The Bolt factor, does it stimulate popularity, stymied competition and dry up funds in Athletics?
by Robert Taylor, guest columnist
Thursday, 18 April 2013 08:03
Many are complaining about the prominence Bolt has taken up in terms of the earnings from athletics. I saw where Maurice Green, the once world and Olympic sprint champion talked against the IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) marketing Bolt as the of face athletics while ignoring other young stars like Kirani James and David Rudisha. The fact that Bolt has been chosen as the face of athletics is understandable.
Historically, the top 100m runner was the face of track & field has always been given that distinction. Carl Lewis was the most popular at one point and when Ben Johnson started to challenge, there were tons of cash earned by them both. Ben Johnson is on record claiming that the drug bust in Seoul Olympics cost him US$100 million.
Now Bolt is not only the sprint champion, but also the most dominant champion ever some will say. His personality enhances his marketability. Kirani James and David Rudisha are superb athletes in their own right but their events, 400m and 800m respectively do not move the ordinary fans like that of the 100m. The 100m has always been an event of egos and bravado. For whatever the reason, such behaviour resonates with the average fan. Some may think otherwise, but this is the reality.
Some are complaining about the disproportionate distribution of income for athletes on the professional level. It is said that previously the income distribution were more egalitarian relative to now. In addition, the income the top athletes make from the shoes and apparel sporting goods companies allows them to avoid consistently competing against each other. This creates the lack of competitive environment we are seeing in the male short sprints. However, here lies an irony, hard-core track fans want to see the best male sprinters race each other more consistently than waiting until major championships. If this should happen, there will be even less money for the other athletes. What I gather is that only top athletes receive appearance fees. For the others, placement determines earnings. If we are going to have Gatlin, Bolt, Gay, Asafa and Blake racing together more consistently on the circuit, how much money will remain for the other sprinters? This would more than likely lead to fewer earnings for those below the top six or seven. With such situation, how many of the lower tier athletes will see sponsorship from the sporting goods companies? Then, there would be more complaints about the sport being dominated by the top five or six and many other athletes not being able to make a decent living. Of course, this might boost more attendance and viewership thus increasing revenue overall. If so, who will benefit from this increased revenue?
On the other hand, limiting the number of head-to-head match-ups work in making it more suspenseful and entertaining. London 2012 Olympics is a prime example. The excitement and discussion was all about who will, or will not win the 100m final. There were doubts in some circles about Bolt repeating. After all, Bolt lost at the Jamaica trials and did not race again before the Olympics.
Being the first, and so far the only athlete to repeat the 100m and 200m in the Olympic finals serves to enhance or maintain Bolt's aura as a global icon. So when Samsung pulled its' sponsorship of the IAAF Diamond league, it served to bolster the argument that Bolt is sucking up all the money at the expense of athletics on a whole. However, if one should take a deeper look it would be obvious that this had nothing to do with Bolt. The amount of money the Diamond League sponsorship was costing Samsung was negligible compared to Samsung's revenue and advertising budget. The real reason for pulling the plug on the sponsorship was because Samsung did not feel they were getting adequate exposure for their money. The Diamond League gave deference to their local sponsors. For example, the Diamond League event in New York City is advertised as the Adidas meet. Not many fans associate it with Samsung but everyone and their friends could tell you Adidas sponsored it. This situation of local sponsors dominance is consistent with that of other Diamond league meets.
The timing might seem like Bolt caused Samsung to terminate the contract with the IAAF, but on further analysis it made good business sense regardless if Bolt or someone with the status of Bolt were available. The popularity of Bolt makes meet directors oblivious to the lack of the top athletes competing against each other in the short sprints. Meet directors know that Bolt alone can drive tickets sale, sponsors coming on board and are willing to pay higher fees. As Green alluded to, "what happens if Bolt is injured or what will happen when he is no longer dominant"? I sugest that IAAF looks on the NBA (the US National Basketball Association) and follow that model. When Michael Jordon left, the league marketed multiple athletes, thus the popularity of the NBA remains. To many, track and field has stagnated with the following of only a few hard-core fans. Bolt performances at the Beijing 2008 Olympics together with his personality stimulated the interest of casual and previously disinterested fans. Like Michael Jordan, when Bolt exist the stage, the popularity of track and field is there for the future generation to continue the growth process.
The IAAF could do a better job marketing its young athletes but to say Bolt is drying up funds for athletics or is not good for athletics is baseless. After the recent problems of athletics, Bolt has increased popularity and sponsorship support. It is a given that he would garner the most endorsements. The main problem in my view is track and field inability to break into the US market. The US market is a huge untapped market and somehow the US federation lacks the vision or the ability to gain access even moderately. The US athletes contribute this situation with their constant reminder to potential sponsors of drug use within the sports. Ironic, but it is true.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author (Robert Taylor) and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, trackalerts.com