State of the sport- What our sport needs:
While this is primarily a science and coaching blog, every once in a while it’s worth it to delve into the greater issues in the sport. After all, if there is no sport of track and field, then there is no room for coaches. Already in many countries, coaching is a second rate profession that you are lucky to get paid at. In the U.S. the college system saves the professionalization of coaches, which is both a positive and a negative. What I’m concerned with though, is the professional side of the sport.
With the recent announcement by competitor that the elite sections of their road races would be greatly curtailed, and the ensuing commentary from such experts as Toni Reavis and Marry Wittenberg, I felt it would be worthwhile to look at the state of the sport. Essentially, a where do we go from here. Is our sport dieing, do we need to make changes?
Participation vs. competition.
Running is no longer a competitive event. Everyone gets medals. Everyone gets T-shirts. While the participation side of the sport, particularly in road running, is booming, the competitive side is dieing. How can the sports population be increasing with mass numbers of participants in road races, with millions being made at road races and charities involved with them. It’s almost sad, but I think we’d have more luck with a road race set up as a charity to support actual road racing… So why doesn’t it translate? Why doesn’t the top end of the sport feel the boost?
Times Don’t matter, except for track/running geeks:
The masses who run do not care about times. I repeat, they have no concept of times. They know what is “fast” versus what is not fast. In the marathon there are basically three distinctions, hobby jogger, boston qualifier, elite. That’s it. Yes, a world record is appreciated and amazed at, but if you didn’t tell them it was a world record, they’d still think it was fast.
The reason for it is simple, the masses don’t come from the sport background. The people who ran HS track and CC then college CC and track are the ones who care about times. The ones who joined running when they were in their 20’s and started doing the local road races and eventually started supporting their major road races, have little idea. They know what a 24min 5k is, but whether someone runs 14:30 or 12:30, both are out of the realm of comprehension for that person, because both are incredibly fast. No, it doesn’t help to say go to your HS track and run 100m at that pace.
Think of it like this, if you take your standard college 14:40 runner, if someone ran a 5k in 12:00 or 11:00, both would seem unbelievably fast. You’d have no comprehension how someone could run a 5k at either of those paces. It would just be fast.
As another example, one of my friends from HS, Ray, was telling his class how he ran 2:01 for 800m in HS and then about the time he first ran sub 5 for the mile in HS. No offense to Ray, but those times aren’t spectacular. He was a solid but run of the mill HS runner. His classes reaction was amazement that their teacher ran sub 5 in HS. They thought it was amazing. Ray was taken aback and told them how his teammate, me, ran 4:01 in HS. Again, astonishment. But it’s the same reaction whether it’s sub 5 or almost sub 4. Both are “fast”.
If you still don’t believe me, go run a local road race. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve run a road 5k and run 14:50 or something along those lines and got asked by several people afterwards if I was training for the Olympics. It happens all the time. 14:50 to me sucks, but to the general public running a road race it seems “fast”. And if I had run 13:50, for most people there, it wouldn’t change the reaction. I can recall doing very local road races sometimes as a tempo in 15:30 and then actually running it hard and running 14:40’s, and there was no difference in reaction. Both times, it’s, wow you won, you are so fast, are you training for the Olympics.
So, when we set up every road race or every race on the track as a hunt for world records, American records, meet records, etc. we set ourselves up for failure. Because of the rarity of such fast times, the meet or race is set up to be seen by the public as a disappointment. It would be like the NFL setting up every game as an assault on the number of yards rushed in a game or the most points scored in a game. If this was the measurement of the success of a game, almost all would be failures.
Essentially we have set up the sport to be one which relies on outcomes instead of the process. The time should be of secondary importance. In fact, the outcome should be of secondary importance. You don’t hear people talking about how the Houston Texans scored 28 points versus the Giants 21. You hear about how the game developed, the amazing plays that so and so did. That’s what running needs. We need to hear about and marvel at the amazing torrent pace of Sammy Wanjiru, or the tactical games of Nick Symmonds 800m silver. We need drama and storylines. People need to understand how amazing it is to drop a 4:30 mile in the middle of the marathon and to talk up whether the runner will hold on or not. We need to hear about how it’s not the 58sec last lap that Defar throws in that is amazing but the fact that they started to roll 66’s leading up to it to try to exhaust that kick.
The mass east African participation…
This is controversial, but please don’t shoot the messenger. Part of the struggle of the top end sport is that it is dominated by “nameless “East Africans. It’s not their fault, it’s the fault of those promoting them and the road races and track meets requiring such promotion. We know it can be done. The Geb vs. Tergat years showed us how to promote the competition and shift runners from nameless to having personalities and storyline. The same could be said for Bekele or even Rudisha or Kemboi.
