What is to be done?

Answering the burning question: how do we make the track schedule more accessible?

Thank you to everyone who subscribed after the last post. I frankly did not expect so much traction and so I may have to ditch my plan to pivot to posts like “How the Algerian War of Independence Explains Modern Politics” and just #sticktosports. I think I’ve got enough track takes to last the rest of the summer at least, so we’ll see where this goes!


In the last post I gave my explanation for why track is so difficult to watch and follow as a fan: coaches and athletes control their own racing schedules and don’t pursue the commercially optimal path. This post will be dedicated to ideas about how we might incentivize - with either carrots or sticks - more frequent and compelling competition. A known difficulty in the takes game is that identifying problems is easy, the solutions are hard. I’m going to confess that I don’t have an answer I think is a slam dunk, but I can at least explain why I think commonly proposed ideas won’t work, suggest a sketch of what a solution would look like, and explain why World Athletics had the right idea but colossally messed up the execution. To ground our discussion here are the parameters I think any solution has to take into account:

Principle #1: The goal is for athletes to race more and in a more concentrated spectrum of meets. Not only do I think this makes the sport easier to follow, I think it makes the economics make more sense. When you get stars to race more you are mechanically increasing the value they are providing to fans and sponsors. Same for when you get them to race in high profile events. Concentrating their racing means more loaded fields and compelling matchups - again more attraction for fans and thus broadcasters and sponsors. A more concentrated schedule also means lower fixed costs from fewer meets. So more of the revenue becomes profit that is potentially shareable with the athletes.

Principle #2: Hard problems are hard: It’s a perversely comforting thought to think that if something is bad, it’s because the world is being run by idiots. Everyone loves a smug podcast story about how person ‘X’ had gobs of power and money and did ‘Y’ stupid thing that of course WE would never have done. Disappointingly, the world is not so easily divided into angels and demons. As much as I’d like to say that if you made me God-Emperor of track we’d be rubbing those football assholes noses in our world-historic popularity by the end of the decade, probably I wouldn’t get very far. Along these lines, it’s important to realize that no system cooked up in an armchair is going to be perfect out the gates. There needs to be room for tinkering and iteration.

Principle #3: The world is second best, at best: Hey! That sounds like the title of this blog! No it’s not a reference to all the times I lost to Lawi Lalang (and look I’ve won four national titles so lay off me!). This is about a concept in economics. It’s really just a pretentious nerd’s1 way of saying that you have to take the world as it is. If your ideal plan for track can only work if some big, important thing changes and it’s unlikely we’re going to actually change that thing, you probably need a new plan. Which brings us to…

Principle #4: People are not going to stop making the Olympics/World Championships/Times the focus of the sport. At least not right away. We discussed last time how I think focus on achieving those goals leads to athletes and coaches racing less and in less commercially viable venues than is ideal. I have previously heard people say things like, “We can’t be dependent on the Olympics for track’s popularity, we have to de-emphasize it’s importance!” That’s just re-stating the problem. The only way you will make the Olympics relatively less important is by building something else that attracts prestige and interest. If a starting condition for your idea is that very de-emphasis, you’ve put the cart before the horse.

Principle #5: You can’t decree that people care about something. You can try to build and direct prestige towards a particular event, but ultimately it has to develop organically. You can’t just say, “this is important now, everyone come look!”

I think you can tell from these principles that (the title of this post notwithstanding) I’m not going to take this in a very radical direction. No one organization in the sport has enough power to drastically reshape the landscape, so we are going to have to inch our way to a more commercial product. Maybe you disagree, but I’m laying out my reasons here so we can know on what specific premise we depart.

Let’s discuss some commonly suggested solutions.

Is this where we propose teams?

Well, it’s generally where people do propose the idea of creating some sort of track league. The logic goes thusly:

  1. Track should be more popular.

  2. The most popular sports have teams based in a city competing against each other.

  3. To be more popular, track should be like the most popular sports.

  4. Track should have teams. Q.E.D.

The first thing to say about this is if you want to make track more accessible to a common fan, team events really ain’t it. Team track meets with multiple events are quite difficult to follow. You don’t just need to know the score, you need to know how that compares to the expected score at any given point. One team can win an event at a dual meet 5-4, but actually that’s a loss because they were supposed to win it 8-1. I personally had a great time competing in Stanford’s annual ‘Big Meet’ against Cal, but I also sometimes needed to ask the coaches if we were actually winning, or merely leading, at various points. And I was a team captain!

