"Our activity is athletics," IAAF President Sebastian Coe said during the opening press conference of the 2016 Diamond League, "but our business is entertainment." Coe was intent on talking about how the sport was going to evolve and attempt to grow its audience. At least in the United States, 99% of track fans are former runners. Few non-runners pay attention to the sport--or even are aware of its existence--outside of the Olympics every four years.
So, what can be done to bring the sport to more people? Coe spoke about the need to encourage experimentation in all aspects of the sport. He noted that nothing was out of bounds when it came to brainstorming innovation. Track and field, he said, has prospered because of its historical ability to evolve. Prospered seems like a strong term especially in the same world as the NBA, NFL and FIFA. The growth of track over the past couple decades, to put it mildly, hasn't quite kept pace with those other leagues.
The realization that future success depends on evolution is refreshing, but, overall, Coe was light on answers about how specifically the IAAF planned to attract a younger crowd. He talked broadly about increasing their presence on social media to bring athletes closer to the fans, but offered little on what that might look like. He vaguely pointed to some of the Nordic winter sports and name-dropped the NBA and NHL as potential models upon which to build a more robust ad entertaining presence on social media.
Fortunately for those of us interested in specifics, American triple jumper Christian Taylor shared the stage in the second half of the press conference. He said that he enjoyed the entrance ramp introduced in Portland for the Indoor World Championships and saw it as a good move to entertain and increase the viewers' familiarity with individual athletes. But, Taylor sounds like he would go much farther in increasing the entertainment factor of the sport: I think we should have fireworks after every jump."
Setting aside issues of practicality and cost, that sort of manufactured showmanship is what has worked well for other sports. Encouraging athletes to celebrate after winning a race or launching a big throw allows for the easy generation of GIFs and potentially viral social media content. Jose Bautista's bat flip in the 2015 ALCS against the Kansas City Royals instantly became an iconic image of triumph. It even earned an appearance on a mock Christmas sweater.
This presents the hurdle that track and field will have to clear to be successful. The only track athlete who has broken through into the public consciousness has been Usain Bolt, who has coupled historic ability with a seemingly natural tendency to find the spotlight. From his signature lightening bolt post-race celebrations, to eating chicken nuggets before a race, Bolt produces good internet all by himself. Even his near-disasters, like when a segway took him out in Beijing last summer, have become page view magnets.
The challenge before the IAAF then is to figure out how to transform the rank and file of its athletes into Bolt-like figures. Thus far, they've shown no ability to do so. We should be very clear that Bolt's personality and instinctual knack for self-promotion--not any effort from the IAAF--is responsible for his popularity. It's not a question of whether there is another Usain Bolt out there somewhere ready to take his place. Rather, it is a question of whether Coe and the IAAF can manufacture another Bolt to ensure the sport has a magnetizing figure instead of depending on the arrival of another generational talent.
This isn't a matter of life and death for track and field. Relative to others, track is a low-cost production, so its revenue requirement is, as a result, lower as well. Still, there are many things track and field can do to engage a fan base, many of which are relatively easy, like, say, creating emoji for individual athletes or flooding Twitter with GIFs during meets. "We're never going to die. We are a strong sport, "Coe said after the press conference. "But I think we can be much better. I don't think we've kept up with other sports in the way we access younger people." They absolutely can do that, but, so far, they haven't. Entering an Olympic season, though, it is encouraging that this issue is at the forefront of the consciousness of the sport.