Why can’t track & field be more like the WNBA?

LOS ANGELES, Jun. 22, 2011 – While watching ESPN News to check on the latest NFL and NBA labor reports, I couldn’t help but notice the continuous promotion of a WNBA doubleheader scheduled for last night. ESPN is in the third year of an eight-year deal to televise at least 18 regular-season games per season and at least 11 playoff games, and is paying the league several million dollars to do it.

This for a league which had an average attendance of 7,679 per game last season and an average television rating of 0.2; by comparison, the recent final-day broadcast of the NCAA Track & Field Championships on CBS did a 0.9.

So why can’t U.S. track & field get that kind of deal?

There are lots of reasons, but let’s concentrate on three, all dealing with one word: consistency:

Consistency in schedule:
The value of sports programming has never been higher, especially for sports which are not men’s professional team sports. The Pac-10 (soon to be Pac-12) Conference struck a deal with ESPN and Fox worth $3 billion over 12 years that will also allow for the start-up of the conference’s own network, likely to be another profit center. Comcast paid $4.4 billion for the four Olympic Games (summer and winter) between 2014-2020 in part to begin the expansion of its Universal Sports and Versus cable networks as challengers to ESPN. Golf and tennis have their own channels. And we have already mentioned the WNBA deal on ESPN.

What all of these properties have in common is a dependably-scheduled product which stretches over several months, such as:

(1) WNBA:
Now in its 15th season, this is a small, 12-team league in which each team plays 34 games over a 15-week regular-season schedule, plus the playoffs, from June to September.

(2) NASCAR:
The stock-car circuit was formed when rival owner of competing races all got together to market themselves as a common entity. There are 36 races over 39 weeks from February to November, with essentially everyone following a common schedule of qualifying races on Friday or Saturday and the main race on Sunday.

(3) MLS:
Now in its 16th season, this is another league that was supposed to fail. It has 18 teams that play 30 games over 32 weeks from March into November, with most games on the weekends.

All have strong television deals that are the basis of their financial plan. U.S. track and field as a sport (I will not take this opportunity to single out USA Track & Field as an organization; the issue is larger) has none of this.

But it could; the bones are there. Consider this line-up of existing meets from the 2011 schedule (dates are moved to Saturdays for consistency in scheduling):

Mar. 19: Oregon Preview
Mar. 26: LSU Tiger Relays
Apr. 02: Florida Relays
Apr. 09: Texas Relays
Apr. 16: Mt. SAC Relays
Apr. 23: Kansas Relays
Apr. 30: Drake Relays and Penn Relays
May 07: IAAF Diamond League: Doha
May 14: Conference championship meets
May 21: IAAF World Challenge meet: Rio de Janeiro
May 28: IAAF Diamond League: Rome
June 04: IAAF Diamond League: Pre Classic
June 11: NCAA Championships
June 18: USATF Championships

That’s 14 straight weeks of track & field featuring U.S. performers, on the same day and which could be held at a consistent time for television. And that’s without creating any new meets to fill specific dates; in fact, a schedule featuring meets on Saturday and Sunday on each of these weekends could be arranged from existing fixtures. All of this without mentioning a revival of indoor track and the international outdoor season. Can’t be done? It has been done; more on that later.

Consistency in performers:
NASCAR fans tune in to see their favorite drivers perform each week. When WNBA teams take the floor – barring injury – Candace Parker is playing for the Sparks, Sue Bird for the Seattle Storm, Diana Taurasi for the Phoenix Mercury, and so on. That’s another mark against track & field: no one knows if anyone is going to show up.

This is easily fixed, however, with money. Having served as the meet director for the three editions of The Home Depot Invitational (2) and adidas Track Classic (1) that drew from 9,000-11,000 spectators each year from 2003-2005, we filled our fields with more than 100 world-class athletes. Good fields made for good competitions and interested spectators; we didn’t have enormous payouts, but we gave out lots of plane tickets, hotel rooms and per diem so that athletes could come and run at essentially no cost to them to try for the prize money we had, and we paid promotional fees to those athletes who could sell tickets for us, like Gail Devers and Marion Jones.

It has been done and can be done again. Yes, athletes will run a lot more races, but will also have the chance to make a better living. Welcome to the world of the professional athlete.

Consistency in promotion:
All of the televised leagues and tours noted here – MLS, NASCAR and WNBA, plus golf’s PGA tour and the ATP World Tennis Tour – all benefit from having their television partners, and to a lesser extent, sponsors, promote their events for them.

Because U.S. track & field has no consistency in its scheduling for television, there is no weekly meet to be promoted and off the air means out of sight. Put the first two elements together with a television partner, and the promotional element becomes much easier to create.

If you’re still awake after reading all of this, you’re probably yawning and asking why it hasn’t already happened. Actually, it did happen . . . back in 1970. A young executive at the Amateur Athletic Union named Ollan Cassell put together a similar circuit under the name “AAU Track & Field” and sold it to CBS; the meets were sufficiently popular – featuring announcers like Jack Whitaker, Ralph Boston and Dick Bank – that they became the foundation of the “CBS Sports Spectacular” weekly series that challenged the “ABC’s Wide World of Sports” show.

