The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

How to Improve Track and Field

Feb 23rd, 2024
10:19 am PST

People are beginning to talk about track and field in light of World Athletics proposal to alter the long jump. What I find interesting is that so many people suggest eliminating events as key to the answer. No one ever says why, just that “There are too many events”. If you can’t tell me why, then it’s simply a reaction and not a thought or plan. My guess is that most people keep looking at the length of time that a meet takes. A reaction that I consider bogus given the length of time that many popular sports take. If your assumption is that people don’t have the attention span, you’re proven wrong daily. Television is full of sports of various types that take as long, and longer than a track meet. Sports much more popular AND lucrative. So, stop being lazy (we’ll just cut some events) and really “think” about what the sport needs!

Some thoughts, it’s already proven that sports fans will spend lots of time watching events. Sporting events are a means of relaxation for most people. Going out to a ballpark or stadium. Hanging out with friends or with other people that share your interest. Eating and drinking. Sports are a huge social experience! Time is not the issue. Social interaction and entertainment are. On that note, fans want a good product. Our athletes are the product. And we have fantastic athletes. So, in my opinion, we need to give fans MORE of our athletes, not less. Therefore we should focus on doing that. Now I want to say here that part of focusing on the athletes is looking at how they’re paid. Or more specifically how “much” they are paid. Individuals that are far and away the best at what they do, and among the best athletes on the planet, should be paid accordingly. That’s a topic that requires a conversation of its own. And one that intend to have. Today I’m going to focus on presentation, since it’s presentation that WA attacked in its long jump suggestion.

First a question, do we have too many events? I’m going to say an emphatic, NO. For decades, the US had a multitude of meets, all over the country, all well attended. Those of you that just recently became fans(let’s say around the Beijing Olympics) have no concept of that. But we used to have meets regularly in places like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose, Modesto, New York, Austin, Houston, and other cities nationwide. Stands full of fans. Yelling, screaming and having a good time. What happened? Professionalism. Or at least the sport’s version of professionalism. As the sport moved from amateur to pro, appearance fees escalated and meets didn’t, or couldn’t raise the money to pay the talent. So meets died. Except Prefontaine. It survived because it’s Nike’s baby and they pay for the talent to be there. Just as the rest of the meets in the Diamond League do. Same reason all major championships in the US are held in Eugene. Track Town is Phil Knight’s town, and he pays USATF and the NCAA for Eugene to host these competitions – and his pockets run deep enough to outbid everyone else. My point is this, today it takes money to get enough elite athletes on your track. THAT is the biggest issue as far as creating more meets with high quality fields. An issue that must be dealt with by USATF and it’s leadership. Because in order to create a fan base, you have to provide them with quality entertainment. Just a fact. That means raising substantial amounts of money, beyond its contract with Nike. I would suggest meeting with promoters of various Diamond League meets, to gain insight into how they do it year after year. Because the one thing they do very well in Europe (including meet promoters outside of the Diamond League) is develop relationships with donors and sponsors.

With that on the back burner, how should meets be presented? If they are not available to the general public, how do we get people to watch? For me it begins with ACCESS. Whenever a big meet is on tap (Trials, a major invitations) I see tweets and messages on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook asking, how can I watch “x” competition. With the answer usually being some streaming service that one has to subscribe to to watch. This is a HUGE deterrent to the growth of track and field. When someone has to already be a fan. Looking for a way to view. Then finding out that there’s a cost association. How do you in your right mind expect to get NEW fans? It’s not going to happen. Hell, you’re subject to lose those you already have – at least when it comes to watching this meet! It’s absurd. Even more absurd that certain groups or individuals are given ownership over EVERYTHING that happens. As in, I can film my own athletes and put it on YouTube. But YouTube is allowed to take it down, because I don’t have any rights to that meet! I can’t take a race and use it for teaching purposes on the internet. You can’t sell a sport to people that can’t watch it! This must change.

