The political season of athletics is upon us. This weekend in Anaheim, California USA Track & Field (USATF), the National Governing Body for track and field, long-distance running and race walking in the United States, convened for its annual meeting. While this family gathering has degenerated in past years into internecine squabbles, last night USATF CEO Max Siegel gave an encouraging State of the Sport address in which he presented several new initiatives across the USATF platform, while announcing two new sponsor partnerships with Hoka One One and Rosetta Stone.
Also, today we heard 1980s Olympic middle-distance champion Sebastian Coe of England announce his candidacy to replace retiring IAAF president Lamine Diack of Senegal in 2015. Lord Coe released a Manifesto in conjunction with his announcement, ‘Growing Athletics in a New Age’. Coe’s primary opponent for the IAAF top job will be another athletics icon of the 20th century, pole vaulter Sergey Bubka of Ukraine who also currently serves as an IAAF Vice President .
In light of these tidings, I thought I would release the contents of the keynote address I made to the Global Athletics Conference in Durban, South Africa in November as it speaks to many of the same issues which confront the leaders of this age-old sport. Titled “Media Matters”, these are subjects which I have written about in the past on this site.
I have come from a long way off, but am happy to join you all on this exploration of what we all hope will be a grand future for the sport we love. I have recently covered two of the World Marathon Majors in Chicago and New York City, and so I am still filled with the enthusiasm such events generate. But I also remain saddened by the news that greeted us in NYC that two-time Chicago and three-time Boston Marathon women’s champion Rita Jeptoo of Kenya had tested positive in an out-of-competition drug test in September, thereby placing in limbo her World Marathon Majors Series win, while forcing cancellation of the $1 million award presentation to the two series champions, a circumstance that dampened what was otherwise a brilliant weekend of racing in New York under very testing weather conditions.
But we are gathered here in Durban to ask: “From here, where is it that we might go? And in so doing, where might we take our sport? And what role media has to play in that journey.”
First, I want to read something to you. It comes from a book that will be published next year by Simon & Schuster and written by an English friend of mine Ed Caesar. The book is titled, “Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon.”
Ed spend three years reporting and writing the book. The following is from the galley proofs.
“There are now more than 500 marathons all over the world, and more entrants into races than at any time in history. But as the marathon has blossomed as a general participation event, it has, for many, ceased to hold interest as an elite contest.
The event is now utterly dominated by East Africans. Even committed runners can be indifferent to the achievements of the best in their sport. If one were to ask every single finisher of the NYC Marathon who held the world record at the distance they had just completed, the majority would not know.
Unless you are one of the minority of sports fans interested in elite distance running – and it is a tiny cadre of obsessives – a glance at the starting line of a major marathon yields not a single, familiar face. What you see is a parade of gaunt, lithe black men with low numbers on their vests, arrayed in the lurid uniforms of shoe companies. Their names are as good as indistinguishable, and their stories mysterious.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the state of distance running to the general population. Let me ask, are you happy with that? Does it give you pride? Hope? Or, does it, in any degree whatsoever, get your back up? And more pointedly, does it move you to do anything about it?
Conference director Lee-Roy Newton asked me to come to speak to you about the media. But I must first remind you that the media is only a follower, not a leader. We in the media cover what you, as the stakeholders in the game, present to us.
In that sense, systems create realities, for it is in how people organize themselves that determines where they might eventually see themselves going. This is how athletes must conduct themselves in training in order to achieve at their highest levels. So, too, must the sport have a system in place that engineers its assets to their best advantages.
And in the world of sport there seem to be one constant that is shared by most, if not all, successful modern professional sports. That constant is a regulated series of definable competitions leading to and culminating in an annual championship. Without such a system in place, any sport will find it increasingly difficult to attract media and public attention in a marketplace increasingly cluttered with choice.
Now, in the old days when athletics was like a one-stop sporting mall, offering something for every type of athlete: runner,jumper, thrower, vaulter, etc. and competition from other sports was still very modest, athletics was among the highest profile sports in the world. And every four years beginning in 1896 it was the centerpiece of the modern Olympic Games.
But in 1896 there were only 241 athletes representing 14 nations competing in 43 events in 9 sports. In London 2012 there were 10,568 athletes from 204 nations competing in 302 events in 26 sports.
Neal Pilson, a sports media consultant and former president of CBS Sports said this about athletics in a recent New York Times article.
“I think it’s more that the (American) public, when it has choices, and it does have enormous numbers of choices all the time, simply hasn’t been watching track and field over the last 15 to 20 years.”
