickle-down effect of the benefits from corporate sponsorships and ticket sales.
Track Clubs and Track Leagues
There have been some notable Track clubs through time that have flown the flag of the sport but to a very minimal level in terms of attracting corporate sponsorship and community involvement.
Track Clubs like the Santa Monica Track club which had some big name athletes in the sport in the 1980’s and 90’s and the Mohamed Ali Track Club that boasted a roster that included the only man to have ever ran 9.0 Seconds flat in the 100 yards dash before the race distance was changed to the metric system in Houston McTear of Baker town in Okaloosa county Florida, are all but relics of the sports now. There are however a few Track Clubs out there that are lone standouts and voices in the wilderness of a leagueless track world like the Racers Track Club of Kingston Jamaica. The problem is that they are standalone and until a league system is developed and athletes are equitably distributed amongst a set of clubs within a national system clubs like Racers Track Club stands to gain way less than it is capable of now and in the long run.
I believe the ‘Club System and League’ is a model that has yet to be reckoned with, adopted and promoted by the IAAF and national governing bodies around the world as a way to connect with fans at the local level and bring in corporate partners enmasse to boost the sport. Why is this so?
Well for starters if clubs are city or town based like the way NFL, NBA or Soccer Teams are around the world, the community of that city becomes vested in that team. Local companies will provide corporate sponsorship and support them alongside with the fact that fans from that city will not only come out to see them compete against visiting Track Clubs from other cities but also buy jerseys of their favorite athletes on their teams.
We know the only time fans show an outpouring of support for Track stars is during international competitions which come around every two and four years and even at that there is hardly any investment in memorabilia of athletes, which is a major avenue of fund generation for sport disciplines. When was the last time you saw a Justin Gatlin or Allyson Felix Jersey out there worn by fans and if so, why not?
Developing Clubs with ties to cities like Eugene Oregon, New York City, Houston Texas, Orlando Florida that will compete in a national league system in a time slot during the year that allows fans to maximize their participation as far as attendance and TV Viewership goes is a no brainer
The current system in place; the IAAF Diamond League caters only to the elite in the sport (a Top Heavy System) which is not good for the overall health of the sport and as an international system it only draws in the true track and field junkie and does not have a system in place for local community engagement except for those cities in Europe where those meets occur.
With a Track League and Track Clubs system in place; athletes could be drafted out of high school or college and they could earn guaranteed salaries from Contracts signed with their respective clubs which will provide them a livelihood for their careers, just as it is with athletes in Soccer, Basketball and other disciplines out there.
I know some of the burning contentions and question after reading this are;
- What time during the year will such a league take place given the international schedule out there: - Well that is something the IAAF and national governing bodies and current meet organizers will have to discuss and come to terms with if they want the sport to move up in its development and iron out a national league schedule and as well as an International one that does not clash and is beneficial to its athletes and cater to mass involvement in the sport.
- Have you taken into consideration that the Track teams will be large ones per club because of the amount of events and how many athletes will be competing for each club per event? Well the answer to that is the NFL and Rugby are sports disciplines that boast of very large rosters (in the NFL it is 53 players) so why not track and field.
- How will these League competitions run: - Well just like all league competitions it will be a head to head matchup system wherein a City like Houston will Take on a City like Eugene and so on, in fact the NCAA already has a Head to Head system in place where colleges take on each other and that’s a system that can be looked at and studied and a solution determined before a nationwide Track League system is deployed.
Happy Thanksgiving #TrackNation