But the problem is that when we see a major track or road race if 15 East Africans are in the top pack and only one is well known, it creates a situation where people lose interest, have no connection to the sport or event, and generally lack interest. What we need to fix is when you’ve got 15 East Africans in the top pack of the race, and the public, those who we are selling the performance to have no idea who they are and can’t distinguish them, especially when they all are wearing the exact same jersey…
In major league baseball, they accept the Dominican, Cuban, or Japanese players as their own. Even with the fall of quality “American” players, the teams still thrive. Why? Because, they’ve created a system where you aren’t rooting for countries, but instead teams that represent cities. This system creates the idea that you are rooting for you own, even if the only connection an athlete has to that city is that he lives there because someone paid him 5 million dollars too. Can we get around this problem?
First, there needs to be a separation of the top East African runners. Separate them from being a nameless mass to instead having back stories. It’s extremely difficult to do and it might require a limit of the numbers, and a guarantee multi year reappearance in events so that the public grasps onto the athlete. We need to figure out ways to integrate them in so that people stop seeing a mass of nameless east africans and instead see individual stories.
Secondly, attempt to create some sort of local tie in connection at major events. Our club system is pretty bad right now for top level athletes, or else that would be an option. But perhaps separate it by having athletes represent the closest major city in major road races. Imagine match ups at a NYRR race where you pit NY’s finest runners versus Boston’s.
This has been mentioned by others, but shifting away from a failure insuring outcome of chasing times and to one where the match up becomes the central component is necessary. We need to hype up match ups. We need to be like boxing. We need to have Nadal vs. Federer in tennis. We need Yankees vs. Red Sox.
We have personalities, but when Defar vs. Dibaba never happens, even at Worlds, we have a problem.
And this doesn’t have to happen at only the top flight of the sport. The fact is that you can still make an intriguing matchup without the best of the best there. Sell the stories, sell the race and competition. Make it appear like it’s meaningful for these 8 people on the line, instead of thinking that “well these guys are 13:20 guys so they really aren’t world class so we’re going to treat this like a B race.” The public has no idea that a 13:20 guy isn’t supremely world class.
The Public has no idea:
We need to take advantage of the publics lack of knowledge of times or performances. We need to realize that we don’t need to say WR holder to garner attention. In our insulated world of track, you begin to think you “suck” if you are a 27:40 10k runner at the Stanford invite. It’s a harsh world, but we need to realize that the general public does not think like that.
If you say you are an Olympian, it doesn’t matter if you went out in the first round or made the finals, they think you are good. We need to take advantage of this lack of knowledge and sell events and match ups. Instead of relying simply on trying to get one mega stud in each race at a pro meet, rely on setting up matchups. It’s more entertaining for a crowd, especially of HS, or novice runners, if they see five 8:50 3k runners battle it out with each having their own stories versus Dibaba running 8:20 and the next fastest being 8:45.
No offense, but for the most part the public is clueless on times, it’s time to take advantage of that.
In training, I always harp on translating work. In training this means making it usable. How does a 15mile long run translate into something useful in a 5k race? That’s what we need to figure out. In the world of running, we need to figure out how to translate the mass participation at road races and HS track to usable fans.
As I mentioned above, most of the road running community comes from joining the sport for fitness during their later years. We need to understand what this means and how to reach them. We need to realize that there is not a precise conception of “fast” and that their interests are different from their track running brethren. Above all, we need to show why they should pay attention to that guy who won the race.
Again, I think this comes from creating storylines and connections. Give someone a back story on what the leaders do and where they came from. Then create connections to the public, whether it’s a hometown connection, where they train, what they do, it doesn’t matter. Part of the way to accomplish this is simple.
Require athletes to do more. More before the race and more after. At road races, introduce the top runners on the starting line. No matter how big or small the race is. Secondly, require them to stick around after the race. At road races, where you have your post race “party” set up an autograph booth. It’s a perfect opportunity with runners finishing to have their Bibs signed by the race winner or runner up. I know it feels dumb giving an autograph if you are a guy who makes USA’s but has little shot at making a team or perhaps even the final. But the reality is that if you set it up and the race director makes you look and sound important, it doesn’t matter. I’ve given out more autographs during my crappy years of running local road races to little kids then I ever did when I considered myself “fast.” When I’ve been over in Europe at meets in Belgium, I can’t tell you how happy the locals are to get autographs from random Americans who are perplexed because they are 3:41 1,500m guys who on the big scheme of things don’t think they are that good. It doesn’t matter. They ran in a pro meet, so they are assigned importance.
