>In the wake of Doug Logan’s firing, a discussion sprung up among Martin Bingisser, Ann Gaffigan, Chris Nickinson and Paul Merca about splitting off a separate professional organization from USATF. I chimed in with some rather useless blather. Since then I’ve done some reading and thinking.
The vast majority of top-level American sports have separate organizations for professionals and rank-and-file amateurs. Most widely known are the PGA and USGA, which work hand-in-hand to produce the US Open. Similarly, the ATP and WTA work with the USTA on the “other” US Open. There are others; the NBA is separate from but works with USA Basketball for national team competition, as does the NHL with USA Hockey, MSL with USSF, and so on.
In fact, this kind of pros separate from amateurs is the rule, with a few notable exceptions: “traditional” Olympic sports which did not have (openly) professional competition before the breakup of the AAU, which controlled them all with an iron fist until 1978. Believe it or not, track and field is almost assuredly the biggest of those sports, even at the elite professional level. We’re certainly bigger and more popular than swimming or wrestling or anything else I can think of.
The purpose of a domestic professional track and field organization would be to promote domestic professional competitions, to get pro-level track (and road racing) into the media, and so forth. I wouldn’t see athlete development as part of its mission. It would be charged with creating a higher profile for the sport which would then allow for greater earnings among said athletes, which would give them more resources for their own development if they wished to do so.
Saying who is an NBA professional is easy enough: you’re on an NBA roster. Deciding who is a golf pro is also pretty simple because one of the main functions of the PGA Tour is to make that decision via its card system. But how in the heck do you do that with track? There are so many athletes, the sport is so diffuse, and new stars can come from almost nowhere. Fortunately, we have a model to work from.
When you join USA Triathlon (as you must for all domestic triathlon competitions), you get a choice of “amateur” or “pro/elite” for your lisence. Actually, you can only choose the second if you qualify. Only those with pro/elite lisences can get into the elite wave at races with a purse of at least $5,000. Also, by having such a lisence you qualify for national championship events. Due to the nature of triathlons, marks are not used for pro/elite qualification but rather finishing within a certain time of the winner or in a certain place at various top-level races.
In track, we could choose the qualifications for pro status in any number of ways, but I think a competitive-based system would be preferable to a marks-based system. What would a USATF pro membership offer to an athlete? I think, at a minimum, eligibility for the VISA Championship Series prize money and automatic qualifying to national championships. Remember the big brouhaha over Adam Goucher getting into the last Olympic Trials over some other guys? If this kind of pro membership status were cut and dried and subject to an annual renewal, that kind of drama wouldn’t happen. This means we’d be looking at about 15 to 20 athletes qualifying as pros in each event. (I’d suggest a separate but equally cut-and-dried qualifying process to national championships for collegians and high schoolers, but that’s another topic alltogether.) Those athletes qualifying as USATF pros could also be put at the head of the line for getting into domestic professional events, such as the Millrose Games or Prefontaine Classic.
If this got off the ground, it would make sense for the professional arm of USATF to create a domestic pro circuit as well. American meets will never supplant the European summer season, but the domestic indoor and early-outdoor seasons really need beefing up and could do well with good leadership. As for the roads, we already have a pretty good domestic circuit, but a professional spinoff of USATF could offer them coordination into a cohesive whole rather than just a bunch of independent races that do nothing to help each other raise their collective profile.
The chance of all this happening is somewhat less than the chance of my 75-year-old mother becoming the next star of the WWE, but I think it’s worth thinking about anyway.