It was a long slow erosion that saw athletics (track & field) and road running slide from their once-vaulted standings in American sport to their current niche rankings. For those of a certain age the descent has been particularly wistful as they recall the days when runners, jumpers, and throwers were household names that filled arenas and whose exploits were celebrated in national sporting publications.
“After the Ben Johnson drug thing (Seoul 1988) USATF didn’t know how to convince the public that most athletes weren’t on drugs,” said Don Franken who, with his father Al, put on a series of major track meets on the west coast for over 40 years. “We had 21,000 in Edwards Stadium in (Berkeley, Ca.) 1984, and averaged 12,000 — 13,000 at Sunkist, Jack-in-the-Box, Pepsi and Kinney (meets). But after Seoul we went from four meets to three to two, then ended altogether in the early 200s. That was it. And sponsors still think we are an amateur sport.”
Despite Franken’s assessment, there are any number of people and organizations that haven’t accepted as final the current situation, and who are taking steps to turn the trend around with an emphasis on professionalizing the sport.
New elite track clubs (see 2014 BEGINS FAST AND FURIOUS), the Paul Doyle created American Track League and Collegiate Running Association are several such harbingers of change. At the same time USATF, the national governing body for all things track and running, has also become a more productive steward. But there are others for whom the frustrations of the past have been distilled into fuel used to light the way ahead.
Jack Wickens (Charlottesville, TN) has been in the front ranks of those unsatisfied with the status of track & field in the USA in recent years. A retired executive at UnitedHealth Group, Wickens is vice-chair of the USATF Foundation where he has raised funds to help support athletes in their quest to maximize their talents and increase their marketability. As 2013 came to a close Wickens introduced another initiative aimed at expanding the presence of track on the American sporting landscape.
“AthleteBiz is a product of what I’ve observed and learned from all the leading voices in the sport,” Wickens wrote to me in discussing his motivation. “With all the chatter about the Competitor Group Inc.’s decision (to withdraw funding for elite competition in their Rock `n` Roll Series last September), and the associated implications for and about “professional” runners, I thought this might be the right time.
“It also sits at the intersection of what I’ve experienced from: (a) working with athletes regarding the grant program and athlete career program for the USATF Foundation…as well as (b) the amazing results from the USATF Foundation Run With US! program.…and (c) from numerous conversations with the TFAA board….and (d) from my business life in the health care industry.”
Currently AthleteBiz has a temporary webpage (www.athletebiz.us), but the overall site won’t be fully implemented until March. The goal is to have at least 75 personalized athlete pages fully built before going live.
The following is Wickens’ pitch to the pro athlete community: