What if we were to facilitate a league of Track & Field competitors and competitions in America? What would that look like? What could that be?
The mission of such an endeavor would be simple – develop an entertaining, financially sustainable and profitable professional league that develops highly competitive American talent in Track & Field events including Cross Country, drives success in international, World Championship and Olympic competition and spreads an infectious public interest in the sport.
It would utilize existing clubs and create new clubs around the nation so cities/towns/regions could have a rooting interest in their local teams. Like British football has “supporters” of Newcastle United or Chelsea or Arsenal. It would play up that sense of community and let the teams battle it out in a points system earned in scheduled events over the course of the season.
Earn points for duel meet victories. Stage match races like Sea Biscuit versus War Admiral in 1938. Even stage event-only meets. Like Rodeo has a separate pro bull riding circuit, imagine a Pole Vault-only event. Earn points on other invitational meets during the course of the year (Millrose Games, Penn Relays, maybe fold in some road races and world/national cross country). Think about golf’s FedEx cup or NASCAR’s Winston cup determines an overall winner for the year.
A team they can invest themselves in and a result or team championship they can root for. Celebrate victory and wallow in defeat until next year like Major League Baseball (MLB).
Simply, what’s missing in modern American Track & Field is the team and personal investment that gives fans multiple ways of engaging with the sport and their favorite athletes.
The USATF is the American governing body our sport, but in order to understand the opportunity, it is important to understand the development of other successful sporting models.
The first “national amateur championship” of golf was contested at Newport R.I. Golf Club in September of 1894. The runner-up, Charles Blair Macdonald at that time called for the formation of a governing body for the game. The Amateur Golf Association, later the USGA, was formed at the end of the year by five charter clubs.
America’s first golf magazine, The Golfer, was first published at the end of 1894 and the next year, the first official national amateur and open championships were contested at Newport Golf Club. Horace Rollins won the first $150 champion’s purse. To acknowledge the growth the game of golf has seen, the 2013 winner, Justin Rose, took home $1.44 million for his victory.
American golf pros were considered working class and paid accordingly only until fairly recently. It wasn’t until the 1920s that a so-called “winter tour” was organized in California and throughout the South that allowed the club pros from the closed northern clubs to compete against each other for prize money and supplement their incomes.
In the early 1920s, Walter Hagen became the first purely touring golf professional in America. Not aligned with any club, Hagen traveled the country playing in pro events and exhibition matches making a very good living. He was the first to break the mold of the pro as a working class grunt. “I don’t want to be a millionaire,” he once famously said. “I just want to live like one.” What later became known as the PGA Tour bloomed steadily as popularity of the sport grew throughout the 1950s. It saw major spikes in revenue through the 1960s television revolution with Arnold Palmer and again in the 1990s with the unheard-of popularity of working class personality John Daly and breakthrough star Tiger Woods.
That said, the evolution and development of the PGA Tour, European Tour and Wold Golf Championship series is a particularly strong model for development of a USA Track Tour or Series.
We have a history of it. We love racing and we love underdogs and dynasties alike. Give us a chance to root for a team and we will. NASCAR is the most popular sport in the country. The Boston Marathon is the longest continuously run sporting event in America and the people of Boston and New England love it not because of the elite athletes, but in spite of them. Every November, the New York City Marathon hosts the same story. Millions of fans come out to celebrate and cheer on the 4-hour runners with every bit the same amount of enthusiasm as the winners – for the same reason. The last weekend in April every year sees Philadelphia light up with the joy of the Penn Relays Carnival, which, lets not forget is mainly a 3-day schoolboy and schoolgirl race meeting in front of 40,000 fans.
Throughout the late 1930s, culminating with an astoundingly publicized match race in 1938, SeaBiscuit was an inspiration to a nation suffering the depths of the Great Depression:
In 1973, a deeply divided nation navigating the chaos of the Watergate scandal embraced Secretariat making a run at the Triple Crown:
On a Monday in June, when Rocco Mediate and Tiger Woods teed off in a playoff to decide the 2008 US Open Golf Championship, the New York Stock Exchange trading volume dropped 9.2%. Some called it the “Tiger Effect,” but it was the nature of the head-to-head competition and the personalities of the competitors that made it happen.
