Friday, April 15, 2011

The Athletes are Better, Why Not the Sport

The level of performance of elite track and field athletes at the top end is better than ever. The all time lists are littered with athletes that are competing right now! Starting with Bolt, Gay, Jeter, Rudisha, Liu, Robles, Bekele, Isinbayeva, Vlasic, Friedrich, Walker, Demus, and so so many others.

Yet, as I have lamented on many occasions, including earlier this week, we see them oh so infrequently. Where even as recently as the turn of the century, any given “world class” meet could boast perhaps 20 or more top level athletes in attendance, today we’re lucky to see a handful show up at any given meet. And head to heads against the best have become a rare commodity indeed.

So what’s the problem? Well, I see it in four parts – two parts athlete, one part sport, one part shared.

The first athlete part has to do with the level of stress that these athletes are putting on their bodies. As the level of performances gets better the stress gets worse, creating more injuries and requiring more rest in between performances. When you take your body to the upper limits of human ability there is bound to be some strain placed on muscles. That is what we see happening with top level athletes as they spend almost as much time nursing injuries and niggles as they do competing. The answer is to compete less and allow their bodies to heal and get strong before the next competition – which means fewer races during the year.

The second athlete part has to do with ego, because it seems that once athletes get to, or near, the top losing becomes less and less of an option. Which in most cases means that I only compete against athletes that may be able to beat me when I feel I’m in my best position to win. Gone seem to be the days when an athlete would compete, lose, and look forward to the next meet to exact revenge. Now, however, each competition is treated as if it is the final of the Olympics or World Championships – instead of the build up towards a Major final. This would be less critical if the athletes competed more.

But in addition to the need to rest/nurse injuries, athletes (agents) deal with trying to make as much money as possible which leads to the shared issue – finances.

Over the years, agents negotiating for top level athletes have continued to negotiate for higher and higher fees. When meets don’t meet the asking price, athletes (at the behest of their agents/coaches) don’t compete – and the fans & the sport miss another opportunity. And when the top level athletes do finally settle on payment, it is usually a substantial amount of the overall meet budget. This limits meet promoters to being able to sign no more than a few major stars per meet, and typically prohibits signing two major stars in the same event – especially if one is scheduled to be paid substantially more than the other has been offered. The result is still a meet short on top end talent – again a lose-lose proposition. Because in a sport that’s based on limited resources, bidding wars are akin to suicide – as we have seen with the limited participation of stars in most meets!

The final issue as I see it, is the lack of organization within the sport itself. Most other professional sports are generally structured along the lines of a Commissioner and a Board of Governors that oversee a league of teams – each in turn with a basic structure of Owner/President/Coach/Athletes. In track and field, however, the structure is MUCH less defined.

The IAAF is the international governing body for track and field, and sets the rules that the sport follows. Yet the national federations do not actually report to the IAAF. Nor do the meet promoters, or the athletes, or the agents, or any other affiliated personnel operating within the sport. Although the IAAF does have the right to sanction them from participation in IAAF affiliated events.

Each national federation in turn, however, is independent and sets its own rules for competition. Again, however, the coaches, athletes, agents, meet promoters, etc. do not report to the federations either. Though, like the IAAF, each federation reserves the right to sanction them from participation in affiliated events. See the pattern here?

Athletes earn their pay primarily from meet promoters who pay them appearance fees, and/or by sponsors who pay them to promote their products – primarily shoe companies. Athletes then hire coaches to provide instruction – though shoe companies may provide coaches for them. Shoe contracts may also provide nutritionists/masseurs or others to aid them in training – otherwise they have to compensate them themselves. Athletes also have to find agents (or the agents find them) to negotiate sponsor and meet contracts. In short whereas most professional athletes work for an “employer” who provides salary, training accoutrements, travel, benefits, etc., track & field athletes are like the travelling minstrels of yore, constantly on the road trying to earn their keep and a living.

Given this very loose structure – no direct lines of reporting within the sport – the real power lies not in the lead organization (IAAF) or the affiliate organizations (federations) but with the shoe companies, meet promoters, and agents. Why? Because these are the people who control the purse strings and in turn the athletes – and the athletes are the commodity!

The bottom line here (with respect to this conversation) is that the athletes must compete at the behest of the meet promoters – as they decide their own schedules. And while there may be some adjustments made on the part of promoters so as to avoid conflicts with other meets, there is no “schedule maker” who establishes a schedule to benefit “the group” – a league in most sports.

All of which leaves the athletes chasing after money (paydays) in a helter skelter fashion all over the globe – with those meets that pay the most sitting at the top of everyone’s list. Which is why the meets in Europe get better turnout of elite athletes than the meets in the U.S. – they pay better. Ditto for most South and Central American meets compared to their European counterparts. Meets “down under” (Australia & South Africa)  get their share of athletes looking to earn money early in the season because they have some money and decent weather.

The result is that most meets never truly have a shot at procuring the top talent. And with no one having enough money to satisfy a large portion of elite athletes at one time, we end up with the mess that we currently have – great athletes but the inability to pull them together with regularity outside of a major championship! And of all the reasons I’ve given above, THIS is the most problematic – the inherently loose and non cohesive structure of the sport itself!

Other professional sports get the regular services of their stars because all of the key elements (league, owners, athletes) are bound together through collective bargaining agreements. As such EVERYONE is guaranteed to get their money. In track and field, the athletes have no security of payment outside of a select few with high paying sponsorship contracts. Everyone else spends their time literally running for dollars.

A restructuring of the sport would go a LONG way towards solving this problem – and putting track and field in a position to actually compete on the level of other professional sports. Not to mention allowing the sport to present the best of its product to the public on a regular basis. And wouldn’t we all love that?

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