This is a red flag flying in our faces, because it reflects a loss of interest in the sport. And one reason for this loss is because our sport has continued to stage and present itself as it did when it first organized itself over 100 years ago as a series of individual events pitting non-affiliated athletes in competitions that don’t lead to anything beyond themselves.
Without a larger context, the big race or meet is only big enough to be the lead story in the local paper, but not big enough to be mentioned anywhere beyond the local area except in the trade publications. Unless, of course, there is a positive drug result, where upon the entire sport gets tarred by the brush of scandal.
Ladies and gentlemen, this is a key element in garnering media attention. Sport needs to be contextualized beyond the individual athlete or the individual event or meet. And we can’t wait every four years for the Olympics to bail us out. There has to be a narrative, an ongoing story that can be followed, and a championship at the end of that story. And in our sport, that context has yet to be engineered. The structure we see in other successful sports is simply not shared in athletics.
Oh, you might say, what about the IAAF Diamond League or the World Marathon Majors? And you may have a point. But those circuits are unified mostly in name only.
The six World Marathon Majors are still more of a loosely joined series of individual events rather than a true league. Consider that on the same day as the Chicago Marathon its World Marathon Majors partner, the Boston Athletic Association, staged its own BAA Half Marathon. Would a real league compete with one of its partners that way? And with only six events stretched out in a two-year cycle where one race counts toward two separate cycles, needless to say, nobody can explain how it works to anyone outside the sport.
And while the Diamond League stages 14 meets annually, culminating in two Finals in Zurich and Brussels, in both those meetings there are 16 Diamond events lumped in with 11 other non-Diamond League events where the DL events alone feature 173 athletes. Tim Hutchings, the British commentator, was forced to admit that having 20 men in the 5000 meter Zurich final in which only 8 had any Diamond League points, might be a touch too many to take in all at once.
On top of which, Zurich and Brussels looked like every other Diamond League meeting. There was nothing about the competitions distinguishing them from the others beyond a ceremony at the end where they handed out the diamond trophies. They even staged every event above 400 meters as a paced race, rather than a championship competition.
In business we are told to mass our assets then focus people’s attention. 173 athletes in 16 events, in which the majority of athletes are dressed in exactly the same outfit, might be a good market satisfier for the companies that sponsor and outfit those athletes, but it is a market dis-satisfier for the media trying to cover the presentation, or to a general audience which assumes if athletes are wearing the same outfit, they must be aligned in some way.
And with every event being presented as an equal of every other event, the question, “which is the Main Event?” has yet to be addressed. In truth, there are three things you can be guaranteed not to see in any Diamond League meet: 1) no athlete will be connected to any other athlete, 2) no event will be connected to any other event, and 3) Nobody will win the track meet. The whole thing is a series of independent exhibitions that share the same venue.
“Here is the women’s 400m hurdles, now forget about that, because here comes the men’s long jump, and put that aside because that has nothing to do with the women’s steeplechase”…We present our sport as 16 or more events that have nothing to do with one another, and all events of equal standing. You be the sports editor and find a unifying thread in any of that.
And yet every four years at the Olympics, though it is unofficial, what do we always see?
Standings listing which countries have won the most medals. Even in the Diamond League points are awarded in each Diamond event through the season — so, in that sense, there is a connection within each event, though not across any collection of events. But then, look how each event is staged. Everything above the 400m has pacesetters, even the Finals, meaning time is given primacy over competition. And it is the same in most of the world’s top marathons. But if the Boston Marathon had been a paced race, Meb Keflezighi would not have been the first American champion in 31 years, and the sport would have been the lesser for it.
Human beings consume sports in binary bites which lead to an overall conclusion: Us versus Them, Good guy versus Bad guy, My favorite against Your favorite. Not everyone together against the clock. Time and records should be the cherry atop the competitive cake, not the other way around.
Another issue facing our sport is polarization. Of the 100 fastest 100 meter times ever run, fully 89 have been posted by athletes from two countries, Jamaica & the USA. On the other end of the distance spectrum, the marathon, the domination is even more pronounced as Kenya and Ethiopia account for 96 of the top 100 times in history. (And as of Dec. 2, 2014, 98 of the top 100 marathons run in the current calendar year have their genesis in either Kenya (58) or Ethiopia (40).)
Yet with every athlete competing as an independent contractor wearing nothing more than a shoe company vest, where pacers are utilized at seemingly every event but the Boston and New York City Marathons, where, exactly is the psychological connection to a fan base?
