Does Track & Field Have A Popularity Problem? Or A Marketing Problem

How Sports Betting, Marketing and A North American Athletics League Could Impact The Sport

The NHL Playoffs are in full swing right now, and as this die-hard St. Louis Blues fan was watching game 7 vs. Dallas with his knees in his chest; I realized just how bad Track & Field is at marketing itself. During the course of the game, viewers were bombarded with commercials for other NBC owned entities — Premier League final weekend, Stanley Cup Finals, The Indy 500, The upcoming Preakness Stakes… but not one mention of this weekend’s IAAF World Relay Championships which will air on NBC Sports Gold this weekend.

Not a single mention.

Nascar… a sport that is drastically worried about a shrinking fanbase, had at least 8 15 second spots throughout the course of the double overtime thriller. It’s in NBC’s best interest to run a promotion for an event airing on their streaming service… yet there is nothing. What does this tell you about Track & Field in general? The interest… just isn’t there right now… and leading into an Olympic year it is a very bad spot to find ourselves. So how do we change that?

Betting, marketing, and a North American circuit; here’s my plan.

Sports betting is the sole reason people pay so much attention to Horse Racing, I say Horse Racing because that seems pretty analogous to what could happen with Track & Field betting — just on a larger scale. Think about the Bowerman Mile but with betting odds, that race in itself just becomes 200% more exciting. People will pay more attention when money is on the line and the athletes (and league/USATF) will receive more money in the process — more money that can be spent on marketing, which I will outline in the next section.

That sounds great and all; but what are the challenges to normalizing betting on the sport in the USA?

Well first, you have to convince betting houses to take in T&F bets because contrary to popular belief betting on the sport is legal… and with more states legalizing and more sports wanting to bring everything in house we have to figure out why they aren’t featured.

There are 2 large issues with our sport and betting houses: Our sport has an amateur background, rising from the ashes of the AAU and being a true Olympic sport with larger ambitions — those ambitions are hindered by the lack of perceived popularity here in the states. Take this anecdote from a USATF indoor meet in 1995:

before his race sprinter Dennis Mitchell “told a television reporter he would win the 50-meter dash and then put his money where his mouth was. He placed a $10 bet on himself, at 4–1 odds, and said, on television, that everyone with an extra $5 should follow his lead.” The former executive director of USATF, Ollan Cassell, immediately demanded that Mitchell destroy the ticket and prohibited further gambling by athletes. (As it turned out, Mitchell didn’t win.) All told, $3,500 passed hands among bettors that night, according to the Times. More important to Mansoor, the meet, which had attendance of 5,000 and solid but not spectacular fields, was covered by mainstream publications such as Sports Illustrated, The New York Daily News, and The Los Angeles Times. Every article cited the betting.
Trackside betting hasn’t happened since at a USATF meet. When asked why other meet directors are hesitant to try some form of wagering promotion at their races, Mansoor says, “It’s the idea that track and field is this pure sport. Yes, it’s an Olympic sport, but it’s also entertainment. That’s what other sports have figured out — how to entertain the fans. I think it’s badly needed in track and field.”

So USATF isn’t exactly warm to the idea… but are they cold to the idea because none of the big players have come calling?

The NHL went from historically cold to sports gambling to welcoming it with open arms. After years of not wanting to be involved with anything in Las Vegas, they held their end of season awards ceremony in the city in 2009. Shortly after, rumors of professional leagues expanding to the once closed off city started to grow. This symbolizes the change in attitude towards betting on sports. The NHL even announced an official partnership with MGM this past season.. and this is the NHL, this isn’t NBA, NHL or MLB… the latter of which has had its own gambling issues in the past.

You can learn a lot about sporting trends by looking through the lens of sports books. Look at any large betting site and realize that Track & Field is behind Golf, Tennis, Fighting, WNBA, CFL, Horse Racing and NASCAR in betting popularity.

How USATF and IAAF need to market the sport better.

While surely, betting would make the sport more intriguing… we already have an exciting sport when running correctly… but usually it likes to get in its own way; either through doping allegations, Controversy surrounding DSD athletes, systemic corruption or not taking advantage of opportunities.

Our sport is stuck between wanting to stay an Olympic sport with Amateur roots and wanting to grow in popularity to better support its athletes. Unfortunately, you can’t have it both ways in today’s sporting landscape. Frankly, no one cares about our sport outside of the Olympic cycle. It’s tough to hear but it is true — at least in the sport's current format.

Some of that is marketing or lack thereof and some of that is the format in which we facilitate our season.

Whenever you talk about marketing in the Track and Field space IAAF and USATF will come at you with participation numbers and worldwide viewership. We shouldn’t take that for granted and Track and Field is already the largest participation sport among high school athletes in the US — arguably the largest market. That’s why I always come back to… where are they all going? We don’t need more grassroots movements when the sport already has a large base like this… however, that base becomes funneled quickly when a good portion of young fans either can’t watch the sport or don’t know where to find it. The paywall problem is something I’ll get into in other avenues but the fact that I, a diehard fan, had forgotten IAAF World Relays were taking place this weekend until I opened up my NBC Sports Gold App on Monday — is a statement as to how poorly IAAF is marketing a new marquee event.

It doesn’t take much spending to build simple awareness; how much would a 15 second spot cost on a network that already owns your media rights? There are also Youtube Pre-roll and Instagram ads that have a pretty low CPI and can be targeted towards runners and sports-related videos. The marketing spend would not be that large and the demographic that you DESPERATELY need to access is there for the taking. However, what if the format itself was the problem?

Why we need a North American Athletics League.

When you look at our sports calendar it can be a bit confusing; you have the Diamond League, but you also have meets and road racing going on simultaneously… and everyone is gearing up towards this year-end race that isn’t technically a part of the rest if the calendar of events. It’s confusing to non-fans but when the Olympics/World Championships are your end-all-be-all then this is what you get. So what if we had a North American event that was similar to the diamond league but had the backing of US-based companies? This format would take time to build; it would probably lose money for years before it could be viable… but if we had more opportunities for US/North American based athletes, I think we would have a more popular sport and more importantly… a more financially viable sport in the long run.

What Would It Look Like?

I would want this league to have 8 teams that compete in 8 cities with a championship event held in Eugene every year. Every player would be signed to a contract by their team and each team would have a title sponsor — think Premier league kit sponsors or Cycling’s team sponsors. These contracts would be exclusive during the season but would allow you to venture elsewhere once the season is over so as to not completely disrupt the Olympic schedule. There could even be an international break for the USATF trials and other Olympic Qualifying schedules similar to how Soccer handles the International calendar. I actually think the Diamond League’s new format of events works really well and runs extremely smooth in a 2-hour format — so I would keep that for the NAAL.

My original 8 cities would center in historical venues, cities with historical significance to the sport and in areas that would attract talent and be well spread out through US and Canada, this would be the original 8.

Sacramento (Mt. Sac), Philadelphia, New York, Toronto, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta, Vancouver.

As much as I would want to include cities like Denver/St. Louis/Portland… I think this would give us a solid place to start and grow the sport even more here in North America… and again… the sport doesn’t need growing in the awareness sense. Our sport needs growth in keeping athletes around, making it sustainable, and giving fans an accessible and easy to follow product.

Easy Right?

Thanks reading, you can yell at me on my Twitter — here and subscribe to my Youtube page where I will visually break my idea down — here.

Happy Running,

Justin