Friday, March 27, 2009

USATF President Doug Logan has ideas, but …

An article in the Jan-Feb issue of Running Times magazine outlined some of the ideas that new USA Track and Field President Doug Logan has been touting to revamp and revitalize distance running in America. I think he has a steep learning curve in front of him, but perhaps his experience and enthusiasm will help him reach a point where he understands the challenges and can put in place initiatives that are effective. I don’t know who his most-trusted advisors might be, and of course I’m not one of them, but that’s not going to stop me from looking at some of his ideas (as described in the article) and responding to them from my own, long-time runner’s perspective.

From my interpretation of the article, it seems that Logan has three main goals:
1. Recruit ‘weekend warriors’ to become members of USATF
2. Attract more fans and sponsors
3. Unify the leadership of distance running in America

On the surface, these aren’t bad goals. Any organization is at least somewhat dependent on its members, its ability to sustain interest and financial support, and its ability to provide leadership. Let’s take a closer look at these goals and play around with some ideas of my own.

1. Recruiting weekend warriors by showing them meaningful benefits

I’m not going to belabor this point, but I feel it must be made: “weekend warriors” is a condescending term for the tens of thousands of runners who train hard and make sacrifices day-in and day-out in the pursuit of being the best they can be. Sure, there are weekend warriors out there, but the runners I know aren’t in that group. We might be termed “sub-elites” or “age-group competitors”, but what we do is far more than stumble out of bed on the weekends and jog around the block. Logan should take great care in recognizing this, or he will alienate a huge portion of his potential constituency.

Now, just what are those benefits that he is referencing? Unfortunately, the article never lists even one. Luckily for you, dear reader, I ’ve got a list of suggestions:
  • Take a look at what VeloNews has done for competitive cycling coverage in this country, and emulate that model for competitive running. Consider partnering with mainstream running media (Runners World, Running Times, etc.) to get the word out.
  • Provide regional coaching clinics for member clubs; this could be done in conjunction with RRCA, who already offer a terrific coach training program at their annual conference.
  • Provide meaningful discounts, both for general retailers and for specific events (e.g., race entry fees, track meets). Be aggressive here, people are hurting for money and they need to see value in sending USATF a check.
  • Provide better online resources. You will really make a splash if you provide two things to your members: (1) an online running log that is easy to use and comprehensive, and (2) a combined event calendar and registration system that does not charge the same kind of silly “processing fees” that and its many competitors do (as my friend and fellow blogger Steve Wolfe has pointed out, how on earth could there be a higher cost for online registration than for mail-in, hand-written forms?? After all, self-service with automated tools should make the process easier for race directors). If the USATF provided the one reliable place to go to find a race and sign up for it without large added fees, membership would grow exponentially.
  • Feature your members on the website, one new person every single day, with photos and biographies. You could make it a random selection, or make it by nomination, but recognition will go a long way.
  • Publish online a periodic digest of the latest in human performance research. We runners don’t have time to read all of the professional journals, and even if we did most of us wouldn’t know what to make of them. Form a panel of students, supervised by experts, whose job it is to read and interpret the meaning and importance of the latest research and put synopses online.

2. Attract more fans and sponsors

The article describes Logan’s goal to “… attract more fans and sponsorships -- perhaps through the creation of a series of running events that leads to a major championship. That would be a model similar to what football, baseball, basketball, hockey and even NASCAR follow, but very different than the current USATF system of having various championship events scattered throughout the calendar.” The author then quotes Logan as saying, “Do we really have a sport? … Running is a bunch of disparate activities ... The reason sports get media exposure is because they have periodic competitions leading up to a championship event."

Now hold on just a minute there Mr. Logan. Okay, so you want to make sure we have a “sport”, I understand that point. But I think that you may have really jumped to a conclusion here about why sports attract fans and get media exposure. Let’s think this through a little bit …
Periodic competitions leading up to a championship event isn’t the only factor that makes mainstream sports so popular. You have to take several other things into account: history, local and regional loyalties, the spectator-friendly nature of certain sports, and the ability of people to identify themselves with certain teams or individuals.

If you want to make running into a sport (and I assume your primary focus is on track meets here, but I think you should keep as wide a perspective as possible), then you have got to find a way to embrace all of these factors. How? Well, you are going to need a league of some sort, with teams that represent specific cities, states, or regions … build that loyalty. Teams need some kind of continuity, in coaches and athletes, so that fans can develop favorites and rivals. That league needs to have a defined season, so that champions can eventually be crowned at the end, and so that the losers can come back and get them next year. Your league must emphasize the long history of running in this country, its origins, its future stars. Most of all, you need the potential fans to feel like they are part of the event.