I spoke with one European marathon director at the London Marathon last year who told me pointedly, “this story is going to end; running fast alone is not enough. We are in discussions right now asking if this is how we want to continue, with an emphasis on elites. Our ambition is be among the top ten marathons in the world, but we are trying to find a solution to make the sport more attractive, and depend less on finishing times. The question isn’t ‘who won?’, but ‘what time?’ We are trying to figure how we can stand out from the rest, and right now we know we are on a dead-end road.”
When what is now Barclay’s Premier League first began in 1992, there were only 11 non-British or Irish players on the league rosters. Today there are entire teams made up of non-British and Irish players. Yet because the athletes still wear Chelsea, Liverpool, Man City and Manchester United kits, the fans in those cities have embraced those foreign-born athletes as their own.
In the USA’s National Basketball Association, Manu Ginobli is not an Argentinian basketball player, nor is Tony Parker a French basketball player. They are both San Antonio Spurs basketball players.
The best players in other sports have been co-opted by a system which allows fans to embrace an athlete from anywhere as their own. Systems create realities.
And what does athletics do? It has athletes representing nothing beyond themselves, wearing kits which change designs every year.
And when Meb Keflezighi won the 2009 New York City Marathon, becoming the first American to win NYC in 27 years, and then this year’s Boston Marathon, the first USA man in 31 years to do so, no kid could go down to his local sporting goods store and purchase those kits, because in athletics, those kits are only made for the elites!
Imagine not being able to buy your favorite footballers team jersey? Imagine not being able to buy a Lebron James or Kobe Bryant basketball jersey to support your favorite player?
The essential message is that media represents the public, and without a coherent system to tie athletes to a fan base through the media you are bucking a very strong headwind of your own making. Athletics cannot be the single outlier presenting itself in a manner that only it utilizes, simply because, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.”
Well, guess what? Henry Ford used to build a really cool Model T car. Times change, and institutions must change with their times or risk getting run over.
In the TV business the first question you have to answer is, “Why are they watching?” Well, athletics as yet to find proper response to that fundamental question. Over the last generation we have witnessed running event after running event present a bunch of anonymous East African men competing against each other for what in other sports would be considered small stakes. Accordingly, the sport has taught viewers not to care about the outcome of its races. With nothing to root for, no emotional component, running has come to be considered “boring”. You have heard the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome.
What do you think the major story line of the recent TCS New York City Marathon was – besides tennis star Caroline Wozniacki’s appearance? It was Wilson Kipsang’s attempt to win the race outright in order to secure the $500,000 World Marathon Major bonus. That bonus was a large enough hook to snag the viewers’ attention. Without that monetary incentive, though, the race would have been little more than an academic exercise between a Kenyan and an Ethiopian that 99 % of the audience had never heard of before.
When Geoffrey Mutai and Moses Mosop were completing the 2011 Boston Marathon in 2:03:02 and 2:03:06, respectively, at the time the fastest marathons ever run, even the savvy Boston fans didn’t care emotionally which man won, because it was just two anonymous Kenyans running down the street.
But when American Desi Davila came down the same finishing stretch battling Kenya’s Caroline Kilel for the women’s victory, even though the women’s time was modest, at best, compared to the men’s, the crowd went wild. Because they were invested emotionally, Desi was their girl!
The American University system is lauded world-wide not just for its academic excellence, but for being among the best feeder systems there is to major sports. In this U.S. collegiate system athletes represent not just themselves, but their schools.
Accordingly, it wasn’t just Sam Chelanga versus Galen Rupp competing at the 2008 NCAA Cross Country Championships, it was the University of Oregon versus Liberty University and all the students and alumni and history that come with those colors. Sam was no longer just a Kenyan, he was Liberty Man! And Galen was an Oregon Duck! There was context to their competition that allowed others to become engaged.
So what if in Boston 2011 Geoffrey Mutai had been wearing a vest with “Boston” across his chest, and Mosop had been wearing one with “New York”, or “Chicago” because all the World Marathon Majors were team owners as well as event producers? Now the natural rivalry between Boston, New York or Chicago would have been engaged regardless of who the particular athletes were.
If every World Marathon Major represented not just an individual race, but a team, and they didn’t stage just six marathons a year, because that’s not enough competitive opportunities to hold public attention and therefore develop the brand fully, but instead added a 10K and a half-marathon to each of their schedules -– events most of them already stage, but just haven’t connected — now you would have 18 events in a calendar year, rather than 12 over two years. By creating a World Road Majors sub-brand as tune-up races for the World Marathon Majors, we would have a dense enough weave in the athletic fabric to better hold media and public interest, as well as increasing potential franchising and sponsorship sales opportunities.
