Why Professional Track & Field Athletes Need to Work Together

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by Jill Pilgrim
Track & Field Athletes Association, Inc.
Acting Executive Director & General Counsel

It is difficult to find good news about track and field in the sports media.  The complicated sport that includes sprints, hurdles, long jump, high jump, road racing, cross country running, race walking, throwing events, pole vault, and other disciplines (track & field), doesn’t garner the same attention as football, baseball, soccer.   But, story after story appears about doping scandals and corruption in track & field.  The news that USA athletes rallied and won the most medals, after a slow start, at the recent 2018 World Indoor Championships is hard to find.  More difficult yet was viewing the competition on traditional broadcast television.  After only one day of NBCSN cable broadcasts in early March 2018, it was only possible to view the UK-based competition via paid Olympic Channel/NBC Sports Gold or NBCSN computer or mobile apps.  Gone are the days when major television networks carry live track & field broadcasts outside of the Olympic Games.

The complete dominance of male professional sports in the American broadcast realm — signaled by huge NFL,  NBA, College football and NCAA basketball contracts — has sucked up the prime broadcast and viewership windows to the detriment of sports like track & field, swimming and gymnastics.  There is a prevailing myth that the prime demographic for broadcast advertisers is males 18-35 years old, with some variations.  However, the reality is that broadcast viewership demographics are  segmented and may depend as much on how frequent and pervasive the promotion of upcoming sports broadcasts are, as on many other factors; including the nature of the product being sold.

The banishment of the 2018 track & field Championships from traditional television channels was also caused by college basketball’s dominance of the airwaves with conference championship tournaments leading up to the Final Four™; the NCAA’s big money-making machine.  And, yes, the highly promoted and broadcasted Winter Olympic Games were also winding down in South Korea.  Despite the crowded sports broadcast media landscape, if there had been some promotion and pre-competition hype for the 2018 IAAF World Indoor Championships, there would likely have been a healthy viewership to cheer Team USA to the top of the Medal Table.  Regrettably, fans of track & field will never know.

Track & field athletes do not get the respect and exposure they deserve.  Professional track & field athletes don’t earn the compensation that their talent and performances warrant.  Track & field athletes are the best athletes in the world by every measure.  They can jump higher, further; and run or walk faster – even with barriers to hurdle – than any other athletes!  So why are track & field athletes among the most exploited athletes in the world, despite the fact that they generate the highest spectator revenue during the Summer Olympic Games?  There are two major reasons.

The administrators who govern the sport of track & field are failing the athletes.  The rampant conflicts of interest, self-enrichment, corruption and focus on conferring riches upon only a few talented top-level athletes, at the expense of supporting and developing as many athletes as possible, has robbed professional track & field athletes of economic benefits, more paid competition opportunities, popular support and visibility.

Professional track & field athletes are among the few groups of athletes who have missed the memo entitled, “You can achieve more benefits if you work together”.  One need only look to recent history to see the success of athletes in other sports working together for their common interests:   USA women’s national soccer team, USA women’s hockey teamFormula 1 drivers union, professional squash players,  professional volleyball players, Norwegian women soccer players, Super Eagles Nigerian men’s soccer players,  Nigerian wrestlers, male UK gymnasts,  Australian cricketersAustralian women soccer players , Australian rugby playersUK women rugby players, and even e-sport players. [Click on each group name to learn more.]

If those examples are not convincing enough, track & field athletes can look back in history to traditional male sports such as baseball (Curt Flood); European soccer (the Bosman free movement of workers ruling), American football (Rozelle Rule), and professional basketball (collective bargaining agreements).

Frederick Douglass uttered wise words that should inspire future action by professional track & field athletes:   Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.  It is long past time for professional track & field athletes to stop waiting for a savior, or worse, for the powerful sport’s governing institutions to give them their due.  Only by well-planned, concerted, intelligent and focused collective action will professional track & field athletes start to reap their proper benefits.

Professional track & field athletes, this is your call to action.  Find your voice, work together for real change and to gain respect as the true professional athletes that you are.  Join the Track & Field Athletes Association now  and let your collective power be realized.