What’s Wrong with Pro Track and Field + How to Fix It
By Nick Symmonds
Professional track and field is broken and badly needs a lot of help. And I have some ideas.
I say that having been a competitive runner for more than 20 years, the last 12 of those as a professional track and field athlete, as well as a big fan of the sport. I haven’t always loved running. In fact, I would say it has mostly been more of a love-hate relationship for me. However, I can say with absolute certainty that I love running today more than I ever have. To be honest, a big reason for that is because I recently retired from professional track and field.
Don’t get me wrong—I am so very grateful for everything professional track and field gave me. I appreciate the experiences, the travel, the money, the friends and the memories. But there are also a lot of things that I didn’t love about professional track and field. Things like corruption, doping, the inability to clean up the sport, and the blatant greed and mismanagement within the sport. Of these negative factors, it is the mismanagement that poses the largest threat to the future of professional track and field.
It’s clear that pro track and field as a business is totally broken. And I’m talking about it both on a global basis, but also from a U.S. point of view. I have witnessed dozens of meets disappear over the past decade because of declining fan and sponsor interest. Opportunities that used to be available for pro athletes to compete no longer exist, and the new meets popping up are not outpacing the ones that are closing up shop. Those who remain in the sport fight for the few scraps still available.
In my opinion, as a former professional athlete and as a businessman, the problem is not with the product, but rather with the way that product is packaged. Most meets are still being produced and marketed as if this were the 1980s. I have been to many track and field meets—big ones, small ones and meets in many different countries. Nearly all have been painfully boring and out of touch with the modern world, and I’m a guy who loves track and field!
The majority of track meets are long, confusing and oftentimes meaningless. I really mean that. Except for championship races at the professional level, most races are totally meaningless, and are really just glorified practice sessions. Fans don’t understand everything that is going on, they don’t understand what is at stake, and they certainly shouldn’t be paying to watch hurdles being set up for 15 minutes during a break in the action.
With a very few exceptions, the old model of track meets isn’t working. Of all the track meets I have been to in the world, there is only one that I would classify as having a true party atmosphere: the Weltklasse Meeting in Zurich, Switzerland. This popular annual event, held on a warm summer night in late August, is a black-tie affair that people pay thousands of euros to attend. Think Kentucky Derby, but for track and field. And just like the Kentucky Derby, there are three things other than the races that people come for: great food, copious amounts of alcohol and, yes, even gambling.
If you’ve ever been to a horse race, you know that it would not exist without these three things. So why do we expect human racing to be any different? Fans love the Weltklasse Meeting because it’s entertaining. Athletes love Weltklasse because they get paid really well. Who knew alcohol sales and gambling could generate so much revenue?!
Track and field is losing popularity because it no longer transcends the mainstream the way it used to and hasn’t attracted new—and younger—audiences. In this digital revolution, people’s attention spans are a lot shorter and they need to be constantly stimulated. That’s why any successful event in today’s world is full of fast-paced excitement. Young millennials aren’t going to sit through a boring track meet when they don’t understand the old-school nuances of it, and quite frankly neither would I. They want to be constantly entertained, something has to be drawing their attention away from their digital devices or the many other entertainment options out there.
When people go to professional baseball, basketball or football games, they go to be entertained. They go for more than just the game itself—they go for the food, the drinks, the halftime show, the action on the Jumbotron, the T-shirts being flung in the stands, the chance to win stuff and the party. They also get to see the stars of the sport—LeBron James, Tom Brady or Aaron Judge—in action for the entire two to three hours of the game. If there was a Nick Symmonds fan at a track meet, they’d see me for 1 minute, 45 seconds and that’s it. And that’s another problem with track and field: Most people—especially casual sports fans in America—don’t know enough about the stars outside of the very elite competitors like Usain Bolt.
The bottom line is that we have to think outside the box and do something entirely different.
If I could raise $2–3 million, I could put on the world’s greatest and most modern track and field meet. But first things first, it would have to be in Nevada because gambling is legal there, so ideally that means Las Vegas. The additional revenue from gate receipts, food and beer sales, and gambling proceeds would be key to making it work.
Breaking it down on a very basic level, I’d use $1 million for expenses and $1 million for prize money. There would be 10 events each, with a $100,000 winner-take-all prize. Every athlete in the world would show up to compete—except maybe Usain Bolt, who can command a $250,000 appearance fee. But you’d have marquee names and top-tier competition in every event, and that’s important.
Of all of the things I have suggested, yes, the quality of competition is important, the music and entertainment are important, the food and the booze are important, and the fun atmosphere is important. But the No. 1 thing is gambling. It is the most critical component and I wouldn’t even think about an event production without it. I know there are purists out there who think track and field doesn’t need these things to be popular. I’m sorry, but those people are wrong. Football would be a much less popular sport in America if gambling wasn’t such a big part of it in so many ways. And anyone who says fantasy football isn’t gambling is delusional.
If I told everyone in the stadium and on TV what the athletes were racing for and actually presented a suitcase full of cash at the finish line so people could see what it was all about, that would be meaningful. As it is now, every May people tune in to NBC Sports or happen to land on that channel to see the Prefontaine Classic from Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., and they have no idea who the athletes are, what the races mean or what the athletes are actually racing for—even though there might be tens of thousands of dollars on the line.
My event would be two hours long, with a 30-minute pre-meet show that includes eating, drinking, music, Jumbotron videos and a chance to place bets. It would start at 7 p.m. and go to until 9 p.m. and it would be full of fast-paced action from start to finish. When there is a transition and they’re setting up starting blocks or changing events, there will be music with a big sound system and the hottest hits, dancing, more videos and flinging T-shirts into the stands. Ideally, there would also be an interactive app that engages fans in the stands and around the world with the chance to comment and connect, consume and share content on social media and, of course, win stuff from sponsors.
It’s got to be fun, almost like the atmosphere of a concert, but with track and field taking place.
For kids, we’d have an 18-and-under zone where only they can go in and get photographs and autographs of the top athletes. The bottom line is it would have to give fans a lot of bang for their buck, make it exciting and memorable, all while celebrating the very highest level of track and field.
The meet would include only a limited schedule of events so it could be kept tight and full of nonstop action. I think at the Olympic Games you have to have all 32 standard events because that’s what the Olympic Games is all about. But when you’re talking about a for-profit event, that is specifically about raising the level of the experience, increasing exposure and making money, you’re not going to have the women’s hammer throw or the men’s 10,000-meter run.
Of the 10 events, you’d start with the men’s and women’s 100-meter dashes, maybe the women’s 800m, the men’s mile and men’s and women’s 400m, plus some of the best field events like long jump and pole vault. We might have a couple of relays, too, because those can be exciting and fun for fans, especially with the gambling aspect. I don’t think the men’s 800m would make the cut, and that sucks because it’s my favorite event, but I’ve got be brutally honest here, and we’ve got to have events that will put people in the stands and keep the excitement level high.
When fans leave, they’ll head for the Las Vegas Strip and carry on with whatever else they want to do in Vegas, but they’ll leave thinking, “Wow, that was really cool!” They still might not be able to tell you much about a single athlete they saw competing, but they’ll be stoked to have won $300 after they bet on a long shot who wound up winning the women’s 100. And then they might go home and Google that athlete and learn their backstory, and that’s just one way interest can grow among casual, mainstream fans. But they’ll also tell friends about the experience and want to come back next year.
You want to fix professional track and field in America? You want to make it popular again? Then make it a decadent party. If anyone agrees with me and wants to help me make it happen, drop me a line.