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Funding Sprint: Private Investment Needed to Get Athletes Back on Track
American Track legend, Michael Johnson, believes the sport needs to be reimagined to thrive long term, and sees an opportunity for it to take inspiration from challenger leagues
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Michael Johnson recently took to Twitter to lament that, “For too long track’s leaders have NOT worked to gain potential customers. Like opening a restaurant and serving only the foods you like.”
The former fastest man on the planet explained the sport “seldom get[s] new customers” as a result, and said the few customers it does maintain are “mostly the owners and their family.”
Ultimately, the existing fanbase is not large enough to command significant media or sponsorship revenues, and many track and field events run contrary to current sports and entertainment trends;
Johnson believes the sport needs to be reimagined to thrive long term, and he sees an opportunity for it to take inspiration from challenger leagues that have successfully captivated new audiences (see: PLL).
However, federations like World Athletics may not be equipped to navigate that process.
“Professional track must be developed by a private commercial entity focused on profitability,” Johnson said.
Until that happens, one can only speculate on the changes a for-profit entity would implement.
However, Johnson offered several suggestions that he believes would help turn the sport around:
Create an annual calendar of 10-12 events, and potentially establish four majors (like tennis or golf).
Reduce the number of disciplines within each event. Only include disciplines that can be televised or streamed from start to finish without interruption and in a fast action format.
Limit the number of competitors, reducing the field to the “the best of the best, regardless of country.” Athletes should be selected to compete based on a combination of performance (80%) and popularity (20%).
Raise athlete appearance fees in order to ensure participation and key matchups at each event.
Of these recommendations, the second is the most controversial amongst the sport's existing supporters.
Limiting disciplines may mean eliminating middle distance, distance, and walking events. Should that occur, the sport would essentially become a 'sprint league' (as mocked up in the image above).
A federation, which must take into account the interests of all its athletes, would be unlikely to sanction such a move. But a private entity would not have those concerns.
Stripping it back to only the explosive action, a sprint league would, in theory, solve a lot of Track's current problems. It could also become a compelling new sports property in the process.
Just look at the popularity of Twenty20, the short-form version of cricket.
Being niche and focusing exclusively on sprinting disciplines would make it easier for broadcasters to carry the sport and for casual fans to consume.
“Track fans love the variety show of sprinters, runners, jumpers, throwers, and vaulters, but trends suggest most people do not enjoy the variety, and it makes the sport extremely difficult to televise, market, and promote,” Johnson tweeted.
It would also enable the sport to deliver a single narrative.
A sprint league would simply be about determining who is the world's fastest.
At one time, Johnson held the title. It later became Usain Bolt.
But despite the title's prestige, the average sports fans would struggle to tell you who holds it today.
While that is undoubtedly a problem for the sport, it also presents an opportunity.
Facing similar narrative-related issues, the PGA, ATP and WTA Tours have all launched behind-the-scenes docuseries, largely inspired by Formula One's Drive to Survive.
That type of thinking isn’t entirely foreign to Track governance. UK Athletics recently proposed taking a similar path with a project called '365 to Gold’.
However, doubts remain that the docuseries will ever be made. UKA is reportedly just three months away from filing bankruptcy.
As the struggling governing body identified, leaning into storytelling would also help to address Track's biggest problem; the obsession with times and records.
Referring back to Formula One, few fans care about lap times at the British Grand Prix. Most just want to know which driver (and team) crossed the finish line first. By shifting the focus from on-track performance to the athlete's personalities and lives off it, Track can similarly give fans reasons to be invested in event outcomes.
There are already some exciting rivalries in the sport. But they are yet to be capitalized on.
Fred Kerley, the current men’s 100m World Champion, recently called out Marcell Jacobs saying he didn't believe the Italian sprinter was "a real dog."
The Olympic gold medalist replied with a screenshot of himself crossing the finish line ahead of Kerley in Tokyo with a caption that read, “Whenever and wherever you want, but remember when it mattered most, it ended like this.”
The American has since responded, asking the Diamond League, a series in the top tier of the World Athletics one-day meeting competitions, to make it happen. “I want 1v1. No one else, just him. Him alone,” he said.
Johnson believes money will get in the way of a head-to-head race from actually happening.
However, an intense rivalry between two world class athletes may be just the spark Track needs to generate the meaningful investment that it desperately needs.
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