There’s an article in the New York Times today titled Extending the Drama of Track and Field Year Round. Using the Olympic Trials as a springboard, writer William Rhoden uses quotes from new USATF CEO Max Siegel, USATF president Stephanie Hightower, and Track and Field News editor Garry Hill to paint a picture of where track’s popularity is and where USATF would like it to go.
The article is mostly upbeat, and Siegel thinks there’s a lot he can do in order to broaden the sports’ popularity. Track in the USA has had this kind of problem for a while; TFN spent an entire issue addressing the decline of track as a spectator sport back in 1990, and spent an entire page on the issue as early as 1971. Declining popularity is nothing new; only the depth of the hole we’re in is.
But the question always comes back to me as this: can Siegel really do anything about raising track and field’s profile? Is it within his abilities? Is it within any USATF CEO’s abilities? And will any USATF CEO truly be allowed to do it?
As far as Siegel’s specific abilites towards marketing, it’s far too early to tell. Regardless of who is in charge, I think the problems facing track and field as a spectator sport are too large for one office in Indianapolis to address. The thing about track and field and road racing and cross country is that it’s ubiquitous. There are big and small competitions nearly everywhere and nearly all the time. To really do it right is too big a job for USATF’s relatively limited resources.
Even above and beyond that, I worry about other things. Siegel went through a revolving door, being on the USATF board, stepping down and then accepting a major USATF contract (without competitive bidding), and then being named as CEO. So there has been an appearance of a conflict of interest. I may be reading too much into this, but Hightower is quoted in 163 words in that article and Siegel just 112. Can you imagine an article about raising the popularity of the NFL that quoted anyone more than Roger Goodell? An article about the NBA’s popularity that made a second fiddle out of David Stern? Since Siegel’s appointment as CEO, the worry has always been that there’s not enough distance between him and the Board of Directors, and this article does not assuage them.
Look back to February’s mess, in which the hugely successful Millrose Games got zero promotion and virtually zero reportage from USATF, and this is only one reason why I don’t think USATF is the organization that should be truly in charge of promoting track and field. It’s too easy to play favorites like this. USATF is made up of people who are elected to their positions, making it an explicitly political body. Political organizations are very good at achieving political goals, and usually very bad at achieving professional goals. Making track and field more popular falls into the second category.
So who should be entrusted with promoting professional track and road running? The professionals themselves.
Just a few days ago I wrote a piece for the Track and Field Athletes’ Association titled Finding Common Goals. In it I propose that a professional organization should be created, one that brings together all stakeholders in professional track and road racing. This would include athletes, sponsors, meet/race directors, media, clubs, and everyone else whose living is dependent on the success or failure of track and field or road racing as a spectator sport. The goal of the organization would be to raise the profile of track and field and road running, and to expand the earnings potential of those involved.
While many of these groups have traditionally been at odds, they all have a common goal, and that’s making a buck. (As it stands, that’s about all they’re making.) I think we can all agree that we’re in a place where no one is eager to fight over how to slice up an ever-decreasing pie, and we would rather work on how to create more pie for everyone.
What would it look like? We already have an example of competitors working together for the common good in the college coaches’ association, the USTFCCCA. The Bowerman Award, the reams of information of every possible stripe put together by communications manager Tom Lewis, the ability to respond fairly quickly to the evolving needs of television–all of these are huge improvements in college track that would have seemed unimaginable two decades ago.
There are historical examples as well. In 1916, department store magnate Rodman Wanamaker and a group of golfers banded together to create the PGA, with the expressed interest of elevating interest in the sport and expanding their ability to make a living. In the wake of major tennis tournaments becoming open to pros, the Association of Tennis Professionals was created in 1972 and they now run the bulk of the season’s competitions. Neither of these organizations has been without internal strife, but they both have always pursued the basic professional goals of increased popularity and earnings. It’s hard to imagine either sport existing in its current form without their efforts.
Besides, we are track and field people. We are as self-reliant a group as there is. If you want something done, don’t complain about other people not doing it. Do it yourself. The livelihood of the professionals depends on it.