Track & Field has all of this drama built-in.
It doesn’t require excess production. It only requires an understanding of the personalities and the competition.
The critical mass required to begin starts with a real interest from the athletes, the organizers and the management of each of the clubs initially involved. It’s not quite as simple as just scheduling a calendar of events like the beginning of the PGA Tour. A more achievable perspective comes from looking at the English Premier League in soccer.
Depending on interest, level of sponsorship and organization, start with about five “charter” clubs with elite athletes from different geographical areas in the country. The likeliest first two are the NJ/NY Track Club and Nike’s The Oregon Project – these two from the strongest markets from a fan perspective and located on opposite sides of the country. Then add clubs from:
The clubs will be individual entities each holding a share in the “league” with an interest in its success and growth. Athletes could be incentivized with share or partner agreements.
Develop a mode of adding individual elite athletes from other locations competing for individual honors.
Fill out the fields with high-level local talent, both professional and amateur. Encourage school-age phenoms like Alan Webb and Mary Cain in their generations when they appear.
Schedule a series of different meets open to all of these clubs.
Let them compete, earning points toward team honors AND individual honors throughout the “season.”
Start with a ten meet series. Maybe five home meets. One in each club’s location in the spring/summer and one during the fall/winter months.
Add primers for performances in major US road race competitions, international competitions and national and world record performances.
Make the events specific and over time, add unusual distances to the schedule for World and American record attempts. When rivalries crop up, as they most certainly will, stage match races for the top two or three or four competitors. Use pace setters where needed for the record runs.
Inevitably, some clubs will end up with more talent in specific areas. Field events versus sprints versus distance or middle distance talent. But the overall points for the team competition and a limited number of events in each meet should encourage the clubs to be diverse enough to go after the team championship. This is very much like, and just as compelling, as the races for different color jerseys in the European Grand Tour bike races every year. Think of the Tour de France yellow race leader’s jersey, the green sprinter champion and the polka dot king of the mountains.
Each meet could include youth and masters programs to drive attendance on either side of the “prime time” televised portion of the program.
A tent facility could be put up with outdoor/temporary showers and locker rooms to support all athletes, elite AND youth/masters. This would engender a sense of community and familiarity between the pro athletes and the non-pro athletes that no other sport could possibly support or promote.
Over time, each event could support a corporate hospitality area in the vein of the tent-cities the mark golf’s major championships and every PGA Tour event.
Presuming the league generates a significant amount of traction with fans, there is another level of interest that could be leveraged – like baseball has with its minor leagues and unaffiliated minor league teams. The PGA Tour has likewise leveraged great success with what is now known as the Web.com Tour and its other mini-tours.
There is an entire population of runners, jumpers and throwers graduating Div 2 and 3 schools and athletes in Div 1 who did not have the opportunity or timely growth to develop during their school years who would certainly welcome an opportunity to continue competing after college. These are the athletes who have either not yet made the jump or don’t know if they can make the jump to the world-class ranks. But they are still rugged competitors and fun to watch for fans. A developmental league in non-competitive cities could and should be created as another feeder program into the big league.
Again, like the British soccer example, clubs who meet specific criteria during a season can be bumped up or down a peg in the different league levels.
To support it’s players during the off season, baseball’s farm system in the 1920s and 1930s, would find players work in the towns where they played creating a largely semi-pro developmental organization that supported MLB. Corporate America has instituted similar programs to support Olympic athletes in the past with mixed results. Look at Brian Sell of the Brooks Hanson Project and others working for The Home Depot in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Games.
The Grand Tour
An interesting potential for the multi-dimensional distance running fans: A running take on the Grand Tour in cycling. Have a multiple-day race where the athletes compete over different distances each day. Include time-trials and mountain stages, a long distance race (say 10 mi, half or even full marathon) and short middle-distances like 600m or 800m. Complicate the effort with one day where athletes need to double or triple with more than one race over 24 hours.
The belief of mainstream sports broadcasting for track and running events has always seemed to be “well, they just want to see the sprints, so just show them the sprints and events where Americans win.” What has made this approach fail in the past is that the fundamental premise is NOT TRUE.