At the same time, with that many competitive opportunities, athletes would have to earn playing privileges in order to be eligible for the series awards, just like they do in professional golf, and they would have to run a minimum number of races, because the public has to get to know who you are, and either love you or hate you, but not be indifferent about you, which is the real killer to fan interest. But then, there would also be enough competitions to sign athletes to annual contracts, stage drafts, conduct trades, and essentially mirror the best-use practices of other successful sports. And the shoe companies would still have their contracts with athletes and their logos prominently displayed as they are today.
And this system wouldn’t fundamentally change the competitions, but rather would regulate them, and therefore make it easier to present to the media and the public in a formulation they are used to seeing. It would also give the World Marathon Majors a much stronger hand in controlling doping as athletes and their managers would have to sign affidavits testifying to the strict out-of-competition testing standards of the series in order to remain eligible for the larger payouts they would all want a piece of.
Elements like co-opting athletes into a My City — My Team formulation, a coherent schedule of events leading to a championship, and large, publicly understood stakes at the finish are just three examples of how to answer that “Why are they Watching?” question.
Max Siegel, chief executive officer of USA Track and Field, said in a recent New York Times article that the specter of doping had long made his organization reluctant to promote individual athletes for fear of further scandal. Mr. Siegel’s fears were underscored with news of Kenyan marathon star Rita Jeptoo’s recent positive result for EPO. However, Mr. Siegel went on to say that focusing attention on the sport rather than the individuals had been a handicap, too, in a world where star power was so influential.
“It’s disappointing to promote an athlete and have them blow up, but generic promotion of a sport is not terribly effective in my view,” former CBS TV exec Mr. Pilson told the NYT.
This is the long legacy of the Ben Johnson drug scandal from the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Athletics is just big enough, but just small enough, too, to have become the poster child for drugs in all sports. As was said about the powerful banks and financial institutions in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis, the other major sports are now too big to fail. So Athletics, the most diligent of all sports in drug testing, takes the brunt of the drug accusations, due in part to its fragmented state.
But this latest case also serves notice. If a failed drug test runs the risk of blowing up the entire sport’s promotional structure, and generic promotion of the sport itself doesn’t engage interest, what is left?
Perhaps this is happenstance, but outside the Prefontaine Classic in track-mad Eugene, Oregon, the athletic meetings in the USA with the largest attendance every year tend to be the Penn Relays, the Drake Relays, as well as the California and Texas State High School Championships. And what do they have in common? Team, as well as individual competition where how well the 100-meter man does impacts the javelin thrower and the 5000 meter runners, too.
Athletics might have been the first sport, but as we all can see, it has long ago lost its status as the # 1 sport. As someone who came into this sport as a reporter rather than as a competitor, what has always made sense to me is telling one story well, rather than two or more poorly. Linking events into a coherent whole is telling many chapters of one story, instead of separating events into free-standing silos where the future of some disciplines are now being spoken of in terms of existential need.
Traditional Olympic sports like athletics are being challenged as never before. Look how close wrestling, another of the most ancient and foundational of all sports, came to being removed from the Olympic core sports list. In February 2013 the sport was caught off guard when it was axed by the IOC executive board — a decision that surprised even most IOC members. After a frantic seven-month counter PR campaign, wrestling won its way back into the 2020 Games. If that wasn’t a wake up call, I don’t know what is. Standing pat no longer guarantees a seat at the table.
Then in May 2013 the International Olympic Committee executive board promoted the international swimming and gymnastics federations into the top tier along with track and field in a list of the 28 summer Olympic sports. We in the media pay attention to such things. Previously, the IAAF was ranked alone and received the biggest share of the hundreds of millions of dollars generated from television rights and other deals from each Summer Games.
You, here in Africa, have come together in an attempt to engineer a future for this sport using the great assets you represent. Remembering that the modern borders of Africa were not drawn by Africans, as you explore the way ahead, I urge you not to feel restricted by what has come before, but to be educated by it. You have big advantage in this regard: you get to look back at the blueprints that were drawn up from the late 19th to the early 21st century. You know where the pitfalls and traps may lie.
Don’t let yourselves look back from twenty or thirty years from now and say, “Maybe we should have done something different when we had the chance.” We in the media don’t want to have to tell that story.