Track meets, in particular, have a format that does not appeal to everyday spectators. There are unexplained, long lulls in the action, occasionally interrupted by some flurry of activity. There are rarely any teams involved, it’s always every man for himself, even in international competitions. The events are all mixed up in the public’s eye, so there is no sense of continuity. There are no teams, no won-loss records, no standings, no playoffs … how can fans get excited without those ingredients?

Let’s talk about television coverage for a moment. You’ve got to admit, it’s awful. The incessant focus only on individual champions is terribly off-putting. The athletes typically come across as annoying, ego-maniacal posers. TV coverage focuses far too much on world record-setting performances, which means that anything less than a new record comes off as a disappointing performance. Think of it this way: the equivalent would be if each and every play in an NFL football game was deemed a disappointment by the announcers because a touchdown wasn’t scored. You know what? Fans understand that you can’t always be perfect, you have to find a way for the press to go with that, and for the focus to be on the competition, not the world records. Other problems with TV coverage: there is far too much human interest filler, and not enough racing. Let’s go back to the that comparison with coverage of an NFL football game: You wouldn’t cut away right in the middle of a long punt return in order to show a short piece on how the punter loves his three dogs, and then cut back just in time to see the returner cross the goal line. Fans would be outraged, they would have missed the entire play, wouldn’t know how he scored, how he avoided the tackling, etc. Yet this is what television does during race coverage, it interrupts the race to blather on about the people … invariably, the viewer misses the crucial move, or blindly goes along thinking that the only interesting part of any race is the final 0.5 seconds and then it’s all just a waste of time if a record wasn’t broken. Not good. You’ve got to show the race and you’ve got to get announcers who can recognize what’s going on and add a dash of excitement to explaining it. Also, if a break for an ad does occur just when a marathoner makes his move, for goodness sake go to a replay to show it!

You have this enormous throng of your so-called weekend warriors , who should be the number one fan base for all things running, but they are not … why? We don’t help them identify with the team, town, sport, athlete, etc. We need to find a way to connect professional league competitions to established local races. Bring the pros to the people. In fact, make the pros NEED the people. Make participation count: host city must have 200 runners finish a local 10k in under an hour, or their team is penalized a few points. Get the kids involved too, have them run a short event and count their participation as a way to earn the points back if they are lost. I see no end to creative ways that this could be pulled together.

3. Unify the leadership of distance running in America

In the article, the author noted Logan's “ … concern that the long-distance running community is too splintered …” referring to organizations such as the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA), Running USA (RUSA) and Professional Road Running Organization (PRRO), among others, but was emphatic when he said the distance running community needs to have a cohesive voice. "… What do they all do?" he says, adding that it seems as if people want to form new organizations and groups rather than uniting under "one or two banners. It's symptomatic of [what has been] an overall lack of leadership."

Well, you left out a number of other important groups of varying size and purview, like the NYRR, CARA, HARRA, and even ATRA (plus any number of other indecipherable acronyms). Lack of leadership? Yeah, maybe at a higher level, but each organization typically has its own set of capable leaders. Is it really necessary to eliminate other groups in order to succeed? Or would it be better to provide services that are so good that the other groups come to you for assistance? Seems rather simple to me, frankly. Invest now, reap later. The path to success is not to try to eliminate your competition through criticism, it is instead to do better than your competition and then let the rest take care of itself. If you provide a clear direction, sense of purpose, transparency, willingness to adapt, and capacity to be helpful, you will attract the members, sponsors, and media coverage that you seek. To borrow a well-worn movie line: If you build it, they will come.

Good luck, Mr. Logan. I hope you can succeed where your predecessors haven’t. If you're ever in NYC and want to do some brainstorming, I'm your man!

1 comment:

  1. Douglas, you make some excellent points and have well thought out ideas as well. Now you need someone to listen.
    I see no benefit to being a member of USATF. I am only a member because it is required in order to race in the New England Grand Prix series. If my running club did not pick up the entry fees to these races I wouldn't even be a member.
    They have an outdated, stale, nearly useless website which I probably will never visit again. Other than that I have no strong opinion.


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