PERHAPS THE BIGGEST CRISIS facing our next Olympic team is the lack of meaningful competition. Not every athlete — or every discipline — gets invites to Diamond League meetings. With most colleges adhering to strict COVID-19 safeguards, their meets are now generally restricted to student-athletes only. And not many post-grad pros have the resources to put on their own events, à la Nike Bowerman.
So where are many of these Olympic Trials hopefuls going to go to get their qualifying marks?
They say that nature abhors a vacuum; we’re not sure that applies to track & field, a sport that all too often is short on opportunity for athletes and the funds to make it happen. Luckily, some of the nation’s creative meet promoters have stepped into the void in an attempt to remedy the situation.
The biggest of several promising developments came with the December announcement of an entity called — for now — Pro Track Series. The circuit brings together new meets and old in a setup that ideally will make a U.S.-based series a thriving reality. (Continued below)
The Pro Track Series venture is not a pandemic-only thing, says one of the instigators, Jesse Williams of Sound Running, who adds that all of the directors expect this to be an ongoing arrangement. “It’s not a one-off. We don’t want to just do it this year and see what happens,” he clarifies. “We want to build it every single year higher and higher: more prize money, more in tune with the athletes, more in tune with broadcasters. It’s something that we want to make a staple on the U.S. domestic circuit.
“We have meets already on the calendar that people have used for years,” he explains. “How can we take those and really move it to the next level for the sport? We have to have matchups, we have to have continuity. We have to have a way the fans can follow.
“The idea behind the series is you’re going to have a 7–8 meet series every year. You can count on that. Athletes are coming, there’s prize purses, there’s going to be matchups.”
The 7-meet lineup for ’21:
5/14 – Los Angeles
5/29 – Portland Track Festival, Portland
5/31 – Iowa High Performance, Des Moines
6/05 – Music City Carnival, Nashville
7/10 – Under Armour Sunset Tour, Los Angeles
7/17 – Under Armour Sunset Tour, Los Angeles
8/14 – Ed Murphey Classic, Memphis
Williams, who directs the three LA meets, adds, “It builds a schedule that people can count on every year. Not only that, but they’re professional meets. In the U.S. it’s mostly the college meets now. There have been a lot of pop-ups recently, but in the regular schedule of a normal year, there’s really not any professional meets outside of the Pre Classic.”
So far, understandably, some of the details are in pencil. The directors have promised more information in a major release in the coming weeks.
C19 Got The Ball Rolling
Blake Boldon, director of the Drake Relays and the new Iowa High Performance Meet, credits Williams and Music City director Dave Milner with firing up the conversation over pandemic challenges: “We started talking best practices, how we were handling COVID testing, what we were doing. We had agreed we should continue this conversation because we each have our own area of expertise and our own strengths.”
Williams confirms, “The pandemic helped us all take a step back and start talking to each other. And yeah, it’s early and this year is still going to be a weird year as far as anybody knows. Like, are we going to be able to have fans at these events?”
Says Craig Rice, director of the Portland Track Festival, “It’s good for the athletes to know that from week to week, the protocols are going to be the same, the resources are going to be the same. It’s going to look and feel like a series. To be on that path along with the other meets can only strengthen our position. We don’t see any downside to it. Only upside for us and for the athletes.”
The Drake organization, already primed by the success of its pandemic-inspired Blue Oval Showcase last August, liked the idea of a permanent addition to their calendar. The Iowa High Performance meet is the culmination of discussions with USATF Iowa about creating a “launching point for national-class athletes.”
Joining the series, says Boldon, “immediately elevates the event. It’s very infrequent that you launch an event and in the inaugural year, you get a call from Track & Field News. This is a huge benefit immediately. What makes it exciting is the joint collaboration between these existing events is helping us create a new one.”
Nick Dwyer, one of the directors of the Ed Murphey Classic in Memphis, which includes youth competitions, says, “We’re really pumped about furthering those opportunities for kids to see world-class track & field. Fan involvement is something that we’re excited about.” (Continued below)
Prize Money The Key
Notes Rice, “It’s going to take a coordinated effort among athletes, agents, coaches and meet directors to bring in enough resources to put on a strong domestic series. Prize money is going to be a big determinant over time. We want to provide as much as we can.”
“The idea,” says Williams, “is that every meet will have its own prize money and there’ll be series prize money on top of that. Theoretically, if you’re someone who could go and win your individual event or place high, you have quite a few earning opportunities between the 7 meets and the overall purse.
“We could probably get all these athletes to show up without prize money, but it’s part of professionalizing the sport that we want to take it to the next level.
“That’s what’s been missing. There’s not enough earning opportunities in the U.S., so people go to Europe. There’s not enough money shared with the athletes.”
Dwyer agrees, “They shouldn’t have to travel across any ocean to participate in a high-level meet in order to get what they need to get done in order to prepare for the Worlds or Olympics.”
Having to go to Europe to compete, he adds, “creates a certain amount of stress. It certainly is expensive for athletes, which makes an already non-lucrative sport even less lucrative. So it really takes a lot of the load off the U.S. athlete if they know they can get a series of high-quality opportunities to compete within the States.”
The name “Pro Track Series”, Williams admits, screams out “‘This space for rent.’ It really is. There are some pretty creative people in the group and they had a million fun names. We just kept coming back to wanting a title sponsor. Why come up with a crazy name that we’re going to have to change in a couple of weeks or months?
“So ‘Pro Track Series’ says exactly what it is, and we are hopeful that someone wants to share in this journey. This is not an every-4-years sport. The Olympics have shown that track & field is very popular and it’s the most participated high school sport between track and cross country. So why aren’t we able to get more eyeballs on it in a non-Olympic year? I know there’s companies out there that would love to support it.”
Says Dwyer, “We have a lot of really nice corporate opportunities [in Memphis]. I feel confident somebody’s going to listen to us and give us an opportunity.”
How To Broadcast The Series?
If a major network doesn’t spring for televising the series, the directors are considering an entirely new model of live streaming the events.
Says Rice, “In Portland [last summer] we ended up putting on a series of smaller meets. We were between contracts with streaming platforms anyway. So we said, ‘Let’s take the summer and see what we can do with our own broadcast.’”
For the series, he explains, “We’re going to try to provide a live stream at a low entry cost for anyone that wants to watch. The small amount that you pay for live stream is going to go to athletes as part of the end-of-season prize money.”
How likely is it that all of the meets will opt for a unified live-streaming platform? Very, says Dwyer. “We’re going to band together and do as much as a unit as we possibly can while maintaining our individual identities. We look forward to being on the same channel essentially, so that people know where to go and it creates a nice following.”
Various entities have tried to boost domestic track in the U.S. summer season since it started losing much of its prominence decades ago. Could it be that a cooperative effort from meet directors across the country — in a nation traumatized by a pandemic — is a big step in the right direction?
Says Williams, “We’re going to take a shot.”
“We’re thrilled to help grow the sport in the U.S.,” concludes Dwyer. “We couldn’t be more happy with the situation that’s been laid down in front of us, which is turning something bad with COVID into something good.”