As does the fact that we’re talking about streaming services to begin with. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of meets that could use a streaming service. I’m talking about major stuff. Championships, Diamond League, anything containing elite athletes competing. These should be on major television. They should be available in real time. Not tape delayed with major cuts to be treated like a special for prime time! This is the year 2024. Anything being processed for Prime Time, is yesterday’s news by the time it’s shown. And geo blocking it so that you can’t watch any coverage anywhere other than the one (NBC) is an ethical failure, and should be illegal. How dare you limit my access to the Olympics or any competition. And USATF and other organizations should be on the side of fans and not corporations. Because WA does it as well. People all over the globe get access to meets everywhere, but the US is always geo blocked. As both organizations complain about needing to grow fans in the US. You’re taking out of both sides of your mouth!

Now, if we can get access to competitions, how do we mitigate the perceived issue of, too many events and time? This is simple, you create “hot windows”. A window of time that you think has the best events / talent. You can telecast that window (say two hours) and stream the events outside of the window! You don’t have to cut events, which takes away athletes earning ability the way the sport is currently structured. Yet you give individual fans options. Watching just the hot window, or spending more time watching other events that they like. You please both the athletes and the fans. Given that the televised portion is free (commercials) you could, in theory, charge for the additional streaming content. Perhaps a nice balance.

No matter what you do, nothing works if you don’t have a product. Remember I spoke of meets dying because the money wasn’t there. You need an elite product to draw fans. And we have that. Noah Lyles, Grant Holloway, Sydney McLaughlin, Athing Mu, Ryan Crouser, Jakob Ingerbringtsen, Elaine Thompson Herah, I can fill pages with names. We have to get them off the page and into competitions. It’s not just about having a meet, it’s having a meet that rocks. It starts with the athletes. But you also need ambiance! Great food is a great start. I’m suggesting food trucks, because most stadium food is bland. Try some games around the stadium. Vendors selling track related items. A DJ and music. A festive type atmosphere. Doesn’t take a lot.

Finally, tighten up the schedule. I’ve been to meets where the are these huge lulls in the competition. Makes me want to leave and I love the sport! Twenty or thirty minutes without activity is a crime. I think ten minutes is more than adequate. Structure your meet accordingly. Invite local athletes or high school athletes to compete in between. With your announcer setting up the next elite event, as the athletes come out to complete warming up. Who’s who and what have they accomplished. Who’s here to race who. Not just listing lane assignments as they line up. Yes it takes homework, but part of the experience for the fans, should be gaining knowledge about the athletes.

I really don’t think rebuilding the sport is that complicated. I’m old enough to have seen it WORKING, which is why I say rebuilding. At a time when less was available. We have the internet, which grants global access. Like any tool however, it must be used properly in order to work FOR you. Right now it’s being used against track and field. Our athletes are better than ever. They’re performing at a level that just twenty years ago was unheard of. Unfortunately, we’re not using the available resources to get that message out. And while there are athletes in other sports sitting on benches, not participating, making millions. Our stars make a fraction, and non medalists struggle. THESE are the things that need improvement for our sport to grow. Not a jump zone, lights or pressure sensitive blocks. In order for the sport to grow, leadership needs to get it’s priorities together. In my opinion that priority is improving access to our athletes. Athletes make sports popular. Not rules. Get the stars in the stadium. Make sure people can watch. Watch the sport grow. It’s not that complicated.

Wrong Path for World Athletics

Feb 22nd, 2024
9:36 am PST

I've been observing the conversations this week regarding how World Athletics keeps attempting to change track and field. And two things have hit me. First thing is that WA really doesn't understand the issues facing the sport and the athletes. Leadership is completely out of touch with its own sport Read More...

The Trouble with Track and Field

Feb 20th, 2024
10:06 am PST

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11:53 am PST

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Women’s 200m Outlook, 2024

Jan 12th, 2024
11:42 am PST

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Dec 14th, 2023
11:36 am PST

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Men’s 200m Outlook, 2024

Dec 13th, 2023
8:34 am PST

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The 4×1, Third Leg

Nov 28th, 2023
12:06 pm PST

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Women’s 100m Outlook, 2024

Nov 5th, 2023
3:21 pm PST

I've given my opinion on the men's 100m, so it's time to do the same for the women. I'll start by saying that there are fewer women currently competing in the top thirty all time performance list than the men. BUT five of the top ten fastest women ever are currently competing! The women are not as deep overall, but have better depth on the top end Read More...

Men’s 100m Outlook, 2024

Oct 25th, 2023
1:16 pm PDT

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