But really, we don’t even need to get to that. This idea slams into the jagged rocks of Principles #3-5 from above. To make a league work you need to have a draft and teams that train in a city and a regular schedule. No one is going to abandon their ideal training location/coach and move their training/racing away from an emphasis on major championships to join a track league of that sort. Maybe if - in some far flung future - the league made gobs of money and paid high salaries, sure. But how do you get there without it first being popular? How do you make it popular without attracting the best athletes? How do you attract the best athletes without money? How do you get money unless it’s popular…. and round and round we go.

Occasionally people try a version of this idea without the teams actually being units that train together and really live in a specific city. The Tracktown Series of 2016 was one such attempt. A quick story about that: I competed in the Eugene event and I remember that my team won. I was grateful for the extra prize money that accompanied that win, but the only “teammate” I could name was Colby Alexander because his surprise win in the 1500 carried us to victory. And I only know what team I represented because in his post-race interview he ended by saying, “this is for you Portl-aaaaand!” It was a really funny moment. He was echoing Lebron James who had just spontaneously yelled more or less the same thing about Cleveland while weeping emotionally after winning the NBA title. The joke was that obviously we didn’t really care about Portland and Portland cared even less about us. You can’t fake real stakes. 

Can’t we just pay people to do what we want?

Speaking of money, one common suggestion is that we should just pay people to do the right races. Put up prize money and people will follow it. This certainly works to some extent; the JDL Fast Track folks have managed to get some really good athletes to come race on a 200m flat track every indoor season by putting up some quality prize money. But what qualifies as a ton of prize money for a track meet (say, $10,000 for first place) really pales in comparison to the contract incentives (both short and long term) of making a US team. We already have a pretty good example of how this plays out in practice. The USATF road race series offers pretty substantial prize money ($10k- $15K for first) at its national championships at a variety of distances - the prize money for the USATF half marathon championships this year is more than the prize money for winning an event at the Olympic Trials2. Yet, despite the fact that top track athletes clean up whenever they do these races, the prevailing attitude of track people is that chasing money on the roads is a greedy temptation that risks putting the big goals in jeopardy.

‘Well fine,’ you say, ‘just make the prize money REALLY big. Slap $100K down for the win at a few select meets and watch the athletes flock.’

This gets really expensive, really fast. The prize money structure of the Diamond League final ($50k for first place) costs $100k per event. Add up the 24 (12 men, 12 women) events of the Diamond League schedule- already truncated from the 44 at Worlds- and you’re looking at $2.4 million. I’d love to tell you that track is awash in the kind of cash that could make those purses common, but reports are that in 2017-18 World Athletics spent 50% more than it brought in and thus lost almost $20 million dollars a year. USATF was, according to its 2018 tax documents, in healthier financial shape, waffling between small deficits and surpluses. I’d invite a real tax pro to dig into the numbers and tell me if I’m correct, but I don’t see a big well of cash there to be mined for prize purses3 unless you zeroed out all employee compensation or converted all athlete support grants into prize money4. I don’t think putting on even four “majors” with that kind of prize money is feasible under present constraints.

Now it’s true that if you assume a billion dollars, a lot of problems go away. If you know an erstwhile billionaire that wants to spend a lot of money on a track series or league, I’d recommend you tell them to buy a lot of mosquito nets to prevent malaria, fund nuclear fusion research, give money to poor people, or some other socially beneficial endeavor. But if you tell them to do all that and they still want to spend their fortune trying to make track popular, by all means have at whatever scheme you’ve got up your sleeve. Unfortunately, money tends to follow attention, not the other way around. If we want track to be lucrative, we have to make it appealing. As my Dad likes to say: first things first, second things second.

