Matt Taylor recently wrote the first in a series of columns on how to “Redefine Running“.
Matt has been around the track and field scene for a while and has some great ideas. Here’s how much he knows what’s going on: early in 2008 he took a trip to Jamaica and did a documentary on a young, mostly unknown star named Usain Bolt. Only a few months later Bolt broke his first world record at the adidas Grand Prix in New York. By the end of the summer he blazed to glory in the Olympics. Taylor got the right guy.
So when he says something, I listen. Here’s the meat of that first column:
Is the outlook really that gloomy? I think so. But I’m an optimist. I believe that positive change for our sport is possible, but only through an intense and unwavering commitment to it. I’m not talking about small changes - like adding a second logo to a jersey or changing the order of the DMR. I’m talking about disrupting the status quo and making profound changes to the way we think about our sport. Sound scary? It is. But here’s the good news: The vast majority of you don’t need to lift a finger. Real change happens when a minority of people unite around a shared vision and then go do their thing. For our sake, I hope that happens.
With that in mind, I have a thought or two.
In barely over a week, the Olympic Trials will begin. It’s the biggest domestic track and field event in any four-year cycle, the only one that gets more or less complete daily coverage on widely-available TV channels. It draws attention like nothing else save the Olympic Games themselves.
Yet if my local newspaper, the Toledo Blade, wants to know what athletes with local ties are competing at the Trials, it is extremely difficult for to find that out. (I know and I’ll tell them, but most cities don’t have someone like me.) The vast majority of competitors are identified on qualifying lists and heat sheets merely by their name and their affiliation (if any). Where did they go to high school? Where did they go to college? Where do they currently reside and train and with whom? None of these things are addressed, yet local media all over the country desperately need local stories to remain relevant.
We miss out on a tremendous amount of publicity this way. Even if the “Olympic Dream” is an extreme long shot for most at the Trials, these are the kind of uplifting stories in which track and field specializes.
This is only one example of the missed opportunities for publicity. The problem is that USA Track and Field is unable to do that kind of publicity itself. The staff is simply not in place to do so, nor will it be. This is because promoting professional track and field is simply not part of USATF’s congressional mandate. Many might argue that it should be part of USATF’s mission, or that the organization should do it anyway. I think we need to be realistic about what is going to happen.
What professional (and semi-professional) track and field needs is a communications manager, one single office or person organizing and sending out information. And we have an example staring us in the face.
The U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association has an amazing person as its communications manager. Tom Lewis puts out reams of information on college track and field, ranging from the weekly computer rankings to a breakdown of hometowns for the nearly 1,000 qualifiers to last week’s NCAA Championships to the best marks list of college football players competing in track, and on and on and on. He has truly done great things for promoting college track and field. There is no reason that professional track and field and road racing could not have a similar communications manager.
Hiring such a person, and giving him or her the tools necessary to do the job, is not cheap. It would cost money, and I’m not telling you anything you don’t know when I say that the membership of TFAA doesn’t have that kind of money. (And if you did, it would mean that pro track is doing fine and we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.) If we’re going to have a communications manager for professional track, we need a professional track organization in the first place.
This observation gives rise to an even bigger realization. The separate groups in track and field are just that, separate. We do not work together like other professional sports. We are hundreds of individual groups and people all doing our own thing. No wonder we are losing the competition for attention and dollars with the well-organized sports leagues and tours.
What we need is a partnership between the stakeholders in professional track and field and road running. We need a professional organization made up of athletes (and their agents and coaches), meet promoters, sponsors, road race directors, and anyone else whose bottom line is impacted by the success or failure of our sport.
These are people who have not traditionally gotten along terribly well. Athletes compete against each other, as do their agents and coaches. The competition between sponsors, such as Nike and adidas, is even more intense and cutthroat. Athletes and their representatives butt heads with meet promoters and race directors over financial terms, and so on. The natural tendency is to look upon the others with suspicion.
However, I think the time has come that we all need to realize we have a common goal. All of these stakeholders can agree that we want professional track to be successful, to be a profitable and expanding venture. As things stand right now, we are fighting over how to slice up an ever-decreasing pie.
Besides, it’s not the first time competitors have gotten together to accomplish things. The mere existence of the TFAA is proof of that. The USTFCCCA brings together the nation’s college coaches, people who former Track and Field News writer Jeff Hollobaugh once said were “born with a gene for divisiveness”. And every other successful sports league or tour brings together intense competitors for the common good.
Could it happen? Maybe, maybe not. Ben Franklin could have been talking about track when he said that “we must, indeed, all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Remember what Matt said to get me started on this:
Real change happens when a minority of people unite around a shared vision and then go do their thing.