Athletics’ big thinker looks to rugby and cricket for inspiration

US 2004 Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson is one of the sport’s great thinkers, and the vice president of the Track & Field Athletes Association. He believes the sport needs major structural reform.

“The problem with change is it usually means someone has to give up something – privacy, marketing rights, comfort – in order for the change to take place.  Allowing the media and fans greater access to the athletes during warm-up or in the call room requires the athletes to change the way they prepare.

"Opening the rules on athlete sponsorship requires a change in the dynamic between sponsors, agents, and athletes. New advances in drug testing are often accompanied by massive invasions of privacy. Changes to competitive rules usually require some acclimation. It doesn’t matter what you change, someone’s going to get frustrated with it.

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"That’s not to say that we shouldn’t change anything. We should. It’s just that I think we spend a lot of time addressing the symptoms rather than identifying the cause. In the US our sport has the highest participation rates of any sport at the high school level, yet we often fail to sell 5000 seats in anywhere but Eugene, Oregon for a world-class event.

"This seems illogical considering American football generates over $9 billion in revenues each year and that’s a sport that primarily exists in the US.  We seem more focused on filling a single event rather than building a platform that can rival the NFL in revenue. So when I think about changes to the sport I try to think about what other sports have done to catapult themselves into a multi-billion dollar sports enterprise.

"Cricket introduced the Twenty20 format [adopted internationally in 2005]. Rugby introduced the Rugby Sevens [first international tournament 1973]. Both innovations streamlined the traditional format of the game in order to appeal to a broader fan group.  Both seem to be growing the fan base, increasing revenues, and improving the value proposition for the fan and television. So I ask the question:  what is our Twenty20 or Sevens?

In order to create our Twenty20 or our Sevens, we need to undergo some major structural changes at the management level, the athlete level, and competitive format.  First, we need to differentiate between the professional and the national/Olympic team sides of the sport. These two groups are often at odds with each other.  You don’t see too many national team federations running the professional counterpart of their respective sport.  I don’t understand why track and field believes it can do so effectively.  

"Second, we need a stronger athletes’ voice. The Track and Field Athletes’ Association (TFAA) is the first athletes’ association with international membership. It needs to continue to refine its mission and function as a legitimate stakeholder representing the collective interests of the professional athletes.  

"Finally, we need to engage all parties in a dialogue of what the sport should look like. Sorry, this conversation can’t be owned by one group. The new professional governing body, the TFAA, the sponsors, meet directors, coaches, agents, media and fans all must come together to define a global vision for the sport. Then, we can move forward with the massive innovation that allows our sport to develop a platform capable of sustaining a multi-billion dollar sporting brand.  

"Maybe we should focus on the smaller fixes, but it delays the inevitable. We’re going to have to address the issue of truly professionalising our sport or we will have to accept that our sport only survives on the Olympic coattails."