I’m not saying that Cassell should be brought back; his time has past. But the blueprint is still there, waiting to have life breathed into it again. U.S. President Harry Truman dryly noted that “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know.”

The great Villanova star and Irish miling great Eamonn Coghlan once told a reporter that if you put a dog on television enough, it will be famous. The proof is what’s happening to the WNBA; shouldn’t Chris Solinsky, Shalane Flanagan, David Oliver, Lolo Jones, Christian Cantwell, Jenn Suhr and others get the same opportunity?

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

8 Comments

  1. Excellent piece! Not only would it create interest in athletes who are generally known only to their families, the track and field, cross country and road racing communites, but it would give die hard fans the opportunity to watch what they love.

    I hope the networks are listening!

  2. Great idea in concept but fat chance of gettimg ALL the parties w/their own interests @ stake to agree to such a proposal even if it benefitted ’em to the nth degree.

    As for the WNBA, it succeeds ONLY becase their male counerparts have been bamboozled enuf by the Komish to spring for a cool 4 mil a year in subsidies per today’s LA Times.

    w/out that money NO WNBA that’s 4 sure!

    And really Rich…do you give a rat’s you know what about watching Sue Bird OR Candace Parker OR even Lisa Leslie?

    C’mon. they s—k!

    Women’s hoops.

    I’d rather watch paint dry or see Molly what’s her face run a 10K than see a WNBA game!

  3. Every day, when turn on my TV, I think about why we cannot have Track and Field Channel. I also think about why Track and Field cannot be promote as other sports.

    I 100% agreed with you by reading the above acticle. It’s sad that World of Track and Field, is dieing in our Country. I hope them do something. Recenetly, I look at list of Higher pay Athletes in US/World track Athletes was no where to be find in the list.

    I hope that they can get back to blueprint of what they have before or we can give new ideas. I believe that people like you, I and others can help us solve this issue by spread the word more.

    Thank you
    FM

  4. I like the idea of major meets working together to create TV deals. It’s a win-win for everyone involved: fans, athletes and the schools and other organizations which host meets. I think it’s more feasible for U.S. colleges to work together to create their TV track and field season and let the international meets create their TV season instead of the colleges and the international meets working together, but it’s not impossible for all of them to work together.

    The problem with track and field is that while those who love the sport are doing everything they can to support it, everyone is working in their own world and often times competing for the same resources and athletes. Everyone wants to have “the big meet” because of the potential windfalls that comes from it. Track and field “organizers” need to think in broader terms and build alliances among themselves and other sports to lift track and field to a mainstay status.

    Meanwhile, as I work in a sports bar and grille, I look up at the TVs and I see men’s and women’s lacrosse, college and international rug by, college baseball and softball….I even saw a bowling match between two historically black colleges. Everyone is getting on TV in a significant and systematic way. Track and field is getting on TV, but it is inconsistent and without a program which builds to a climax. Other sports are beginning to figure it out while track and field is getting left in the dust. Track and field is not going to die, but it will become what other sports used to be – just something you do for fun in high school and as a club sport in college.

  5. I want to share with the intant that I find disturbing to me about track and field.

    I went on the ESPYS page to vote for nominating athletes. I find out that all other sports have Male and Female nominees. And for the track and Field they just put Male and Female together.

    It’s really really bad to see that. We all need to help build strong infrastruture for Track and Field. Track and field can be reborn again.
    Thank you.

  6. I totally agree!! My 10 year old daughter began running in October 2010, she is pretty good and I began looking for meets on television so we can follow the sport and I find nothing, nowhere. I do hope that this can change. Thank you for writing this.

  7. May 14, 2012

    Rich,

    Good piece. Minor correction: CBS telecast of the AAU in Europe meets began in 1969. I remember the show fondly. It started with excitement–the Jefferson Airplane song “She Has Funny Cars” along with clips from competition that was about to be shown AND brief introductions of themselves by athletes who were soon to compete. The remainder of each hour-long show was action-packed. Every event benefited from knowledgeable, interested commentators (Jack Whitaker, Ralph Boston, Dick Bank.)

    The perspective was USA versus the world but there was nonetheless appreciation of any athlete’s excellence.

    You’re right, too, that such a series could work in current years (it’s May 2012 as I happen on your piece). It could be even better than the series of 1969.

    The mid-March to mid-June 2011 schedule that you pose above has advantages for U.S. and global audiences that weren’t present for the 1969 series. One: the Relays’ crowds and fierceness. Two: the far more
    exotic locations of the Diamond League meets. Three: the much greater mix of international competitors. Four: much of that three-months-long stretch is slack-time for other sports’ TV audience. Five: many more angles and approaches to a viewing audience through digital media and Cable TV.

    Comcast/NBC definitely should have done such a series this year, building up to the Olympic Track and Field Trials.

    All best,

    Don

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