‘Gambling is ILLEGAL at Bushwood, sir…’

Gambling. Many people say it’s the way to go. Works for horses, why not humans? Well in most states it’s illegal to bet on human sports but not on horse racing, so that’s one difference. It is also not the track authorities themselves that stop gambling on track events, it’s local laws around sports gambling. It’s not like it’s legal to bet on NBA games but not track meets. So the differential between track and various sports is not explicable by gambling rules. You can, in fact, now gamble on the Olympics if you live in Oregon, but the fact that the Oregon Lottery (which runs Oregon’s sports betting) did NOT have odds for the Olympic Trials kind of crystalizes the point here: people tend to gamble on things they already wanted to watch. People bet on the NBA a lot more than they bet on track. The NBA is also a lot more popular than track. The correct conclusion to draw is that people bet on the NBA because it is popular, not that it is popular because they bet on it.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the idea that Steve Edwards (aka Mr. Shalane Flanagan) has been floating for years- Vegas, baby! Steve’s proposal is that all of professional track essentially move to Vegas and develop itself entirely around gambling. This would have the principle of centralization I’m after, but I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not becoming the Late-Career-Cher of sports is a desirable destiny for track.

Ok killjoy, what do YOU have?!

Could we have skipped the last three sections and just gone straight here? Yes, yes we could have. But I’ve been in enough discussions about How To Save The Sport that I know what people are going to tweet at me when this drops (some of you have already) and I have a pathological need to pre-empt criticism. If I ever go to therapy I’ll be sure to bring it up. Until then, thanks for bearing with me.

The bottom line here is that we can’t fight against the pull of the Olympics’ gravity. Like in Apollo 13, we have to figure out how to use that gravity to our advantage and slingshot into a better future. The obvious answer then, is to use the carrot of Olympic qualification to force athletes to race more often and in venues of the authorities’ choosing. That answer is so obvious, World Athletics has already come up with it (more on how and why they messed it up in the next section).

We can think about achieving this in a couple ways. One would be a tournament style qualification series. Qualification for the first round would be relatively easy and then you advance from round to round all the way up to the Olympics. The idea has some merit, but falls short, for me, on a couple of points. First, prelims are never as exciting as finals. If 5th is as good as 1st, you’ve already devalued the competition. Second, an extended qualification series would cannibalize too much of the pre-existing schedule, the Diamond League in particular. Those meets are some of the few strong points in track (who doesn’t look forward to Monaco?) and a two month long qualification period probably limits athletes’ desire to do any other racing during that time. Third, it presents a lot of challenges vis a vis country limits and diversity in qualification. So that’s out.

You could also do more of a straight kludge solution. Make it so that in order to qualify for the Olympics you have to hit a time AND run in ‘X’ number of meets of a certain type. This is a more realistic solution, although a couple of obstacles have to be worked out. One, you’d have to make a special carve out for the US collegiate system, which seems easy enough. The bigger hurdle, to my mind, is that all those “meets of a certain type” are actually individual fiefs with their own meet directors and interests. This is track so a thing that would definitely happen is Athlete Y needs to get into some meet to have a chance to qualify but Athlete Z’s agent runs that meet and is blocking them to protect their athlete’s interest. I’m open to thinking more about this, but we’d really have to commit and work through some problems (and incredible Twitter outrage moments).

So that brings us - or least my limited brain power - to the system that probably makes the most sense and World Athletics almost chose before then subverting: a rankings system. I think using a rankings system as the SOLE qualification for major championships has a number of advantages:

  1. It allows World Athletics exert influence without spending a lot of money or controlling all of the meets. WA can’t spend a lot of money because it’s already losing a lot of money and it can’t control all of the meets because the sport is by nature decentralized and there are a lot of power centers that would resist further centralization.

  1. It’s an easily tweak-able system that allows for near constant experimentation without a lot of transition costs.

  1. Rankings are common in the sports world and easily digestible to the average sports fan.

  1. If you set up the incentives of the system properly, you can massively incentivize competition over times and basically eliminate the rewards of setting up small time trial style meets. 

I want to expand on that last point here briefly. Not only does de-emphasizing time for qualification purposes reduce what most people consider the most egregiously non-commercial events (e.g. meets put on by Jerry Schumacher), it also opens up the accommodations which can be made for TV and marketability. ESPN, for example, mandates that all American Track League meets be held on weekend afternoons as that is the space they have the largest need to fill. In a world in which making/not making the Olympics hinges on whether you ran 3:35.0 or 3:36.1, athletes and coaches are going to push to run at night when temperatures are cooler. This how you end up with a situation in which track was broadcast live on ESPN2 last Sunday, but the 1500m performances everyone was buzzing about were run at the same track later that night and on Flotrack.

Now for this system to work you have to try very hard to make it good. You have to work through all the incentives to figure out what the exact right configuration is and you have to iterate over time to make it better. And the first time around World Athletics definitely did not do that.