I look back and think it is akin to when I was a little kid and we’d go to Houston Astro games and before the game I’d try to autographs from players by standing over the dugout. Looking back now, I got a ton of autographs from guys who essentially sat on the bench for a year or two and batted like .240 or had ERA’s of about 4.50. In other words, they weren’t good in the grand scheme of things. But man, as a kid I was beyond thrilled. I got an autograph from someone who was “in the club”.
As long as a meet director makes a runner seem like they are “in the club,” they are important and people will be drown to them. The problem with our sport is we tend to put down all of our runners as if they are not worthy.
And lastly, create continuity. You’ve got to translate those people into fans of the athlete. That means, having people go beyond just cheering for this person at the same road race each year. There needs to be some sort of way to follow the sport. USATF or NYRR or whoever, should start requiring a preliminary schedule of races for each athlete at the beginning of the year. Sure, things might change, sometimes a lot. But to have the ability to follow is lacking in our sport.
If you are an athlete and you have a web page and you don’t have a race schedule so people can follow your progress, I’m not sure what you are doing. And instead of completely ignoring races that went horribly, explain it, report it, and even spin it if you have too. But don’t go awol if a race goes bad.
Fan Base- for the kids:
Beyond the autograph sessions and converting road race fans to running fans, we need to figure out how to keep and retain the track runners. The problem is that we will have more people show up for the TX state meet in one day then will likely show up for USA’s in 2-3 days.
Of course a large part of this occurs because the kids parents show up. It creates a simple easy natural fan base. So how do we take advantage of this fan base and try to convert it into watching pro track?
Simple, combine HS and professional meets. For large HS meets, lets introduce a select pro race or two. Have an elite mile or 100m in the middle of the state meet or the big relay meet that draws a crowd. You start to expose kids and their parents to the elite levels of the sport, and then you have the pros stick around for autographs or to hand out awards afterwards.
For pro meets that struggle to attract people in the stands, introduce HS or middle school select special events into the schedule. Does it suck to have a HS event stuck in a pro meet schedule? Sometimes, yes. But if you get more fans because of it, then so be it. One of the more inventive approaches was at the Harry Jerome meet in Canada a few years ago. They had an elementary school and middle school 4x100m championship with all the local schools. They had preliminary rounds before the meet started, so it was packed with parents and kids alike. Just think how many parents and grandparents show up to support when you have something like 10 heats of 8 teams of 4 each competing. Then, perhaps more importantly, they stuck the finals qualifiers in the middle of the pro meet.
What this did was simple. Instead of only keeping some of the kids and parents around to see the pro meet, you had even more stick around and forced to see the pro meet because they were sticking around to see friends or rivals run in the elementary school and middle school 4x100m championships.
Add in some pro autograph sessions for the kids and you’ve got a set up where you can start to create and attract fans.
The Pro side: Announcing and boredom:
As mentioned previously, I strongly believe there needs to be a switch from time centered contrasts to competition centered. We need to stop setting up meets for failure and boredom.
And to the lay person, a track race can be rather boredom. We need meets that fit in a 2hr window, with little downtime between events. Downtime doesn’t mean a race needs to constantly going on, but rather there needs to be something to focus on. At top level events, I think we need something akin to a ringside MC in wrestling. Have someone on the track in between events. Have someone be in charge of setting up the story for the next race between races. Have someone start hyping match ups and explain why this race is important to the fan.
TV and Announcing
If people can be entertained by sitting through a baseball game for 3hrs, we can find a way to make track exciting. We need to take a hint from the way baseball is run and the way in which fans are entertained during down time like between innings.
Which brings me to one of the most crucial and overlooked components in track. Find a good announcer. Announcing is a tough job, but go watch a meet on TV with a good announcer and then go watch one with a not so good announcer. One is boring, one gets you excited. It’s as simple as that. Announcing makes a huge difference because it sets up the drama. The announcer’s job should be simple. Set up the drama and match ups. Then as the race goes along, provide insight that promotes the drama. Don’t give us random tidbits
Lastly, for the TV side. DO NOT go to commercial mid race in any track race at 5k or under. It’s inexcusable for anything at 5k or under. Go to commercials after the race, just like you would between innings in baseball. I know, you’ve got to get commercials in. Well, go break down any track broadcast and compare the time spent watching races versus the broadcasters talking about random things in between races or doing fluff pieces. It’s ludicrous how much time is spent not on racing or things that contribute to creating drama for the sport. You don’t have NFL games split away during the middle of a down to have an interview.
