This was an honest question that a friend and I discussed recently. We came up with a lot of answers, but we actually couldn’t come up with a good answer. That’s because the answer isn’t an easy one.
I consider myself a professional runner and I work hard every single day at being one, but it’s a situation made even harder when there’s little or no structure or support system for professionals to thrive. This is my third time competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and it’s pretty obvious the sport of competitive running—especially the many disciplines of distance running—needs to change significantly for us to do a better job of marketing ourselves.
Without further ado, here is my proposal to make the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon more appealing to everyone, including the elite runners ourselves.
1. Standardize uniforms.
There should be a standard color uniform associated with each company or sponsored team that agrees to “brand” as its own. People don’t associate with a brand’s identity or jersey color if they change every year. You don’t see other sports change its team jersey’s color year-after year. We need to create identity, not create confusion! Adidas-sponsored runners should have uniforms with its traditional royal blue/yellow; Nike could be purple; ASICS is red; Saucony is orange; Skechers is blue/green; Mizuno is yellow; New Balance is black/white; Newton is lime green with yellow; Oiselle is navy; Brooks is red/yellow/black; Hoka is white/baby blue/yellow; Tracksmith is peach and lavender. Or something like that.
2. Encourage hometown pride.
Make sure the right shoulder of a singlet is reserved for locational identity. There should be a national flag and a state flag. People LOVE to cheer for their home-towners! How awesome would it be to hear otherwise uninformed spectators identifying “the 10 guys from Colorado in the top 20.” It may even get people interested in approaching us and asking if all of us train together in our home state, sparking a conversation with us. (Don’t worry, we’re friendly!)
3. Run it during a major marathon.
I don’t mean the way we are doing it now with the Trials being run a day before the LA Marathon on a special criterium course. I mean we should run it with the race. Not only does this bring in a bigger crowd, it also brings down the LOC’s cost to host the event. They can replace, once every four years, the international field with an American-only invited field. The roads will already be closed, the police getting paid, the prize money up for grabs, and the infrastructure in place. Let’s let the LOC off the hook for footing the bill, USATF!
4. Broadcast, webcast and live Tweet updates in real-time!
Our sport still runs its media program like it’s 1896. The modes of broadcast have evolved a long way since the rules of track and field were written; the business model hasn’t changed. We have a product to sell and both passionate fans and casual fans who are interested in watching races, if we can make it easy for them to see it. This is a sport with PhDs, neuroscience majors, nuclear engineers, teachers, and other interesting and intelligent people. We can turn the athletes’ life stories into relatable stories.
On that note, don’t cut out video coverage every time a break is being made! Place commercials heavier in the earlier part of the broadcast and have scrolling sponsor marquees the second half of the race. Verbally mention sponsors more and cut away less from the action. You can even sell sponsorship in blocks: “miles 1-6 brought to you by …”
5. Allow more viable business models to the athletes.
We are often most dependent on our local sponsors to survive on a day-to-day basis. When we can’t represent them in our biggest stage, there is a diminished value to them sponsoring us.(We are currently restricted to two logos of 30 square cm each for advertisement on or jerseys.) For example, if I’m sponsored by Lou Malnati’s Pizza in Chicago, how exactly does that logo on my jersey diminish Nike’s banner ads every mile marker? You just may get all 35 Lou’s restaurants in the Chicago vicinity to broadcast the trials in-house and have regional viewing parties with local runners, high school teams and general fans packing those places to cheer on regional runners and national stars. Wouldn’t that be a great new way to generate interest in distance running?
I can understand why most people have no interest in the U.S. Olympic Trials as it currently stands. We’re a tribal society and we don’t show who our tribes are! Can you imagine other sports without geographic followings, brand identities, human-interest stories, and local promotion? They wouldn’t make it either. Would you care about football the same if you couldn’t watch games live, didn’t know where teams were from and you knew the final scores before you ever saw the highlights-only coverage? It would certainly be harder to pour your heart into it.
Why should you care about the upcoming U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon? Because these are the best runners in America, going all-out for a chance to represent the U.S. in this summer’s Olympics. Because this is going to be an era of change in American distance running and you don’t want to miss it. We have ideas and it’s up to us to implement them so this becomes a question of the past.
Recently signed as a Skechers Performance athlete, Patrick Rizzo, 32, is a three-time U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier from Colorado Springs. He placed 13th in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston in 2:13:42, which is his PR.