Wednesday, June 25, 2014
Is Track and Field Really a Professional Sport?
I read a recent article in the Indianapolis Star that posed this same question. The article went on to mention how for Usain Bolt it is as he racked in over $23 million, but that more than 50% of athletes ranked in the World's Top-10 make less than $15,000. I was stuck on that line for a while, "World's Top-10 make less than $15,000". I don't think the Top-10 in any occupation in the world makes as little as that. The Top-10 ranked fry cooks at McDonald's make more than $15,000 a year.
So in that sense I would have to say that track and field isn't a professional sport, not for most at least. The whole basis of being a professional athlete is being someone who is paid for play, simple as that. There's actually ranked track and field athletes that lose money on being a "professional". So how did such a long-lasting and proud sport find its way into a predicament where many of the top athletes are forgoing the professional route because they can't afford it. I will explore a few possible reasons for this.
1. Nike's Monopolistic Power Has Stagnated The Sport. Without Nike there is no professional track and field, so it's hard to blame the apparel giant for the sport's dire situation. Nike wields almost absolute power in the sport in America. United States Track and Field even receives a significant portion of their funding directly from Nike. Most athletes strive for a Nike contract in order to compete, so simple supply and demand tells us that Nike can offer (lowball) athletes any amount and they're almost forced to accept it. You can see how this has stagnated the earnings of the athletes. Detailed market analysis might say an athlete is worth $50K to Nike, but there is nothing stopping Nike from offering them $20K or even less.
This is where it gets complicated, because Nike is first and foremost an apparel company before anything else. Imagine the value of the advertising they are getting by having elite level athletes wearing their gear for cheap. Casual runners (a very significant portion of the population) see what the elite athletes are wearing and buys all the Nike merchandise they can find. I believe for the most part that track and field athletes are only being used as "cheap models" of Nike gear and equipment. Everyone is familiar with the term "track body". Consumers see these fit athletes and their gear, which is usually Nike, and makes a correlation between the two. These consumers then spend hundreds of dollars emulating the athletes. Nike wins, the small payouts they give to most track and field athletes are a small expense compared to the return on investment.
2. The Shadow of Football and Basketball. Those two sports specifically cast such a big shadow over the rest of American sports. ESPN and other sport networks would much rather run a detailed story of what LeBron ate for breakfast, or whether a professional franchise is cursed opposed to covering great track and field meets. Texas Relays, every NCAA Regional, and even select conference meets could be shown on television. What I found out over the years is there are a lot of track and field fans, but the coverage for track and field is lacking. It makes being a fan more of a chore than an enjoyment as you have to "find" results, articles, etc. We're told that viewers aren't into certain sports but how will we know unless we actually showcase them a bit. I think networks would be surprised. I love watching football and basketball, but I would much rather watch a track meet or hear track analysis and coverage than whether Carmelo is going to opt in to his contract or will Johnny Football stop partying long enough to learn his playbook.
I also think the current model of trumping up the Olympics every four years isn't really helping the sport. It has created this ideology that if it is not the Olympics than it is not significant. Lolo Jones no matter how you feel about her, career is constantly being overlooked because she didn't win an Olympic title despite her numerous other accolades. There's nothing comparable to winning a gold medal in team sports, so comparing an Olympic gold medal to team championships is flawed. It's just not a good recipe for success. I'm two classes and a thesis away from my Master's in Sport Management, and I can tell you that when you want to sell a sport and increase people on the usage escalator into high usage people, you do not focus only on the pinnacle moments. Anyone will purchase a well-priced Super Bowl ticket, but can you get them to the games in mid-October? The Olympics are the pinnacle of athletics, but you don't want to undersell the non-Olympic events in order to promote the grandness of the Olympics. In short, you want people paying attention more than every 4 years, especially if you want to increase income since corporate sponsors rake in the Olympic dollars. Which leads me to my next point.
3. Corporate Sponsors. Every sport has corporate sponsors that benefit, they would have no reason to be a sponsor if that weren't the case, but in no other "professional sport" is the split so unequal. There are rumors about track and field athletes unionizing and making a Collective Bargaining Agreement and I'm not sure exactly how this would work with a sport like track and field. Would the corporate sponsors be considered the owners? What I do know is that CBA's normally guarantee the athletes a certain percentage of the revenue generated, usually between 40-55 percent. The current structure of track and field right now is probably about 90-10 and that is being generous. Then you have the spectacle which is the Olympics, that the athletes make nothing off of, while corporate sponsors make hundreds of millions. Not proposing Olympic athletes get paid for making the team but maybe there should be a purse for events. In the ancient Olympics, the athletes competed for prizes that were very valuable, plus we've already eliminated the sham of amateurism in the Olympics. I know for many this would hurt the perception of the Olympics, but I'm not focused on perception right now, just throwing out possible ideas to rectify a flawed system. Plus, I don't think making a bit of money changes the pride in competing for one's country. Maybe instead of getting paid directly athletes could receive a certain amount of funding up until the next Olympics. I competed for UNC on a full track and field scholarship and I can assure you that I had pride in competing for my school. It didn't make me a mercenary and it won't make these professional athletes receiving a stipend or funding less prideful in their country.
4. Track and Field Runners/Meet Directors and Fans. Simply put, track and field athletes have to do more to grow their own sport. Some of that is simply showing more support for your sport outside of competing. In college, I had teammates that would complain about having to arrive at track meets early, but would spend a whole day at a football game and related activities. I'm not saying that track athletes can't promote other sports, but I am saying that you can't complain if you aren't doing more to support your sport either. Show up at local middle school and high school meets, I'm willing to bet that the parents and kids would return the support as well. We fill up several 100,000 capacity stadiums each Saturday, and then fill up 70,000 stadiums the next day during football season, we can do a much better job of attending other track and field meets.
The big money is in television contracts, but more spectators increase brand value which can help get more T.V. money in the future. Also track and field needs to do something to make meets more watchable. Implement more scored meets, not offer certain long distance races at every meet, limit the amount of jumps at some competitions, etc. I'm a track and field enthusiast, so I don't mind watching a steeplechase or 3K (the 10k does get a bit unwatchable) or watching triple jumpers get all 6 jumps or pole vaulters and high jumpers slow incremental progressions. To an outside viewer, it seems too slow paced. Some of those events extend for hours and it appears that the jumpers are merely jumping into the same place or the same height unless you have a keen eye for track and field. I'm not proposing changing everything about the sport to make it more watchable, but over the years football, basketball, and baseball were all willing to make changes to keep their sport spectator friendly. If track wants to be a professional sport it has to do the same.