Friday, June 06, 2008

MARKETING OUR SPORT

Just a quick note to say be sure and check out my latest interview, this one is with Luke Watson.

Also, a couple of weeks ago I was talking about the marketing of the sport and said that there was an article in there somewhere. Here it is;

Marketing Our Sport by Chad Austin
5/29/08

I admit I’m a running geek. A lot of my free time is spent surfing running websites, scouring the internet for race results, reading running magazines and books, and listening to running podcasts. This is how I get a lot of my ideas for articles that appear on these pages. During the last year and a half I’ve written about a variety of different topics, including special interest stories, the Olympic Trials Marathon, and silly ideas that pop into my head when I’m out training.

One topic that’s received a lot of attention lately is the state of our sport and how it’s being marketed, or more accurately, its lack of marketing. A relatively new website, Runnerville.com, has a weekly podcast where they talk about the state of distance running and track and field and how it can be improved. At first I was upset with how critical they were all the time, but then it occurred to me, they’re right. I used to get excited when a track and field meet was shown on TV. Now I find myself skipping over such meets because they don’t hold my interest. If a big running geek such as myself won’t tune in, then how can they expect the casual observer to tune in?

If it took me five podcasts to finally agree that there’s a problem, I’m guessing there are other runners that are unaware of the shortcomings of our sport. In a recent Running Times article, Jim Gerweck wrote about the lack of buzz surrounding our sport. He ended his article by stating, “It’s a responsibility we all must bear, from runners and clubs to race directors, coaches and agents.” That quote immediately made me want to write this article in an effort to explain some of our sport’s shortcomings and offer some solutions.

When I think about the marketing of our sport and the enthusiasm of the fan-base, I’m left with a chicken and egg dilemma; is it lack of marketing the sport correctly that leads to the low enthusiasm or is it low enthusiasm that leads to poor marketing? It’s probably a combination. I mentioned how my interest in track and field meets has waned lately, but why? One reason is that track meets are very rarely shown live on TV. By the time the meet makes it to the TV, I’ve already seen the results on the internet. Ever try to watch an NFL game after knowing the results? It’s just not the same, as all the suspense has been removed. The same goes for a track meet. So, step one is making sure track and field meets are shown live. However, this is not enough. In May the Adidas Classic meet was shown live on TV and it left a lot to be desired in terms of the amount of action showcased and how it was showcased.

When was the last time you saw a change in the way track and field meets were covered on TV? Other sports have seen advances such as onboard cameras, better access to the sounds of the game, and in the case of bike racing, physiological data that provides information on how hard the bikers are working. Track and field could learn from these examples. How about using the same overhead camera that allowed us to watch Big Brown pull away from the field at the Preakness, or trackside cameras that follow athletes all the way around the track? Picture in picture would be a great way to show fans more action. This would allow for more coverage of distance events and field events, rather than watching 20 minutes of false starts by the sprinters. Personally, I like the simple idea of interviewing coaches during the events. This would give us better insight into the athletes and their performance than the commentators can provide from the booth.

Better coverage is certainly key, but our professional athletes – yes, that’s right, these athletes make their living in the sport we know and love – need to be marketed more effectively. Many of them are sponsored by companies selling shoes, nutritional supplements or electronic products. However, pick up any running magazine and you’ll see that these same companies often opt to have models promote their wares, rather than the athletes they’re paying to use their products. The sad thing is that these athletes are smart, attractive, articulate, and obviously fit people.

I’m sure it doesn’t help that the governing bodies of the sport regulate such things as the size of a sponsor’s logo that appears on an athlete’s uniform. Imagine NASCARs speeding by at 200 MPH with their sponsor’s names not exceeding two inches in height. Sponsorships would dry up and the sport would quickly follow. Companies need to have their name and logo visible if they hope to have any sort of return on their investment.

Speaking of USA Track and Field, in this day and age of over-information, it seems odd that their website doesn’t have a single video on it. Luckily for us, running is a sport that is covered much better at a grassroots level than it is by the mainstream media. There are a lot of websites (see sidebar) that provide videos, interviews, podcasts, links to articles, and photo galleries. All of these sites have been started by runners who just love the sport and took it upon themselves to give it more exposure – something you’d think our governing body would also be trying to do via their website.

