Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fat Cats and Revolutions

As I've scanned the news on the sport this week a couple of "economy" related discussions have caught my eye. The first was USATF CEO Doug Logan's most recent entry to his blog, he stated that he believes that the current economic downturn will benefit the sport of track and field. How? Well apparently he feels that sports have gotten to be too excessive and catering to the "Fat Cats", and that the fall of these "Fat Cats" opens the door for sports fans to start moving towards track and field - because we are better suited to the "hard hat", "lunch bucket" crowd. As a matter of fact he cites the fact that he's never seen sushi served at a track meet, as proof that we are better suited to the common man.

While Mr. Logan seems focused on the presentation of our product, with respect to his assessment of the current economy and its potential affect on the sport, he is missing the most critical connection between the economy and track and field. That the well being of "Fat Cats" and corporations are critical to the survival and needed expansion of the sport!

It's been tough enough for the sport to gain corporate funding in a strong economic climate such as we had for the first half of this decade. Even with businesses coming out of the 1990's riding the wave of the "Internet Bubble" and coffers filled with money, track and field was the recipient of only a small amount of that money. Sure, we began to see some nice contracts from the shoe companies to individuals like Allyson Felix, Tyson Gay, Wallace Spearmon, Alan Webb and a handful of others, but it was still only a small portion of our athletes that were benefiting. The sport as a whole, especially here in the US, did not garner near the corporate support necessary to grow the sport to where it should be by now into our third decade of "professionalism".

Now, with many of our large companies needing Federal bail outs, facing bankruptcy, or just plain downsizing that really doesn't bode well for the sport. Just how much discretionary spending do we expect from Visa in the near future? When was the last time you saw a GMC Envoy commercial for one of our athletes? Can you remember the last major contract from a shoe company outside of Walter Dix last year? And speaking of Mr. Dix, isn't he in a dispute with his current agent in part because she has not been able to deliver the level of endorsements that were supposed to be coming his way? I've also read that Lashawn Merritt, the dethroner of multi gold medalist Jeremy Wariner, hasn't cashed in on his Olympic fame to the amount that he had anticipated either.

I'm sorry Mr. Logan, but there is nothing good about the economic downturn for track and field. As a matter of fact, being the low man on the totem pole so to speak, that "trickle" down would be expected to become more like a "drip" unless USATF gets off the ball and becomes more creative and innovative with their fundraising and marketing.

Which takes me to a question that was asked recently: Does Track and Field Need a Revolution? An interesting question that was recently asked by in a two part article - part 1, part 2 - that they ran recently. In their short series they had interviews from several individuals close to the sport including some athlete's managers and meet promoters.

While I found their responses quite interesting I can't help but feel that most of those that are in positions to help the sport grow apparently can't see the forest for the trees! I say this because too often I hear influential people talking about "overhauling" track and field and suggesting major changes in an effort to appeal to the "new generation"! You know, the video game crowd with the attention span of a gnat.

While I understand and appreciate that 3 to 4 hour track meets may be too long for some people, I'm sorry, but real professional sports - actually real sports in general - aren’t out there trying to reinvent themselves because the general population has changed! Track keeps eliminating events at meets with many having only about half of the available events on their schedules. There has even been talk of having a meet with only sprint events, and there have been meets with only distance events.

I don't recall basketball eliminating any of its quarters, nor has football! Baseball still plays nine innings of indefinite length - and often goes into extra innings! The last time I checked today's young people are avid fans of these sports! As a matter of fact much of the "gear" (clothing) they wear is modeled after the jersey's, hats, and other paraphernalia sold by the NFL, NBA, and MLB!

As for our brother and sister sports on the Olympic agenda, I haven't seen swimming, diving, soccer, gymnastics or any other major sport change its schedule of events in response to today's "new generation" either! Only track and field feels the need to "cannibalize" itself in order to attract fans. I wonder if it is any coincidence that only track and field is struggling with its fan base as it goes through this "identity crisis"?

I agree that we have meets that seem to go on forever. But they "drag" along, not because we run too many events, but because we take SO much time in between them. Many elite meets take enough time in between events to have a coffee break. Now THAT is poor presentation and would turn off the best of fans, let alone those new to the sport.

Take away all the "coffee breaks" and leave the events on the schedule and you eliminate dead time and add excitement - THAT is what the sport is about! When you eliminate events you eliminate excitement and drama. A meet without the 200 meters takes Allyson Felix, Wallace Spearmon, Xavier Carter, Usain Bolt, and perhaps even Lashawn Merritt, OFF the track! That is a travesty. No shot put and we are deprived of Adam Nelson, Christian Cantwell, and Reese Hoffa and the theater that they bring to the field events! A meet without the Intermediate hurdles eliminates Kerron Clement, Bershawn Jackson and Tiffany Williams. And far too often these events are left off of many meet schedules, as are others.

Every event missing from a meet deprives the fans of potential drama, action, excitement, and stars of the sport. It takes away competitive opportunities from the athletes, which in turn makes it harder for them to stay sharp, and more importantly, harder to earn a living!

If the goal is to improve our presentation to the public, then let's look for ways to suck up empty space - not take the product (the athletes) away. For example, instead of 15/20 minutes between events, cut it back to 10 minutes - so that we can keep the action going. If they want to see an exciting meet, promoters should visit the California State High School Championships. No wasted time there, and the crowds are large, excited and have a great time! The meet runs ALL of the events - for both boys AND girls - and it doesn't use any gimmicks! But the competition is always hot and competitive and nearly non-stop - and THAT is what track and field is about! Provide star athletes and they will come - and they will watch as long as the competition remains hot!

Before I close there was one idea that was brought up that I did like, and that was having a REAL World Championships! Not the Olympic imitation that we currently have. You know, every nation is invited, three entries per nation, etc. We have the Olympics for that. A REAL World Championships would simply invite the best the world has to offer regardless of nationality. Say the top 32 athletes in the world in each event based on current marks. Sure some events would be heavy on a few nations. The US and Caribbean may dominate the sprints. The African nations may dominate the distance events. But at the end of the day, each event would be represented by the best athletes the world has to offer and that would be a real world championship! No one deserving left at home because his or her nation is too "strong" in an event. No boring opening rounds to eliminate individuals we knew were going to be eliminated before they boarded the plane. The Olympics were created for Good Will. The World Championships should be held to see the very best go against the very best!

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