More than anything else, fans want to be introduced to personalities doing something extraordinary. When you cultivate the personalities and the personas, the natural drama of the competition carries the narrative. American golf suffered this fate for a generation when all players seemed too mechanical. It took an outsized personality the size of John Daly to break the boredom.
Track and field in America has always been broadcast as some kind of novelty act. This approach needs to be discarded completely. It needs to be covered like any other sport. Use track-specific terminology. Describe things the way they happen and expect that the audience will understand, because they will.
Look to the expert coverage of Phil Liggot and Bob Roll throughout the three weeks of the Tour de France. The strategy of professional road cycling is as complicated as it comes. They don’t talk down to their audience like track analysts do: “a mile is about four laps of your typical high school track.” They explain things simply and use the real terminology – lead out man, breakaway, chase group, peloton, echelon, &c. And the audience goes with them. It doesn’t need to be a remedial class. That is disrespectful to the audience and what’s more, they know it. Which is why they choose not to watch.
The broadcasting style needs to be revamped entirely to inject a local/team perspective to get even novice fans invested in the outcome of the competition. Today’s coverage relies far too heavily on star reputation rather than potential outcomes or enthusiasm and fan obsession with the effort. So many of us want to put ourselves in the place of our heroes in our own minds. We need to stop putting them on Greek pedestal columns and let them just seem to be humans overcoming obstacles. Attainable admiration is the term of art.
Another intriguing possibility is staging events out of context to generate fan interest – Cinder tracks, cross country, street races and even winter events held outdoors. The NHL has utilized this strategy exceedingly well for more than a decade with their outdoor hockey series they call The Winter Classic.
The vision must include making each meet an EVENT – a HAPPENING – A part of the community in which it occurs – A CARNIVAL that drives:
This model is perfect to support event sponsors, team sponsors and individual sponsors. It’s possible to have them all. Again, just look to European Soccer with stadium wall ads and sponsored team uniforms and individual players.
To address some of the shoe company issues, look at the international soccer teams and ask how quickly you can identify which team is which by their uniforms. They are all plastered with corporate logos and only in the team shop do the jerseys say Man U or Real Madrid. The teams are known by their sponsors AND their colors which is good for the Brookses and New Balances and Nikes of the world – and the individual teams, too.
Across the country, there are:
In short, THERE IS MARKETABLE INTEREST IN THE SPORT that, if channeled properly, could give birth to a true, entirely new professional industry. There are plenty of people out there craving it, they’ve just never been offered the right product.
Having a largely US-centered tour will encourage the development of home-grown talent and help our prospects in international competition, World Championships and Olympic Games. Success in these events, in turn, will grow enthusiasm for the sport among the general US population and help grow the native sport overall.
That said, we can have invitational events where we bring in international talent to compete against our best. The Diamond League already has a corner of this idea, but both the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup and the European Tour’s Race to Dubai do it bigger and better. Let them earn points toward a big payday if they run enough of our events. With so many foreign athletes living and competing in America, this should be a simple prospect to entertain.
Q: Is it imperative that the athletes be independent contractors? A: Not necessarily.
Q: Can the teams create their rosters based on what they think their audience will watch? A: Yes, to a point. But the league will need to regulate to keep the competition intriguing for the audience. This is imperative to the success of the endeavor.
Q: Will we end up with a slate of all 100m athletes because that’s what some TV network thinks the market will watch? A: Possibly, but not if we’re careful. We know that kind of thinking is wrong, we just need to prove it.
Q: The league will have it’s own governance (commissioner), but will the governing bodies (USATF, IAAF) get behind an effort like this? A: Unknown.
Build on a truly American tradition of track & field excellence that dates back to 1896 and before, but build it atop another truly American tradition of excellence in promotion and entertainment that dates back to PT Barnum. Track & Field is a sport, and a great sport, but it is also fan passion and as a result, entertainment. Make it fun and compelling for the fans and the rest will take care of itself.
Start with one event as a proof of concept, then reach out to the core teams to start building a schedule of events. Perhaps the first season is just 3 or 5 events, but give the fans a taste of something extraordinary and they’ll keep coming back for more.