Friday, May 6, 2011

How to Run the Diamond League

Once again we’ve started the Diamond League without a matchup of any of the true stars of the sport. Doha produced many of the world’s top marks – but that is to be expected when you begin to get the world’s truly elite athletes on the track. We will see wholesale revisions of the yearly performance lists on a weekly basis now that the “best” are performing.

But what we were promised with the unveiling of the Diamond League last year was not just another series of “European Circuit” type meets. What we were told was that this league was going to contract with the crème de la crème in such a manner that we would get regular servings of elite head to head matchups. Yet one of the complaints after the end of last season was that that promise went unfulfilled. And if Doha, and quotes by IAAF President Lamine Diack are any indication, we won’t be seeing too many this season either.

Why is getting these athletes to compete so hard – aside from the fact that the head of the sport doesn’t seem to feel it’s a priority? Personally I don’t think it’s really all that difficult. So here’s my suggestion.

First off, since this is supposed to be a “league” let’s treat it like a league. To me that means that each “meet director” is treated like an “owner” in any other sporting league, and that the league is treated as a single unit. As such, let’s develop a collective agreement between all the meets on the circuit and put all revenues into a league trust. That would include turnstile revenue, souvenir sales, corporate sponsorships, etc.

A formula can be created to determine each meet’s profit level and, more importantly, the payout base for athletes. Once the payout base has been set for the season, the league can set it’s individual meet payouts, overall season payouts, and then begin negotiations on individual performance contracts. These individual contracts would be based on criteria such as previous season’s performance, rankings within events, and number of meets the individual is willing to commit to.

Once the contracts have been established the athlete’s and agents are done. Now the most important phase begins – setting up the competition schedule for the season. The league should have a Competition Committee whose function would be to take the athletes that are under contract and based on the number of meets, and events they have agreed to compete in assign each athlete to a set of meets for the season.

Not an easy job I know. Usain Bolt, for example may want to compete in three 100 meter races and two 200 meter races – based on talks held during contract negotiations. Conversely, Tyson Gay may want to compete in one 400, two 100’s and two 200’s. The job of the Competition Committee will be to see that both athletes run head to head, while also sharing time on the track with the likes of Nesta Carter, Wallace Spearmon, Yohan Blake and Walter Dix. Athletes/agents could make some stipulations during contract talks, such as they don’t want to meet a rival within X days of the start of the season, right after Nationals, amount of recovery time between meets, etc. From that the Competition Committee would be charged with ensuring that all events (in this case the sprints) within the Diamond League have an adequate number of top level athletes competing, as well as a fair number of head to head matchups among not just numbers that engage let’s say the top half dozen or so athletes in each event. A daunting task I know, but one that I believe is doable.

The idea here being not to end up with a circuit that becomes a series of “Time Trials” each meet with a major competitor lining up against a group of up and comers. But that each meet provides a series of challenging competitions to the fans. Because these athletes will be paid to compete and to fulfill contracts that require some serious competition outside of the year’s major championship. After all, the public is paying to see just that, and just like other sports track and field needs to deliver it’s best every meet. I can already feel the excitement of fans waiting for the unveiling of the Diamond League season. Fans waiting with baited breath to see against whom and when their favorite athletes are going to be lining up during the season. Knowing that Gay & Bolt, Robles & Oliver, Kaki & Rudisha, Felix & Campbell Brown, et al have to go through each other on their way to the next championship! Now that makes for an exciting season, not just an exciting championship.

I know this is radical thinking. I can already hear that Bolt’s agent or Gay’s agent or whoever’s agent isn’t going to want to give up that kind of control. That the athletes and agents and coaches want to determine their own destiny. But if the sport is to grow, it is only going to happen by getting the athletes to compete against one another. And truth be known, it’s only been in the last decade that we’ve had such difficulty getting athletes to compete head to head. Maurice Greene, Ato Boldon, Tim Montgomery, Frank Fredericks and Bruny Surin competed against each other in various configurations quite often – in the late 90’s and leading into the oughts. Ditto Merlene Ottey, Gail Devers, Gwen Torrence, Irina Privalova and Inger Miller in the mid to late 90’s. And Allen Johnson, Liu Xiang, Ladje Doucoure, Terrence Trammell and Anier Garcia in the early oughts. Oh, and neither the Olympics or Worlds lost any stature.

Besides most professional sports have no control over how the competitive season gets laid out. Scheduling committees are common place. And low and behold those sports are all thriving – primarily because they put a great product on the floor/field every time patrons go through the turnstiles. And that is my aim – for track and field to put a great product on the track every time out. Because right now we are closer to putting the Harlem Globetrotters out to play the Washington Generals each meet than we are to putting out Kobe v Rose or Lebron v Carmelo. And it seems that the only way to effectively move in that direction is to go from being a bunch of individual meets and individual competitors to becoming more like a collective operation. And I believe that the Diamond League could be used to begin that process.

I know I’m whistling in the wind – nobody’s listening or hears. Some people may even be questioning if I’ve lost my mind. But something has to change. The direction we’re going as a sport is NOT a good one. We’re running races down the middle of the street because we can’t get people to the stadium! When Jesse Owens ran against horses it was out of desperation – and I feel the same way about street races, begging football players to run 40 yards at a meet, and long jumping in a sand box. Kobe and Lebron don’t have to play at Rucker’s Park and Tyson Gay and Usain Bolt shouldn’t have to run down the middle of the street. They just need to run against each other in a stadium and EVERYONE will come and watch! So if we’re going to make radical changes – like racing in the street – why not make a few that will do more than create novelty. Let’s get back to basics by creating competition – the one true staple of the sport!

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