What I Would Do as USATF CEO, part 2

Yesterday I posted part 1. Today I continue with the goals I would set out if anyone were insane enough to make me USA Track and Field’s new CEO.

Attempt to create some more domestic professional and semi-pro meets.
The goal would be to get a meet or two good enough to get on the IAAF’s World Challenge circuit, the second tier just below the Diamond League. In other words, to create a replacement for the now-defunct meet at the Home Depot Center in Carson, CA. Getting the financing for these kinds of meets is tough, but getting the athletes probably wouldn’t be if the meet(s) were held in close proximity to the two U.S. Diamond League meets. Top foreign and domestic stars would already be in the country for the Prefontaine Classic and adidas Grand Prix, and enough of them to make a good meet would jump at a chance to make an extra buck while here.

There is a need for another level of competition as well, meets for the lower-level pros and struggling-to-make-a-buck semi-pros and the collegians seeking to extend their season to the USATF Championships. These are the athletes that either don’t want to go overseas to compete or can’t afford to.

We already have a haphazard assortment of meets like this, several of which were on display last weekend. USATF put on its High Performance Meet at Occidental College on Saturday, there was a two-day all-throws meet in Tucson, and a sprint meet in Clermont FL. There are others as the spring wears on, although not nearly enough. And there is no organization to it, no coherence, and certainly very little to draw the attention of spectators or media.

There are two models for the kind of lower-tier meets I’m talking about. One was the old Can-Am Distance Series that flourished for a few summers in New England and Quebec and the maritime provinces. It had races for pros and collegians and high schoolers and was pretty popular.

Another model is Canada’s new National Track League.

Here comes Canada, not a power in the world of athletics, launching a well-conceived series [of five meets scattered across the country] that will provide a competitive experience for Canadian athletes at a fraction of the expense they would have to pay to travel to Europe. There is significant prize money at stake, opportunities for athletes to upgrade their carding (national funding) status, as well as chances to qualify for the Canadian team that will compete at the World Championships in Athletics in Daegu, Korea, from Aug. 27-Sept. 4.

Athletes competing in NTL events who hit the IAAF “A” standard will qualify for the world championships team, for example. For the most part, the Canadian athletes will have a guaranteed spot in the NTL events, something none but the elite few can count on in the Diamond League or even lesser meets overseas.

The NTL is designed with the second-tier athlete in mind, it stresses development of domestic athletes, and offers significant incentive for even the stars to stay home and compete in it. Being broad-based meets rather than emphasizing a single type of event, they are designed for spectators too. A domestic U.S. second-tier series of meets doesn’t have to follow Canada’s NTL format, but it should address the same core needs.

Attempt to rebuild the domestic indoor season.
This is where track in the U.S. has really been crippled, and it’s been declining for a long time. In 1990, Kiwi miler John Walker was asked whether the US indoor circuit was dying; he laughed and said it was already dead. Well, now that dead horse has been flogged beyond recognition.

Two years ago there still were three U.S. pro invitationals left: the Millrose Games, the Boston Indoor Games, and the Tyson Invitational. In 2010, Tyson pulled its sponsorship and that meet went back to a college-only affair. This year, the Boston meet almost went under before New Balance stepped in and saved it. And next year, Millrose will exit Madison Square Garden, which most observers think will mean the end of Millrose as we have known it.

You can’t necessarily blame declining sponsorship for the loss of these meets. The whole system has changed, too. Way back when athletes couldn’t openly get paid, the indoor circuit wasn’t serious track but it was where a lot of them made their money. But the move to open professionalism changed all that. Walker’s comments about the death of the U.S. indoor circuit came less than a decade after athletes could first openly accept payment. They could and did get paid much more for their serious summer competition than they did for less serious indoor competition. And these days, track’s very biggest stars simply don’t compete indoors at all. Bolt, Gay, Wariner, Rudisha—all are perennially absent from the indoor season.

I have no idea how to rebuild an indoor season. Smarter and better-connected people than I haven’t figured it out. But there is one thing I would do to make the USATF Indoor Championships a better draw for athletes and spectators—move it one week later.

As it stands now, the USATF Indoor Championships are on the same weekend as most college conference championships, giving us the same kind of issue that I mentioned yesterday about the Diamond League meets—too much track all on one weekend, not enough a week later. By moving it a week later, it would open up the schedule a bit, as well as make many college venues available for hosting it.

Moreover, it would add a lot of entries to the meet. The week between the conference indoor championships and NCAA indoor championships sees many “last chance” meets, where collegians attempt to get NCAA qualifying marks. The USATF Championships could enter the fray as one such meet, filling up some typically subpar fields with college kids trying to run a fast time.

Tomorrow, I continue…

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2 Responses to What I Would Do as USATF CEO, part 2

  1. P Merca says:

    Jesse, it’s all well and good, except you don’t say anything about how you would handle the political side of the job, which is probably the most difficult part of the equation. As long as USATF is a non-profit organization, you will always have the volunteers micromanage the paid staff, of which the CEO is the point person.

    In an ideal world, the elite side of USATF would break off from the main organization, much like the PGA is separate from the USGA (golf) or the ATP/WTA is separate from the USTA in tennis…