Tuesday, March 13, 2012
USATF: Terminally Addicted to Mediocrity
As any addict knows, the first step to realizing that you have a problem is admitting that you have a problem. In NASCAR’s case, it took the better part of declining revenue over the last decade to convene a $5 million dollar study to figure out why. What it turned up is not rocket science, but had they not done the study, it would have been guesswork, and it is likely that powers that be who are running NASCAR would have been far less motivated to change had the answers not been reported right there, in black and white.
Why does USATF have such a problem recognizing that it has a problem? Well, if we look at the NASCAR example, it was the case of declining revenue. Perhaps USATF is too stupid to realize that, for a global sport, it has no revenue. Because all I see are the same people getting the same free trips playing the same power games and rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. And unlike the Titanic, when it goes down, it will go down in relative silence.
There are numerous reasons for this, and they’ve been hashed out over and over again, but it is depressing to see the same battles being fought over and over again. Those of us in the ‘80’s thought, “well, they got past the Cascade Run Off, and finally admitted that they money could go to the athletes so we’re finally professional.” Except that it hasn’t been that easy. The current logo wars get to the heart of a couple things, the athletes desire to govern themselves and the paper pushers at a national governing body seeing their power slipping away when the money gets into the hands of the athletes.
Lets understand that there is no way for anyone at the national office who gives a damn about the athletes to interpret the Nike contract the way that they did regarding extra sponsorship. Even the former CEO of USATF disagrees with that interpretation.
The only reason to not let athletes get as many sponsorships as they want is to keep power in the hands of the few. Athletes with money are notoriously difficult to push around. Like most boards, they will continue to elect their buddies, so that their buddies can continue to rub their backs when the time comes. Its an incestuous system that helps no one but them.
So how do you get more revenue? More sponsorships? You need to get eyeballs. And to do that you need media. Lots of media, continued media coverage, exciting well produced media coverage. None of which USATF has whatsoever. I recently rewatched the Olympic Marathon Trials, the Arkansas Meet and Indoor Nationals just to get a quick feel for the three most recent telecasts before doing this blog post. So what came across from watching the three in rapid succession?
No one is interested in watching the sport. The sheer number of empty seats in the stands at the meets, and this on grandstands that appear to be only 6 rows deep, tells you a ton, and the stretches of cold, ugly concrete with no fans on them on the Houston course finishes off the story. No one cares. USATF’s decision to move the trials marathon to lonely Houston when they had the national media by the nose in Boston and New York is a case of one step forward, three or four steps backward. And, if we are to believe it, it was the difference in about $500,000. In case anyone cares to correct me, I believe that the difference in the Boston/NYC bids was in the $700K range as opposed to $1.2M in Houston.
So its not a hard formula: make the races exciting and visually compelling for televised media, and keep it in front of people's faces.
How to make the races exciting? Well, personalities would help. And not putting the athletes in identical uniforms is huge. (Anyone recall the marathon majors about 7 years ago agreeing to us different uniforms on the leading athletes? They were then introduced via the onscreen graphics to us with that racing vest and shorts. You could also stop using condensed fonts on bib numbers so that it is utterly impossible to read on television.) I'm not sure there was a worse moment than when Nike outfit all the women of the elite 1500 at the Pre a few years ago ALL WITH THE SAME BRA TOP AND SHORTS. Honestly, these people continue to make the same mistakes year after year. 2011 was no better than 2000 which was really no better than 1992.
The television producers need to watch old tapes to understand that the camera angles and focus points need to change. The way that a meet is televised is much like football: its a better sport on the big screen when its done right. But rarely is it shot right. As a minor sport in the grand scheme of things, I'm sure that figuring out how to televise a track meet by revisiting older track meets and seeing what does/doesn't work isn't too high up on their priorities list, but they're professionals and it should be. And, again, USATF should be working with television to grow the sport and make it more media friendly, and it certainly doesn't appear that that is the case.