Track & Field’s Growing Pains Are Similar To What We’ve Seen In Swimming

Track and field athletes have been outwardly expressing their dismay for the sport’s current state of affairs regarding its business model, one that draws several parallels to that of swimming.

The situation is outlined in a recent report from The Sports Examiner (TSX), which is centered around a CBC feature published on May 1 by two-time Olympic medalist Aaron Brown.

Brown, a 29-year-old Canadian sprinter who won a pair of Olympic medals in the men’s 4×100 relay in Rio (bronze) and Tokyo (silver), let it be known that he feels track and field needs an overhaul to allow athletes to make enough money to continue competing at the highest level.

“It is far too common for world-class track and field athletes to go unsponsored. Many athletes depend on ‘Go Fund Me’ campaigns to chase their dreams,” Brown said.

“Talented athletes who fall short of the podium believe they have accomplished nothing, that they don’t deserve financial support. … Imagine a profession where you need to be a world top 10 just to begin earning a decent wage. That is the reality for many track and field athletes.

“Reducing the sport to the absolute best of the best devalues and alienates an entire group of athletes who are one small tier below the extreme peak.”

Just that quote alone falls in line with what we see in swimming, at least to an extent, where the absolute best of the best are rewarded and the rest are left to fight for what’s left.

That’s generally been the case both in terms of podiums at major competitions like the Olympic Games, as Brown noted, and in events like the International Swimming League (ISL) or FINA World Cup, where the majority of the prize money is doled out to the big winners.

Brown goes on to write about the NFL, how television deals increase the value of the sport and therefore the salary cap, ultimately earning the players more money.

“Athletes in other professional sports understand that they are the asset, providing value to the sport, not the other way around,” he said. “Pro leagues understand that the more valuable the athletes, the more valuable the product, and everyone stands to profit. This has always been missing from our sport.”

Brown says track and field has been hesitant to stray away from tradition, which is similar to swimming in terms of being stuck in the four-year Olympic cycle.

“Change won’t happen without a unified effort from the most influential athletes at the top of our profession. Our sport should find a way to partner with athletes, to leverage their value from a business perspective. If we can increase the overall value of our sport, it can be a viable choice for prospective athletes.

“I believe that value remains hidden in our sport because we are reluctant to veer away from tradition. Track & field governing bodies have been slow to embrace change. We can’t even post videos of ourselves at track and field’s biggest events because billion-dollar conglomerates own the rights. But how can we grow the sport and attract casual viewership when those moments are hidden behind memberships and paywalls?”

The TSX report goes on to outline several other track and field athletes who have expressed a similar sentiment to Brown on social media recently, including one who has been developing her own brand due to an inability to get sponsored (despite being a World medalist and Olympic finalist).

Brown also said: “In many leagues, an athlete union negotiates with the owners.”

This is a void that the newly-formed International Swimmers’ Alliance (ISA) has attempted to fill in swimming, though that’s still in the early stages. In February, in lieu of the numerous changes to the global swimming calendar, the ISA was outwardly critical of the ISL and FINA for their lack of involvement in those decisions.

The ISL, which canceled its fourth season in late March citing the war in Ukraine, also draws parallels to track and field’s Diamond League, though there is one key difference.

The Diamond League will hold 13 events in 2022 (scheduled for 14, one was canceled), spread over 17 weeks with a one-month gap in the schedule for the World Championships.

The Worlds, run by World Athletics, is not directly attached to the Diamond League, similar to the ISL and FINA, though the Diamond League does have a relationship with World Athletics that allows the Diamond League champion to get a bye into the World Championships (that also doesn’t count against their country’s cap for the event at Worlds). The Diamond League is also not affiliated with other highly-attended pro meets, which want to have the autonomy to do what they want.

TSX also looks at the Diamond League’s 14-meet schedule, which is the same number of meets that were planned in its inaugural season in 2010, and how that falls fell short of what other sports that have been in a similar position (Major League Soccer, Women’s National Basketball Association, National Women’s Soccer League) have done to increase revenue.

The ISL has expanded from its seven-match inaugural season in 2019, planning for 27 in 2020, but that was greatly reduced due to the pandemic. In 2021, the season totaled 18 matches.

Brown finishes his 1,400-word essay by offering athletes different ways of increasing their brand through fan engagement and other things.

“Track and field athletes are overdue for some innovation,” he says. “We shouldn’t rely on shoe companies and prize money to subsidize our sport. We need to shoulder some responsibility for the current state of affairs. We need to take ownership of our perceived value and manufacture more of it.”

He closes on the following note:

“Winning and high performance will always rightfully remain the priority of our sport, but that doesn’t mean track and field athletes can’t find other ways to leverage their professional careers and Olympians to increase their year-round value. The races may only have one winner, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the field has to lose.”

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TX Swim
5 days ago

I love the sport of swimming and have a daughter who has swam competitively since age 9, so I am bias here. Doesn’t change the fact that swimming, track, LaCrosse, etc, don’t pull in $$$$ because the public interest just doesn’t support it to the level where all these athletes can make a good living at it. Football, basketball, baseball take the lion share of the fans interest and dollars because it’s a dynamic team sport that is fun to watch. The world doesn’t owe a decent living to x% of top athletes in every sport, it’s the free market system that determines the monetary value of the participants in sports or for that matter industry. The ISL is a… Read more »

Awsi Dooger
6 days ago

Diamond League would have more meets other than necessity of wrapping the season around the major events like Olympics or world championships. They face this every year. They have to pause the schedule for a month or so, basically two weeks on either side of the championship. Some years they have to do it twice because there are also European Championships to deal with. Diamond League is European based. So I don’t think it’s a valid argument to claim that track and field is stalled since the number of Diamond League meets at 14 has remained the same since 2010. This isn’t the LPGA which can play all year and had to fight to regain events after dropping to basically… Read more »

6 days ago

I believe swimming should look to other individual sports as a model for professional competition. Think golf or tennis which are individual tours with occasional international team competitions. The last I heard, Olympic swimming is the highest rated Olympic sport and the youth participation is through the roof. What we need is incentive for the worlds best swimmers to show up at major events and swim fast. In my opinion, the way to do that is to hold a US Open style meet with significant prize money. Limit the number of events and payout big money to anybody who makes semis, finals, and podium. If you can win $50k for making finals in the 50 free, you’ll have the best… Read more »

About James Sutherland

James Sutherland

James swam five years at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, specializing in the 200 free, back and IM. He finished up his collegiate swimming career in 2018, graduating with a bachelor's degree in economics. In 2019 he completed his graduate degree in sports journalism. Prior to going to Laurentian, James swam …

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