Driving Change in Athletics – AW

How is athletics impacting outside the Olympic window and attracting a new generation? We watch to why evolution is so important

DAt last year’s Tokyo Olympics, athletics had the most hours broadcast, the most media articles written about it, and the most articles shared. on social networks. More than 62 million social media conversations focused on athletics, while the sport also saw the most video views on the IOC and Tokyo Olympics website.

It’s safe to say it’s the number one sport to watch when the Olympics and Paralympics
take place – but how can it develop outside of this bubble?

“While it’s nice to be able to say we’re the No. 1 Olympic sport, it can’t just become an academic conversation because the biggest challenge we have probably doesn’t come from sport,” said the president of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, in December. .

“It comes from other areas of activity where young people have a shorter focus.

“What they [teenagers] consume in terms of content is much shorter [these days]. If you talk to anyone in the broadcast, they’ll tell you that the average length most people prefer to watch a TV show is around 7-8 minutes. So that means we have to be very clear that our benchmark is not just sport.

Engaging Gen Z – those born between 1997 and 2012 – is the sport’s biggest challenge. With social media, endless streaming services, and the popularity of Youtube always going strong, the tastes and trends of the current generation will be based on the content of these channels.

The sport has capitalized on this data. Formula 1 Drive to survive The series on Netflix has seen its viewership increase by 40% in the United States, while seven of the 10 most-watched races in history have taken place in the three years since the series’ launch.

Basketball the last dance summarized the behind-the-scenes journey of Michael Jordan’s six NBA titles at the Chicago Bulls, while golf seeks to make a documentary series on the PGA Tour and tennis on the ATP and WTA Tours.

“I think a Netflix-style documentary [for athletics] would definitely work and be amazing, where you get to know the culture of some of the athletes that will help shine,” 200m world champion Dina Asher-Smith told the Müller Birmingham Diamond League earlier this summer.

“I think there is sometimes a disconnect about what athletics is in the wider media and such a documentary would help give insight into what it takes to be elite and how hard it is. fun.”

Dina Asher-Smith (Mark Shearman)

Athletics, however, is made up of many different sports under one umbrella. It’s not as easy to say to the athletes, compared to 10 F1 teams, “can your drivers compete in this series?” Such a proposal could be possible, but it would be very different from previous Netflix series at the moment.

Instead, a better way to see how the sport develops might come down to how the public perceives it. How do we appreciate the difference between the elite level and your average athlete? Does the average viewer understand the meaning of what is a good time/distance in an event? Can you go to track and field competitions and not fully understand all aspects for fun?

“Athletics is a great sport, but it’s almost about how you understand the numbers on the clock,” said Olympic 800m silver medalist Keely Hodgkinson. “If you knew what 45.94 in the 400m hurdles meant, you might be excited, when normal people see that time and they’re like, ‘what does that mean?'”

Four-time Olympic sprint champion and BBC pundit Michael Johnson agrees.

“People don’t understand or care about times,” he tweeted. “Focus on the competition between the athletes. The story is essential. Any race has an automatic narrative, but because we in the sport are obsessed with the era, we present the sport that way. And it fails!”

Keely HodgkinsonMark Shearman

Creating such a narrative is important because it then makes those watching athletics for the first time care more about times and world records because of this deeper feeling for an athlete’s history and background.

Events like the recent 10,000m PB Night in the UK did just that. While their main goal was to break personal bests and qualify for this summer’s World Championships, the winners of the races were interviewed on a main stage in front of a grassy embankment packed with spectators.

Winners on the track also got the chance to take a victory lap while dozens of athletes also took part in podcast episodes promoting the meet beforehand. These same runners are part of the Gen Z cohort that the sport needs to inspire.

Such an event was like, say, going to watch darts where you didn’t need to know all the details about the sport to have a good time.

“Obviously number one, you need the fields, so we had to establish some regularity, we had to have a way to generate bigger, better and deeper fields,” said Ben Pochee, director race from Night of the 10,000m PBs. AW.

10,000m PB Night (Mark Shearman)

“But then there’s creating an atmosphere and I think it all fits together. If you can create entertainment and draw crowds, you start to generate atmosphere – and that for me is a key performance enabler. I think it’s all connected. »

Night of the 10,000m PBs, like the Diamond League, was on the BBC. For athletics to thrive outside of this Olympic and Paralympic bubble, the storytelling and entertainment value it presents must improve, and television coverage becomes fuel for that fire.

Today, there is a very different landscape from the era of athletics on the box of the 1970s and 1980s, however. The behaviors of the generations change and, if athletics cannot abandon its traditions, there will have to be some form of evolution.

» This article first appeared in the June issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here

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