Yesterday’s 14th Standard Charter Dubai Marathon came out, on paper, as one of the most thrilling and historic in marathon history. In a final 800 meter flurry five men, led by debutante Lelisa Desisa, 23, of Ethiopia, crossed the line sub-2:05:00, one better than the record set in Dubai 2012. Four of the top five finishers were also debs at the distance, cementing the understanding that the sport has fundamentally changed from an experienced-based test of endurance to a youth-based examination of speed over distance.
Yet, as scintillating as it may look in today’s news accounts, to actually watch the 2013 Dubai Marathon unfold was like watching a benighted hunting party running headlong through the mists of a post-apocalyptic cityscape with “eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders”, as Cormac McCarthy so luridly wrote in The Road. Except for the celebrating crowd of flag-waving Ethiopians at the finish, the rest of early morning Dubai was as empty as a ghost-town, not a soul out along the dead-flat palm-lined course.
And though a pack stretching 17-deep or more ran together past half-way, there wasn’t one graphic on the computer screen listing who was who, not one split, not one close up shot of any individual in the pack. Meaning, if you didn’t have an already highly developed interest in the game, there would be no discernible reason whatsoever to invest your time. But somehow as long as the thousands come and pay their entry fees, and fast times are created, all is well.
This morning I had a long conversation with British sports agent Ricky Simms of Pace Sports Management. Among others, Simms represents Olympic kings Usain Bolt and Mo Farah.
In that regard, Pace Sports Management announced just yesterday that it has teamed up with global sports and entertainment marketing group Octagon to further develop Mo Farah’s commercial brand. It is an innovative, cross-agency relationship for a track athlete, but a standard practice in Hollywood and the other major professional sports where actors and athletes have both talent and commercial agents tilling their particular fields.
“Our sport has an amateur framework trying to market a professional sport,” suggested Simms. “We need to re-package our product, and then take it to sponsors. If I could design a way ahead for track in the U.S., I’d like to see eight franchises competing in four or five cities around the U.S. in May and June before the National Championships or the Olympic Trials. Each franchise would have an owner, a manager and a coach, and a set number of foreign athletes. There would be a draft and trades where I could trade, say, Lolo Jones for Delloreen Ennis. And you wouldn’t try to sell it to Nike, but to AT&T. I love that franchise model. You could even create an international league.”
But besides an existing federation-based system that is loath to change, this Premier League-like model would require a major infrastructure investment. You would need proper facilities, and currently in the USA there simply aren’t enough track-specific venues capable of elevating the sport or hosting such world-class entertainments.
We’ve seen in the recent past some of the greatest fields ever assembled come to Carson, California’s Home Depot Center for what was the Adidas Track Classic. While the soccer stadium at Home Depot hosts Major League Soccer, and its tennis stadium is first-rate, the track facility is essentially an afterthought, an open field with uncovered bleachers. There are no concession stands or permanent restroom facilities there. It didn’t matter how good the athletes you put on that field were. The place, itself, wasn’t worthy of them. Accordingly, nobody came, and after years of trying the meet died several years ago.
However, it was announced this week that the London Grand Prix stop on the Samsung Diamond League Tour would be staged in 2013 at the London Olympic Stadium, moving from the older and significantly smaller Crystal Palace.
“We’re trying to create a vibe like you see at the L.A. Lakers or N.Y Knick basketball games,” explained Simms. “We need facilities where celebrities can come and be seen. In L.A. you see the first two rows filled with celebrities. Zurich and Brussels have that (hosts for the Diamond League finals), and Eugene (Hayward Field) is good because the fans are so passionate. But if we could create venues in bigger cities like Miami or LA it would help immensely. Even the venue in New York City (Icahn Stadium on Roosevelt Island) is difficult to get to, and not sufficiently first-class. You need the proper stadium to create the same vibe that is standard now in all the other sports, like region-focused concessions (San Diego’s fish tacos), the fan experience zones, and merchandising.”
Of course, the major hang up for track and running in general is the federation-based model. As a TV executive once told me, “Toni, I don’t see anyone in your sport who looks like they are on their way to becoming an NFL owner.” Yet, as bad as the relationship with the hide-bound federation system may have been in the past, there is, according to Ricky Simms, a new openness and understanding, at least in the halls of Indianapolis.
“It does no good to bitch and moan to the IAAF or USATF,” Simms explained. “The thing to do is sit down with them and try to work together. Throwing stones at glass houses doesn’t work. Everyone recognizes the problems. You see it now from USATF. Max and Stephanie (USATF CEO Max Siegel and USATF president Stephanie Hightower) are trying to reach out. They have new ideas. They brought in NBA and tennis guys to discuss how to better present the sport. Usain Bolt isn’t going to run forever. If we don’t use his star power while we have it to promote our sport…”
The faults and challenges of the sport are numerous, the needs Olympic. But one can sense that the frustrations that have moved so many to tears through the last 30 years may finally be taking a turn to action. Young stakeholders like Ricky Simms, and leaders like Max Siegel are among the vanguard of a new generation not tied so closely to the animus of the past. Here’s hoping they can continue forming a pack of concerned leaders with a hunting party mentality whose prey is the brass ring with which to resurrect what was once one of America’s major sports.