One thing that has occurred to me lately is that maybe we need to change the mindset of our athletes, at least in terms of how much emphasis is placed on the Olympic Games. Every four years we hear our athletes talk about how focused they’re training has been on making the Olympic Team. We hear things like “lifetime goal” and “childhood dream”. But what athletes in a mainstream sport think like that? Heck, even after the first two Dream Teams, NBA players began declining opportunities to play in the Games because it became too big a hassle compared to their real job. Yet track and field athletes place the Olympic Games in the highest regard, even though only a very small fraction of athletes actually make the team. If you think about just those athletes running 1500 meters to the marathon, it’s, at most, 15 runners per gender. While making the Olympic Team is great for those 15 runners, what about all the other professional runners that didn’t make it? Because the Games only happen every four years, these athletes will go back to fighting over a few thousand dollars here and there at other events. It seems like, from a financial standpoint, more athletes would be much better off by placing more emphasis on remaining in the public’s eye year in and year out, rather than on an event that happens once every four years. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially when there’s currently no system in place to help the athletes remain in the public’s eye. I think the athletes are either going to have to step up and ask for/demand changes to be made or they can wait for someone with deep pockets to come along and finance something like a track and field league or a road racing series. With the latter, they may be waiting a long time.

Track and field is a great sport in the U.S. The problem is that it’s only great once every four years, when the Olympic Games roll around. The other three years, most people don’t know the difference between Carl Lewis and Carol Lewis. Now is the time to strike. Recreational running is on the rise, competitive running in the U.S. has made tremendous progress in just the last 4-5 years, and it’s an Olympic year. Hopefully by making people aware of some of our sport’s shortcomings, it will get people talking and it may even lead to changes being made. I’m not expecting every runner out there to become a running geek like me. And I don’t expect running and track and field to contend with football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. However, I don’t think it’s too much to ask for improvements that will help to develop a stronger fan-base than say, bull riding, which can be found on TV more frequently than running.

Think about it, how many runners do you know? Now compare that to the number of bull riders that you know. Something seems out of whack.

SIDEBAR
Letsrun.com – Probably the most recognizable of the sites listed here. Sure their “world famous” message board can be sophomoric at times, but they do a great job covering the hot topics in the sport, as well as recapping many of the key events.

Runnerville.com – Features two weekly podcasts; Runnerville Weekly focuses on what’s happened in our sport during the last week, while the Toni and Matt Show discusses how we can market the sport better and often features ideas by today’s top runners.

TheFinalSprint.com – Here you’ll find over 150 podcast interviews, as well as blogs for many professional runners.

EliteRunning.com – Your source for links to anything and everything running related. Also includes numerous interviews and photo galleries.

FloTrack.com – The best source for video interviews, as well as race footage.

DownTheBackstretch.blogspot.com – Simply the best site going for all things related to running and track and field in Minnesota.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey Chad,

I enjoyed reading your article on the state of our sport. I've given this topic some thought and wanted to see what you thought about my hypothesis, if you will. I think one of the biggest problems facing our sport is the lack of competition. Specifically, I think the problem is, most of the time, there are no clear cut winners and losers. Sure there is a 1st, 2nd, etc, but the athlete (and his followers) finishing in 10th could be just as happy because because he ran a PR. Or what about great distance runners racing different distances or peaking for different races. Our sport is so relative that there are numerous ways to have a good and bad race. Id argue that the only time the relativity is mitigated is during the Olympics and the championships. I understand that other more successful sports (NASCAR, tennis, golf) have a similar structure, but I think its more pronounced in our sport. I don't offer up a solution (that would be a much longer post), but just a thought.

runner from houston

mike said...

I think the coverage is not the greatest on TV for one thing. Watched the Pre Classic this weekend, 2 hrs of coverage - most of it was commercials and false starts in the sprint races. I don't think they showed any coverage of the Men's 10K world record attempt and the Women's 5K world record attempt. I did think it was interesting that the "Bowerman Mile" is now competing with the "Dream Mile" from Oslo. Having these 2 premier mile events 3 or 4 weeks apart would be ideal, instead elite milers are forced to choose between the 2. As a side, I watched the Bislett Games saturday morning and found that coverage much more interesting - they did opt to show the women's 5k world record race there and while it did take up 14 minutes of air time, I considered it to be excellent watching and some nice drama.

Chad said...

Thanks Houston. Yeah it's a little sad to have track on TV and then not even see some of the up and coming runners; like Solinsky barely being mentioned in the 2 mile, Shannon Rowbury is running great and they didn't mention her in the 800. Plus they show results for the top-3. Why can't they scroll through the results for everyone in the field? And what if you're a fan of the field events? All they showed at the Pre meet was men's pole vault and men's shot put.

Mike, how about seeing the same commercial 8 times in 2 hours. Love the Track Town USA ad, but after 3 or 4 times, it got really old.

Mike said...

I hear you on the commercial. I was excited after the first "tracktown" one and they managed to retain my attention through the next 3 or 4 (because I kept thinking there's another version coming - a different commercial). I shouldn't complain too much though. ESPN did the Bislett games the day before and then NBC does the Pre meet, that's more track coverage then you get in any given 6 month period.