What we learned about professional track & field at #IEG2014

Professional Track & Field: Yes, there is a such thing

Last week I attended the annual IEG Sponsorship Conference  In addition to everything new I learned, I also gained new perspective on the depth of things I already knew. Obviously, I knew FC Barcelona is huge. But until you see that only 18% of their TV audience is in Spain, and that they have Twitter accounts in nearly 10 languages, you don’t

More followers in Tagalog than the whole of professional track & field.

More followers in Tagalog than the whole of professional track & field.

appreciate how truly global they are. Everyone knows that Coca-Cola is one of the world’s most engaging brands, but hearing about the strategy and process, the metrics and philosophy behind it, you realize that they are a human relations company that oh-by-the-way sells soft drinks.

I thought I had a good handle on what corner of the basement professional track & field is stuck in. But on the first day of the conference a fellow attendee saw my name-tag and said:

“Austin Track Club? I wouldn’t think horse racing would be popular in Austin.”

And then this happened twice: 

“So is that IndyCar, FormulaOne or just general motorsports?”

When I was able to make a quick description of who we are and what we do, the results did not improve. One person made a crack about Max Siegel. One person asked if I have anything to do with the New York City Marathon. 

Everyone else (save for the Europeans, who love themselves some Diamond League) said “Professional track & field? I had no idea there was a such thing!” 

If a record falls at Nats and no one’s around, does it generate revenue?

There I was, in a room full of sports executives, marketers, sponsorship agency professionals, event producers, non-profits and corporate sponsors, and not a single

Not professional track & field

Not the Austin Track Club.

person knew that professional track & field exists in America. That they didn’t know about the Austin Track Club is my problem. That they didn’t know about the sport as a whole is a systemic problem that should keep awake every stakeholder in the sport (except for the athletes, because we monitor their rest and recovery and will know if they are too stressed and not sleeping).

This all happened on the heels of one of those rare times when track & field actually made headlines in the mainstream sports media  The USA Indoor Nationals Championship controversies took their place alongside positive doping tests and the Pistorius trial as stories sufficiently sordid and embarrassing to warrant general media coverage. The ensuing stand-off  etween the USATF and the Track & Field Athletes Association have generated a sustained conversation around the 2014 Indoor Championships that is rarely found in individual meets.

Keep the sport, change the game

While the stand-off has generated more sustained chatter and interest than any other meet (particularly an indoor meet) in recent history, the upshot of the whole thing may be – paradoxically – to reduce the relevance of national championship meets among pro track athletes. For the first time, athletes are questioning whether competing in a national

Also not professional track & field

Still not the Austin Track Club

championship meet is really worth it. Athletes are asking their sponsors the same question  Sponsors will ultimately turn that question over to their customers. If a sponsor can get an equal or greater return-on-objective from Meet A compared to Meet B, does it really matter if Meet B carries the NGB’s imprimatur? 

No athlete, fan, family member or sponsor will ever question the prestige and pride of a United States National Championship. But creating the infrastructure of a professional track & field industry – e.g., marketing, events, strategic relationships, owned media, consumer-fans – will alter the power structure in three key ways. 

  • The disproportionate role of national championship events will be reduced through more events featuring more athletes engaging more fans.
  • A professional track & field industry will sever the influence of the national governing body over professional athletes because - by law - the NGB has no authority over professional athletes, sports or events. 
  • Teams and athletes will be able to offer their partners the continuous, performance-indepdent engagement that is essential to connect brands, properties and audiences. No more 4-year cycle that benefits 3 athletes per event. No more “non-world’s” year caveats. Fans and partners will experience the sport the way we do: Day-in, day-out. Every. Damn. Day.

Don’t end. Don’t Mend. Create.

Not a single presenter at the IEG Conference told a story of victory over competition. Every case was victory through collision, transformation, creation and collaboration. Track athletes can fight against the Man, the power and the establishment, and they might even prevail. But without creating something new, without inducing the kind of collision that has enabled the sports-entertainment-sponsorship marketplace to engage millions of people and generate billions of dollars, we will remain without fans, without sponsors and without the professional sport worthy of our athletes.

A central pillar of the Austin Track Club’s business strategy is to avoid wasteful competition  We collaborate and cooperate whenever possible because growth is too important and the sport is too small for zero-sum games. Our other alternative to competition is creation. By first finding open space in the market - the blue ocean -  and then creating the product to occupy that space we can render our competition irrelevant – at no cost to us or them. We will happily cede to our competitors their fiefdoms, while we create something new.

Talking is good, blogging is fun, and breathing fire is one of my favorite hobbies. But the #SportOfBusiness tops it all. I hope to hear from you soon: george.perry@austintrackclub.com.