I never thought I would utter those words about any sport, let alone track and field. Not after growing up wishing that athletes could run track just like they played football or basketball – full time and making a living at it. Yet, here we are in the New Millennium and I now understand the meaning of the phrase: “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it”! Because what I’m getting now are fewer opportunities to see the best athletes perform. Fewer top level match ups. And recent situations such as Usain Bolt refusing to run in Britain because of “tax” issues and Walter Dix pulling out of Monaco because he’s reportedly dissatisfied over the amount of money he’s being paid.
Watching the professional evolution of track and field has been like watching the movie, “Click”. You know, the Adam Sandler movie where he’s given a “magic” remote control that he thinks is going to bring sanity and extra time to his life. Instead, however, his life get’s completely out of control. Sort of like watching the growth of track and field since it’s first steps towards “professionalism” in the early 80’s.
That’s when the “amateur” rules were relaxed and trust funds were allowed to be set up for athletes to hold and manage their “winnings”. Which over time lead to direct payments to athletes. More importantly, however, it was the idea that athletes could opening be paid for competing that lead to Carl Lewis and the Santa Monica Track Club (SMTC) making a move in the late 80’s/early 90’s to compete only in those meets in which they were compensated. This included actually boycotting the national championships in the early 90’s because there was no remuneration involved.
As a result of taking this stance, we first saw the members of the Santa Monica Track Club (SMTC), followed by others, begin to spend more time in Europe competing on the Euro Circuit, than competing in domestic meets. Because the meet promoters on the Euro Circuit had/have better systems in place to provide athletes with compensation. Their American counterparts were behind the curve in this regards – and have remained at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to developing the necessary sponsorships to pay the athletes.
The result was the dismantling over time of the top meets in the United States, as meet promoters have been unable to meet the financial demands of the top level athletes. A landscape that once boasted some of the world’s top competitions – Fresno, Modesto, Drake, Penn, Kinney Invite, Pepsi Invite, Bruce Jenner Classic, Prefontaine, et al – has been whittled down to Penn, Pre, and New York as truly world class events. As all the others just weren’t able to keep up with the escalating payments that athletes have begun to demand over the years.
Early appearance fees of $5,000 to $10,000 in the early 90’s gave way to fees of $25,000 to $50,000 by the close of the decade. With individuals negotiating for “match races” beginning to request six figures to go head to head. The first decade of the New Millennium saw these fees rise into six figures for single appearances, to the point where we now hear that Bolt is paid in the neighborhood of $250,000 per appearance!
Don’t get me wrong. These are professional athletes that are looking to make a living in their chosen sport. Just as those playing basketball, football, baseball, golf and other sports do. And by comparison the majority of athletes in track and field are grossly underpaid when compared to their counterparts in other sports. The issue, IMHO, isn’t that they are getting paid, or how much money those at the top are getting. The issue is how the sport has, or hasn’t dealt with the issue of compensation in general. Because as the sport has evolved, no one has put together an adequate structure, or structure of any type, regarding athlete compensation.
So has it been great and wonderful that athletes have been able to “get paid” to compete in the sport? To be honest, not really. As I stated above, the transition to professionalism has cost the US most of its major competitions – leaving us only a handful of real world class meets. And while the European Circuit was the short term winner at first, track & field’s “inflation” has caught up with these meets as well. When appearance fees were in the $5,000 to $10,000 range European meets could still afford to purchase enough athletes and stack enough races to run a full track and field meet. But as fees began to rise, events that “lacked star power” began to slowly disappear from meet schedules. For example, there was a time during the “oughts” when it was difficult to find the men’s 200 meters at a lot of meets. The idea being that the more glamorous 100 would bring the sprinters to the table and satisfy fans “need for speed”.
But over time this philosophy of dropping events based on perceived popularity and ability to pay athletes has lead us to the point where today we have meets like the Bislett Games with no men’s 200 or 400, no women’s 100, no men’s high jump, and no men’s triple jump – among other “missing” events. A situation now common at most top level meets. When one athlete gets paid a quarter million to be in a meet, it doesn’t leave much to run the rest of the meet!
The result is much like the results of the remote control in that movie “Click”. What should have been a big boon to the sport, has turned out to hurt almost everyone involved. The fans get shortchanged time and time again – paying premium dollar to see what amounts to half a track meet. Worse, of the events that are contested, only half of those may have truly elite competitors. But the increase in appearance fees and contracts hasn’t been a tremendous boon for the athletes either – because only a handful are making the “BIG” money. Many others are running, throwing and jumping “hand to mouth” trying to make a living. Which can be very difficult if your event isn’t offered at every meet!
It’s not like you can load up on competitions any more in an attempt to “nickel and dime” your way to a productive season. For example, while the 100 meters is a popular event and run in many meets, meet promoters seem to be a lot more selective in adding the 200 and 400. In part because the events are lacking the “star power” of the 100 meters. Of course there is a “Catch 22” here – how can stars develop in events if they are not contested often enough for athletes to get good enough to become stars? It’s difficult.
Stars are not developed in track and field, they rather appear by accident – or seemingly out of no where. When a Michael Johnson or a Usain Bolt appears, his (or her) events become popular and attract money. Those events are then seen on a majority of meet programs and the athletes competing in those events do well. Unfortunately, high appearance fees in those events mean that other events suffer – and begin to disappear off meet programs. In short a cycle of money following the events of the most popular athletes creates gaps in other areas. And if things continue at their current rate, we will soon be left with nothing but meets like we had earlier this year in Birmingham – a handful of events run down the middle of the street because that’s all that meet promoters will be able to afford.
How do we reverse this trend and get the sport back on track? I have some ideas that I will share following the conclusion of the Diamond League.