Is Track and Field Positioned for Growth?

By Conway Hill
Sunday, November 26 2006 7:44:21 AM

I ask this question as there has recently been a call for the resignation of Lamine Diack, the IAAF president. And typically when a business/corporation has a change in the CEO position - its top leadership position - one of the first questions that is raised prior to the executive search is: “how are we positioned?”

Which is really a tough question for track and field to answer since it isn’t run like a business! Our sport is still run pretty much the way it was run back in the mid 1900’s. Which was fine when the sport was purely amateur in nature but during the 1980’s the sport took a turn, and started the transition from amateurism to professionalism.

But simply taking payments from “under the table”, and making them legal, only changed how money was exchanged.

And therein lies one of the greatest challenges facing the sport: completing the transition from an amateur sport into a truly professional one! And that change should start with the selection of the sports’ next leader. Which brings us back to the question of how is the sport positioned? Or better still, how does the sport WANT to be positioned - and what does it need to get there?

I would think that ultimately track and field wants to become more visible worldwide, and financially strong. This requires a strong marketing plan, and a solid product to market. The product appears solid. There are stars aplenty, and the performances keep getting better and better. But I say that the product “appears” to be solid. And I say that because the sport is very “top heavy”. There are just a handful of athletes making the lions share of the money, and establishing the performances.

If an athlete can become an immediate star - Asafa Powell, Justin Gatlin, Jeremy Wariner, et al - then he or she can end up making millions. If not, however, he/she could be struggling for survival. In no other “professional” sport is the divide between the Haves and the Have Nots so great. And the sport can not grow long-term until this chasm is closed.

Track and Field is a sport dependent upon “competition” as much as it is on “performances”. The greater the competition, the greater the excitement - and the more marketing opportunities that are presented. In order for the sport to truly grow, it needs to put significant money in the hands of more people. In short, it needs to revisit and redefine its financial plan - if one even exists. It needs to create a well defined payment/salary structure, for both its athletes and coaches, in order to deepen its talent pool and improve the presentation of its competitions.

In recent years, the focus has been on trimming down competitions and cutting out events, in order to make meets more “palatable” to the public. It is my belief that the length of the competition does not matter as much as the “quality” that is presented! If a full complement of events is presented, along with high quality competition and match ups, the fan will pay his/her money and gladly stay and watch! On the other hand, no matter how short the meet is, the fan feels cheated if only 1 or 2 events is of quality.

By seeing that money “trickles down” to more athletes and in greater amounts, you enable more of them to improve their performances. More time to train. Better coaching. Greater availability to nutritionists, etc. The pay-off is more athletes of higher quality for meets to draw from, deeper fields and higher levels of competition.

In short, a better product for the consumer.

Which actually assists in the development of a better marketing plan for the sport. More high caliber athletes means greater diversity in marketing. If the sport is less reliant on a marketing plan that is based on just two or three star athletes, and has the ability to tailor its marketing by “region”, then a world of marketing possibilities opens up. But again, THAT is a quality problem. Of course, as with improving the way athletes are paid and/or actually creating a payment structure, improving the marketing means developing and increasing the financial intake of the sport. And I believe it is here that we need to begin to assess the selection process of the new leadership.

In the past, the sport has stayed “in house” when looking for its leaders. The IAAF, and the various federations, has typically looked at past leaders/high level athletes when looking to fill leadership positions. For example, one of the first names to surface recently as a possible replacement for Diack was that of Lord Sebastian Coe of Great Britain - former Olympic gold medalist and WR setter in both the 800 and 1500 meters. I liken this to prominent former athletes joining the coaching ranks of other professional sports - Bill Russell, Mike Ditka, Magic Johnson to name a few. Or even athletes that have gone on to front office positions like Larry Bird, Joe Dumars and Isaiah Thomas.

But working closely with athletes and running a “business” are two completely different things - especially given the needs of track and field at present.

While getting along with, and understanding, your “workforce” is an integral part of running a company/organization, track and field needs someone that is astute in money/financial matters as well. Someone that can create, or coordinate the creation, of a structural overhaul of the sport. Someone that can develop strong ties with other businesses/organizations. Someone that can raise money. And someone with a strong marketing acumen, and/or the ability to bring individuals into the organization with the same. In short, track and field needs to be recruiting a true CEO type. It has enough track and field types that can serve in subordinate, yet managerial level positions. What it needs is greater business acumen and vision at the top.

Someone that can help track and field grow and truly become a “professional” sport.

Who fits that bill? That’s what we’ll look at next.

Mr. Hill is based in the United States in Northern California and has been following the sport of Track and Field for 40 years. He can be reached at