Watching Michael Johnson compete as an athlete from 1992-2000, I was fortunate to interview Michael on several occasions and found him thoughtful, on point, and not suffering fools.
I was there for his gold medals in 1996, both the 200m and 400m. His stumble in the 200 meters was fascinating, and I recall the gold medalist noting that it shook him up. I must say his semi-final in 1999 in Seville in the 400 meters, where he ran a World record pace for the first 300 meters and then jogged the last 100 meters, in one of my favorite all-time performances.
His development as a sports journalist continues to make me smile. MJ can stir it up on BBC Sports, and his columns in British print and digital media have been superb. Michael Johnson challenges the status quo, and that is what he is doing with his long tweet on how to professionalize track & field.
One final note. I wanted to note that in April 2011, Michael Johnson gave the Shoe Addicts, which consisted of Adam Johson Eder, Mike Deering, and Algernon Felice, their first big interview when he launched MJ Performance. Michael showed a lot of class, and I never got to thank him for that. See the interview at bottom of this column.
I found this tweet last weekend and asked Michael for his permission to reprint it on RunBlogRun. He granted it, and here we go:
I’m often asked how I would improve track & field. Here it is.
Allow me to first explain the problem:
If you were to design a sport for success in TODAY’s sports market, it would look nothing like today’s track. Track must be reimagined for TODAY’s sport & entertainment market. In my opinion, championship track (Olympics, Worlds, etc.) needs very little change, if any, so I’m going to focus on professional track and field. Developing professional track is not the role of federations; they are not equipped for the job. A private commercial entity focused on profitability must develop professional track.
There is a basic profit formula for pro sports: QUALITY PRODUCT leads to FANS leads to MEDIA RIGHTS & SPONSORS leads to REVENUE. The athlete plays an important role in this. GREAT ATHLETES + GOOD COMPETITION = QUALITY PRODUCT. Athletes are key to the product, and revenue comes back to athletes as compensation from the sport itself. Not just individual sponsors, as is currently the case.
Fans are critical in the formula. The current fanbase for track isn’t sufficient to garner significant media and sponsor revenue. You need only to look at current sports and entertainment trends to know what attracts today’s sports fans. But current track is, in many ways, the exact opposite.
Trend: Quick action vs. Track: Slow action
Trend: Niche vs. Track: Variety
Trend: Single story narrative vs. Track: Multiple stories
Trend: Competition/Storytelling vs. Track: Times & records
A for-profit entity focused on profitability would change the structure of the sport by conducting market research (not from just current track fans), employing deep sports business knowledge, and marketing, branding, and event expertise. I don’t know exactly what the research would reveal to inform the changes, but with my own experience in sports business and media, I can imagine the general direction:
✅10-12 competitions annually. Possibly 4 Majors, like tennis.
✅Events: 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500, 5,000, 100/110HH, 400H, 4×100 relay, 4×400 relay. Only events that can be televised from start to finish WITHOUT INTERRUPTION.
✅Field events included only if they could be reimagined in a fast action format taking no more than 15 minutes from start to finish, so viewers miss none of the action. Based on what the research revealed, they may not make it into the program. Track fans love the variety show of sprinters, runners, jumpers, throwers, and vaulters, but
1) trends suggest most people do not enjoy the variety, and
2) It makes televising, market, and promoting the sport extremely difficult.
✅Athletes selected to compete based 80% on performance, 20% on popularity, and include only the best of the best, regardless of country.
✅Significantly higher appearance fees than current competitions to guarantee key matchups.
In a nutshell, the Pro Track Series would prioritize:
✅Competition between the best of the best athletes.
✅Competition marked by the fast pace and storytelling to crown a winner.
✅A simple narrative and concept to promote the sport (i.e., The Fastest)
✅Partnering with athletes to showcase personalities and establish fans.
✅Simplification and streamlining of the sport.
This requires a cash investment, large by track standards but small by pro sports standards. The only way to attract media and sponsors is by amassing a large and growing fanbase to prove the sport has changed, has stepped out of the shadow of the Olympics, and is worth their investment. No television network or sponsor will invest in an existing sport with a small and shrinking audience. FIRST, YOU GET THE FANS, THEN YOU GET MEDIA AND SPONSORS.
Bottom line: Track needs private investment and experienced sport business professionals to reimagine the professional component of the sport and let WA and USATF focus on governance of the sport and organizing championships.
For further reading:
This is a gem, from our friends at Athletics Weekly, with Michael Johnson speaking on the power of sports: https://athleticsweekly.com/athletics-news/michael-johnson-sport-power-1039930516/
Interview with MJ, Spire Institute, April 2011: Shoe Addicts Present, RBR Interview Michael Johnson.