And lastly, for field events going on at the same time, use the “modern” invention of a split screen, and get rid of post race interviews. Yes, you heard me. Take them out. You gain nothing from listening to someone out of breathe mumble a few things and probably “thank god”. Do you realize that the brain is not functioning too well after an all out 800m? Take out all of that, and bring in a few interviews at the very end of the broadcast from highlight performers who are rested and can speak coherently.
While I may appear particularly harsh on the tv and management side, the reality is that competitor made the decision they did because it makes financial sense. And ultimately the only way things will change is if it makes financial sense for them to support pros. One of the reason is doesn’t, is because of problems with athletes themselves.
Marketing- A change in mindset:
If you market yourself in the world of running, you tend to get a bad name. It’s almost as if we take pride in running an amateur and pure sport and would rather have athletes on food stamps then to succumb to the horribleness that is marketing and self promotion.
Nick Symmonds, Lauren Fleshman, Josh Cox…what do they have in common?
They are all variants of fast. But more so, they all market themselves well. The one who might stick out? Josh Cox.
And Josh Cox, if you listen to some within the sport might as well be the antichrist. Does it have anything to do with his personality or is he an evil guy? I’ve only met him once, but I don’t particularly think so. We all have our faults, but rather Josh Cox gets a bad wrap because he’s probably the single best marketer in the world of running. How else do you explain how a guy who was probably a consistent 2:14-5 guy was able to carve out a niche and transcend and be relevant to the mass of runners.
To me, Josh Cox is a marketing genius. Rather than bash him for being a 2:14 guy who makes a living while some 2:12-2:13 guys have no money, why don’t we ask how he did it, and why can’t the guys who are in the same ball park eke out a living instead of making almost nothing from running. Josh’s example is a prime one of if you are “fast” or “in the club” it really doesn’t matter how fast you are. The public just knows you’re relatively fast.
The point is that once you enter the club, it’s up to you to set yourself apart. Every now and then I get emails condemning myself for “marketing” myself as a coach. Though I don’t really market myself but instead just post things that interest me on twitter and facebook and write blogs that intrigue me. I’ve even got emails from other coaches telling me to stop sharing stuff and instead wait my turn and go through the traditional route of rising through the coaching ranks like everyone else. I’m not sure what that means, but the point is that we need to get rid of this this misconception that runners need to hide away in the forest, Quenton Cassidy style, and only pop out to produce a magnificent performance. That’s great, except it does nothing for our sport…except maybe kill it.
I once listened to a few long time running sports marketing guru’s talk about how things like twitter and facebook make no difference. It’s the 21st century. If technology companies are looking at KLOUT scores for hiring of social media marketers, then it must mean something. It’s free advertising and creation of a brand.
Which brings me to the number one issue in our sport, marketing of athletes. Athletes and agents need to market themselves better. Instead of seeing a sponsor contract as a reward for running X time, they need to see a sponsorship as an opportunity to promote a brand. And the better able they are to give positive exposure to a brand, the more valuable they are to that sponsor.
Companies like Oisselle and Lauren Fleshman’s combination sponsor/work partnership are the innovations we need.
So at the very least, athletes need to do a better job of garnering a following. Establish a fan base. Find your niche. My niche is exercise science geek/coach. It’s not a huge niche, but it garners a following thankfully. Everyone’s got a story to tell but if it never gets out there, then it’s useless. You can look at Lauren Fleshman or Nick Symmonds as examples. Part one is you have to run fast, but part two is you have to be marketable. And it’s not simply setting up a blog or a twitter that matters. It’s about giving interesting, good content.
There’s a reason runners have settled back to only having shoe sponsorships and it is not solely because of jersey restrictions. Instead it’s that most runners don’t have enough exposure and don’t bring enough value to a company. We’ve got to change from this idea that sponsorships are rewards for running fast. They’re not. Running fast simply allows for more exposure.
A niche sport:
The fact is track and running is a niche sport right now. And we need to treat it like other niche sports until, if, we can climb back into the mainstream. We’ve got to be more scrappy, innovative, and daring with how the sport is presented. We can’t just keep doing the same thing, banging our head against the wall, and hope it works. We need to find what our audience is and exploit and expand it. Right now, no one knows who they are selling to at the elite level and the product on display is horribly managed.
The fact is falling backwards despite better times and performances. It’s not the times or performances that are hurting but rather the presentation and marketing of the sport itself. In the U.S. we are saved by the in built HS and college systems. But around the world, it’s being hit even harder. Australia just lost their major sponsor for their domestic pro series. The Europeans have practically given up on the distance races. The attendance at US and European meets that are not majors is pathetic. The attendance at USA nationals sucks unless we go to our life support city of Eugene.
There is an audience out there, we just have to adapt to the 21st century to entertain them. Drama, stories, marketing, and exposure.