The worst of both worlds: Hybrid times/rankings

The biggest drawback I see to a rankings system is that it leaves athletes and fans with more uncertainty about who is qualified or not for the major championships. We saw this at the US Olympic Trials when Cole Hocker won the 1500m, but because he didn’t have the standard he had to wait until his spot in the World Rankings was confirmed. The upside of this drawback (I apologize for the awful phrase) should be that it forces athletes to race more. Instead of resting on their laurels/qualification times they’d have to constantly be worried about losing their spot in the rankings.

So of course, in their infinite wisdom, World Athletics decided to combine its 2020 Olympics rankings system with a time qualification system that gave athletes an out from that uncertainty. Not only did this mean that the best athletes (who could easily hit the qualifying time) had no reason to even worry about their ranking, but the athletes who were more marginal for qualification now had an extra incentive to seek out ever more perfect time trial races so they could hit the harder standard and take their destiny into their own hands. The reason Woody Kincaid ran 12:58 at a track with no stands is because the new super standard incentivized our Bowerman squad to set up an ideal time trial to guarantee qualification. I even heard rumors of people trying to set up a 10k time trial at the BU indoor track in March to hit the 27:27 qualification time. These are exactly the kind of meets World Athletics was trying to kill! This is Greek Tragedy levels of irony here, people. Real “Oedipus kills Laius” energy.

How do we make it Good?

It is my hope that World Athletics will stick with the rankings idea and scrap the hybrid monstrosity it created. I don’t have a formula in front of me for how I’d make this work, but I do have a few ideas to toss out there in case World Athletics cares what I think:

  • Fix the number of meets in each tier and make the status criteria for those meets automatic. World Athletics has a huge problem with corruption and one obvious issue with the rankings system is that politically well connected meets will get higher ratings in the points system and that lobbying for status upgrades will bloat the ranks of the high tiered meets and kill any chance to concentrate competition. One idea: make status dependent on how many highly ranked athletes competed at the event the year prior.

  • Consider adding a status bonus to meets that are broadcast live on TV (to a certain number of people) or for free on the internet. 

  • Limit how far back the rankings window goes and don’t be afraid to push the number of races needed to get a ranking higher. For example, I think a 1500 meter runner should have to run at least five races in the calendar year to even get a ranking. Matt Centrowitz is ranked 18th in the world despite racing the 1500m at only three meets this year. If our goal is to make athlete’s race more, make them race more.

  • Consider dropping time from rankings points all-together. Instead of a hybrid time + place points system, just use place. I’m less sure of this, but I’d be very interested to see how it played out.

  • Be patient, remember Principle #2. It takes time to change people’s habits and incentives. Consider the example of the Diamond League and ISTAF Berlin. ISTAF Berlin was one of the premier events on the track circuit and was offered a spot in the Diamond League when it was formed. It declined so that it could maintain control over its own schedule. It still does well, but a decade on I think it has clearly diminished in importance relative to those meets that accepted a spot. That’s tough for the meet itself, but it’s a positive sign for the governing body’s ability to shape attention and incentives in the long run.

This has been quite a long post, much longer than I originally intended and I thank you for sticking with it. At the end, I have not arrived at some miraculous or earth shattering idea. But like the Boss says: from small things, Mama, big things one day come. Hard problems are hard and a sport as big and diffuse as track will not be transformed overnight. A better world is always possible, however. If we are realistic about where we are, what our strengths are, and what incentives people respond to, we can steer this ponderous, fractious ship in a better direction.

Thanks for reading!

1

Look if I can’t be a pretentious nerd on my own blog, where CAN I do it??

2

You might be saying, “Wait!? Let’s just redistribute THAT money!” but the problem is that it won’t go very far. A road race only has two events: the men’s and the women’s race. If you exclude the marathon’s and the walks, the Trials have FORTY.

3

An issue here as well is that USATF cares most of all about having lots of medalists. One federation moving unilaterally to defy its coaches, grab control of athletes’ schedules, and promote more racing is unlikely for that reason. It has to be a global change so no federation has the incentive to ‘defect’.

4

Yes, yes I know Max Siegel gets paid more than other comparable CEOs by about $500K. I’m not saying that’s good, but its about a fifth of the Diamond League final purse. Fixing that problem will not solve the funding gap.