Take that all you Broad Street runners: What track and field can learn from the branding of road runs

May 7, 2014

So there I was, enjoying a brilliant spring weekend, when Facebook interrupts my feel-good with an onslaught of posts from friends, acquaintances, and colleagues all touting their monumental athletic accomplishment. Here in Philly, where health food is a hoagie with lettuce and tomato and laying on the sofa watching the Eagles is our version of working out, it seems that the height of physical activity is a long, slow 10 minute-a-mile scholog for 10 miles down the main artery of our fine city. The Broad Street Run, which took place last weekend, is our city’s orgy of all things running, where some 40,000 housewives and insurance salesmen brand themselves athletes by competing in something, well, not all that athletic. Heck my dog could finish the Broad Street Run, really. Tahini can!

I scoffed, as a track purist, so full of myself. After all, I was the one who just last week and for 30 years previous has attended the Penn Relays, the world’s greatest participatory track and field event, ironically held in the same city, drawing astonishing runners from around the world. Heck, 99.9 percent of Broad Street runners couldn’t qualify for Penn Relays if they tried in their cars.

Then, I suddenly realized: I am such an ass!

While track and field has slowly rendered itself superfluous over the 35 years I have known and loved it, road runs, like Philadelphia’s Broad Street Run, are at their height of popularity. And not just road runs, but extreme runs like Tough Mudder (no explosive diarrhea jokes), The Death Spartan Race, and Tough Guy Jesus Warrior draw thousands while the legendary Millrose Games has been relocated from Madison Square Garden to a small venue in Harlem.

And I am to blame. Me and my track purist buddies, a bunch of greying old guys who can yack on for hours about the difference between a 45 second quarter mile and 46 second one. Traditionalists who find more joy in a single athlete running a sub 3:55 mile than an ocean of the fit, unfit, and semi-fit trudging through North Philadelphia doing something good for themselves (and fully recognizing themselves on Facebook for it)!

We are collectively responsible for isolating our own sport from the masses, diminishing its brand, and destroying any possibility of finding or building audience—all because we don’t want to play with others, to be inclusive. It’s a question of branding, but also of substance. I mean, if the Blue Man Group can make mimes cool by changing the color of the face paint, then anyone can reinvent their image and perception.

After all, that’s my game — the PR business. But even I fall prey to time and arrogance. Time was in the 1970’s when road running was a part of track and field. Phil Knight, a former Oregon track and field runner, founded Nike. We were once all one but went our separate ways due to one side’s self-inflicted short sightedness.

Track and field needs to take a lesson from country music and open its definition of itself. I mean is Sheryl Crow really a country artist? How about that guy from Hootie and the Blowfish who’s always golfing? No. But there they are on the Country Music Awards, with no more twang in their voice than Woody Allen. While country music has expanded, rock and roll has contracted. (Although country music can keep Darius Rucker.)

So here’s what track and field needs to do: First, it’s gotta love and promote its superstars—even make them appear at the road races and fun runs for which my own arrogance causes distain. This year at the Penn Relays, our country’s greatest female distance runner appeared in the infield. Mary Cain (who my daughter complains I love more than her) is perhaps the biggest story in women’s athletics. A world-champion at 18 years of age, she is so unknown that she stood anonymously at Penn — never even being introduced to the crowd. We should be touring and promoting the daylights out of that woman. Get her on Good Morning America. Make her the honorary starter at Boston. Transform her into the Martha Stewart of running, someone who can dole out and connect with all those first-year law associates crowing about their Broad Street Run performance.

Next, expand our events and add some excitement. Okay, so others have usurped road running, but we still have some great event, like relays. Concoct a cocktail of offbeat and extreme track and field relays. Imagine a co-ed world championship in the 4×400 or 4×800, a true battle of the sexes.
Or steal something from cycling? How about a team time trial, where teams of eight compete for over 50 or 60 miles, the slowest runner sets the team’s time. Or how about a “World Jump Off,” where athletes complete in all the jumps — high, long, triple, and vault (along with a few from NFL’s combine).

The NBA makes an entire weekend around its All-Star Game’s slam dunk contest. A field of Olympic track and field jumpers would cream the best of the NBA, but we fail to capitalize on the athleticism of our own sport. As for track and field meets themselves, they are too long and drawn out. A high school track meet should take no more than 1.5 hours — not consume an entire Saturday.

Heck, road races happen early and have contestants back home by lunch time. And we also need to stop diminishing the sport through our language. Why would the track and field community ever shrink the glory and grandeur of the decathlon, buy now calling it Multi (as in the mulit-events).  It’s kind of like bronzing a gold medal for posterity — turning something into nothing.

Next, we need to get more people involved and let them brand themselves. If road running proves one thing, it’s that people want to brand their own accomplishments. Road running is one of the few physical activities where people can shout: “Look at me,” whether it’s in their own neighborhood or at one of those carnival-like running events.

Track, well, it’s gone the exact opposite. This year’s Penn Relays was so restrictive that now its popularity rests in one foreign nation – Jamaica, and the Jamaicans who love the Penn Relays and all things track and field. By overplaying that card and centering the entire event on Jamaican stars and fans, track has become so exclusive that it’s lost any broader meaning to sports fans.

And finally, let’s stop taking track and field so seriously. Running is the first sport most of us take up, and in some cases, like mine, the only one our limited coordination allows us to pursue. To rebrand track and field, we need to take a lesson from the Broad Street Run and add back some of the sheer joy inherent in it. Now that would be something worth branding.

So you really thought I was going to slam the Broad Street Run and listen to all my friends rag on me for the next 12 months? Nah.  Just using it to shine a bit of light on a sport I love but can’t seem to get out of its own way — like some overweight Broad Street runner proving he’s still got it. No, you don’t and neither do I. But you have something me and my buddies don’t have. You sure know how to brand yourself and your self-proclaimed accomplishments!

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