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

Marketing the Face of Track and Field

Aug 6th, 2019
4:37 pm PDT

Between 2008 and 2017 many people considered Usain Bolt to be the face of track and field. The athlete that the IAAF built their promotion around. The sprinter they proclaimed to be the “clean” representation of track and field, because the IAAF felt that such a representation was needed. 

When Bolt said that it was time to retire, Seb Coe basically said, “woe is me whatever will we do.”. Because really the marketing plan for this sport has been centered around the idea of the sport having a singular face! I’m really not sure why, given the diverse nature of the sport itself. Running, jumping, throwing. Men and women. Speed and distance. Athletes from every part of the planet! We’re really a sport that has the ability to attract a very diverse audience if marketed correctly! 

Bolt’s retirement couldn’t have come at a more opportune time however, because just as he retired a huge crop of young talent emerged. His retirement season of 2017 was the emergent year of Noah Lyles, Michael Norman, Sydney Mclaughlin, Rai Benjamin, Abderrahmane Samba, Salwa Eid Nasser, Jakob Ingebrigtsen, and Armand Duplantis! The talent pool has only expanded this year with Grant Holloway, Sha’Carri Richardson, Brianna Williams, Donovan Brazier, and Divine Oduduru exploding onto the scene. With established veterans like Christian Taylor, Will Claye, Justin Gatlin, Shelley Ann Fraser Pryce, and  Nigel Amos maintaining superb standards of performance the sport has not one, but a plethora of stars to market as the collective faces of the sport!

I’m not sure that the IAAF or USATF knows what to do with so much talent at their disposal. After all, both are geared to support only one star at a time. But enter the new world of social media, and these youngsters are more than capable of handling their own self promotion – and they’re doing a wonderful job! Every day I see dozens of tweets, videos, and other forms of media promoting athletes and events related to the sport! 

And meets themselves full of not just great performances, as these young people are already among the best the sport has seen, but their invective exuberance. The joyful dances of Noah Lyles and Abderrahmane Samba, and electric smiles of Sydney McLaughlin and Grant Holloway put a very inviting face on this sport. 

This is what we need, a multifaceted multi-face of the sport! Not a single face, but multiple faces that appeal to various groups of fans and potential fans. To those to whom speed is appealing and also to those that like distance racing and strategy. To those that like the elegance and drama of the jumps, and those that enjoy the brute like strength of the throws. American faces, Asian faces, African faces and European faces. We have the ability to present ALL of these things to the sporting public. If the leadership of the sport puts together a proper marketing plan! Which means a departure from the single athlete marketing matrix of the past, and adopting something more current that takes advantage gfof the sports multifaceted makeup!

To accomplish this, however, the sport must make some changes. The goal of which would be to INCREASE access to track and field competitions both domestically and globally. The general public needs as much easy and free access as possible to see what this sport and it’s athletes are all about. To that end some things that I would like to see are: 

NBC must STOP locking American viewers out of telecasts and streaming of events from other parts of the world – especially those where NBC has NO presence! They should be happy that Americans have the ability to follow the sport as it builds brand and actually would help grow their domestic audience.

Companies that stream track and field should have to negotiate a fee with either the IAAF and/or the National governing body for their service. In some instances maybe even the directors of directors meets. Charging individuals should be prohibited. Streaming should be as widely available as possible given that the greatest consumption of media today is via streaming. We need the greatest availability possible to attract new fans to the sport and build brand.

“Telecasts” should take advantage of “split screens” and multiple channels as often as possible to present the maximum amount of the sport to the public. Individuals should have the ability to choose what segments of the sport  they choose to view. 

Telecasts should be accompanied by streaming that falls outside of the “television windows” to provide maximum viewership of the entire meet.

Social media “windows” should be used during telecasts to give viewers the opportunity to comment in real time about the meet AND to see any use of social media by athletes during the meet! Twitter, Instagram, et al. This would give a participatory feel to meets for the audience and engage younger viewers in their way! It would also provide a way for both athletes and audience to interact. Track is unique in that there is actually down time for athletes during a competition. The sport has an opportunity to use this in a very positive way by connecting the viewing audience and the athletes!

Building the brand of track and field should be the primary goal of the sports’ leadership. Not trying to figure how many events they can eliminate and still run a meet! There’s nothing wrong with the sport the way it is. The idea that viewers attention spans is mythological (illogical) when you consider how long most televised sports are – baseball, football, basketball, soccer, golf, hockey, gymnastics and swimming come to mind! The problem is presentation. We do the equivalent of serving a prime rib dinner on the lid of a garbage can – we do our best to make it unappealing! When in reality we have many top level athletes and events to present to the public. We are the center piece of the Olympics for a reason. We need to start acting like it. 

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