Marketing Track Sports

June 19, 2007

Marketing Track and Field
Sport must work harder for attention, money
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By David Woods

[INFO BOX: USA track

• What: AT&T USA Track and Field Championships and USA Junior Championships.
• When: Wednesday-Sunday.
• Where: IUPUI’s Carroll Stadium.
• At stake: Spots on U.S. team for World Championships and Pan American Games.
• Tickets: All-session, $60-$99; daily, $10-$25. Available at stadium or call (800) 443-4837.
• TV: 8 p.m. Friday (ESPN2), 2 p.m. Saturday (WTHR-13); 7 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2); 1 p.m. Sunday (WTHR-13).
• Web site: ]

Ask a casual fan to name some track and field athletes, and that fan could comply: Jesse Owens, Steve Prefontaine, Carl Lewis, Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

All are dead or retired.
Therein lies a challenge for the sport’s leaders. They are striving to market modern stars – such as Sanya Richards, Jeremy Wariner or Tyson Gay – so that they are recognizable, too.

There is no dearth of talent descending on Indianapolis this week for the AT&T USA Track and Field Championships.

But in a culture dominated by football, basketball and baseball, track fights a perception that it is a niche sport worthy of attention only in an Olympic year.

“Probably more than anything else, there’s a lot of track people running track,” said Paul Swangard, director of the University of Oregon’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center. “And I’m not sure that’s necessarily the best approach if they really want to be viable from a marketing standpoint.”

NBC, which will televise the 2008 Beijing Olympics, has a stake in the sport because it needs American heroes to attract viewers.

Network spokesman Brett Goodman wrote in an e-mail that NBC anticipates a robust pre-Beijing campaign. He declined to reveal details.

“There’s still not a unified consensus on the direction the sport needs to go,” Swangard said.

Michael Johnson, who was much-hyped before the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and then delivered gold medals in the 200 and 400 meters, suggested the sport be re-designed. It’s not a matter of track lacking personalities, he wrote in an e-mail.

“No other sport relies solely on personalities to appeal to fans and draw fans,” wrote Johnson, who is Wariner’s agent.

“They constantly update and make adjustments to their sport to make it more exciting and keep it fresh.”

USA Track & Field – which is headquartered in Indianapolis and governs everything from youth to masters to pro levels – has introduced initiatives under Ivan Cropper, a marketing director who formerly worked for General Motors.

USATF sponsors include corporate giants Visa, AT&T, Nike and Hershey’s.

Cropper was instrumental in arranging for Lewis, a nine-time Olympic gold medalist, to become a spokesman for Hershey’s.

“We not only want the current athletes, but the legends of the sport,” Cropper said. “We want to mix the two.”

A current name positioned for stardom is Richards, 22, a sprinter who was world Athlete of the Year in 2006. She not only has track credentials but an appealing personality and a model’s appearance.

AT&T and Nike ads feature Richards.

One of USATF’s biggest moves was to join USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming in partnership with Wasserman Media Group.

Wasserman is supposed to promote the three Olympic sports, including an online component.

Promotion might begin with USATF but can’t end there. For instance, as successful as the NBA and NFL have been, they didn’t arrange endorsements for Michael Jordan or commercials for Peyton Manning.

Lewis, who is starting a management firm :eek: :stuck_out_tongue: , claimed track athletes’ agents are inept and that athletes don’t work hard enough off the track.
“If people knew my schedule when I competed, they would wonder how I ever ran,” he said.

He said when meet promoters balked at fees of $100,000, he offered to appear at receptions for sponsors or conduct clinics. After running in a meet in Sweden, he said, he shot a commercial from midnight to 6 a.m. The meet got Lewis, and Lewis got his $100,000. It was a job.
“I worked it,” he said.

Cropper said track athletes have only recently begun to understand the business side.

“We’re striving to lay that foundation,” he said. "In the sports marketplace, which is very cluttered, we still resonate. We still break through.

“Can we break through more? Yes.”

Call Star reporter David Woods at (317) 444-6195.