Friday, 16 November 2007

The Paula Factor

The Paula Factor

If Mara Yamauchi and Dan Robinson (with all due respect to both), our two best 2007 marathoners prior to the New York race, had entered and been our main representatives in the Big Apple would the BBC have decided to cover the marathon live and so extensively as they did? I think not. It was the presence of Paula Radcliffe, the only bankable superstar that we have, that did the trick.

Shots of post-race Paula, holding daughter Isla and seemingly swiftly recovered after one of her greatest races, made the front pages of most of the newspapers the next day, supplanting those of the mummified 3000 year old Pharaoh, Tutankhamen. At long last, after a very arid year, British athletics is making good news. Or, at least, one athlete is.

Throughout 2007 one has daily scoured the national press almost in vain to find news of athletics. The international season for us virtually began in late June and ended at the end of the championships in Osaka in late August. The other major sports - football, rugby, tennis and cricket - now have year round competitions but international track and field athletics for us confines itself, if we’re lucky, to eight or nine weeks. Indeed, for the majority of the general public, athletics in 2007 was just the week or so of the world championships.

This declining general interest is reflected by the seriously worrying UK viewing figures* for the major international championships between 2002 and 2006. These are important because all four major meetings were held in Europe and were therefore mostly within evening viewing times. They show a steady decline of total viewers from Munich (where Paula ran on the track) with
52, 530, 000 viewers, to Gothenburg (where she didn’t) with 23,680,000, a decline of 54.8%. The decline in peak viewing figures was even greater at 64.0%. A similar further sharp fall up to 2012 would surely see an appraisal of athletics by television and major sponsors as to whether it is a sport worth supporting any longer.

During its first ten years UK Athletics ignored its public and its fans. Poor appointments in the area of media relations meant that they were virtually non existent. Of course we didn’t have the track stars that made up the Golden Era – Christie, Black, Coe, Cram, Ovett, Budd, Gunnell, Lewis et al but right into the early years of the 21st century we still had mega stars like Holmes, Jackson, Macey, Edwards and Radcliffe, people with personalities that the public could identify with, people who you wanted to know more about, people who could very effectively sell the sport, keep it in the public eye; people we didn’t just ineffectively use but didn’t use at all. The only publicity emanating from athletics during what seemed to be an endless, barren decade of news and information came from Fast Track publicizing its televised meetings. UKA’s Athletic House was like a Trappist Monastery.

But it’s not just about poor communication and public relations; it’s also about image, the image that is presented by the competitions that we provide. Frankly it’s about entertainment or a lack of it.

Across Europe the one-day meetings hold sway. They are long past their sell-by date, churning out the same sort of fare that they have been presenting for the last twenty years – East Africans beating other East Africans; American sprinters beating other American sprinters in a sort of repetitive whistle-stop circus (everybody seemingly in the latest Nike vest) around the continent. Terrestrial television has long had enough and to see the IAAF Golden League meetings in Britain this year you had to switch to the Irish pay-to-view channel Setanta Sports.

Our televised meetings, part of the complicated and grandiosely named IAAF World Athletics Tour, are not immune from criticism. They too are beginning to have a jaded, we’ve-been-here-before look about them. Like the rest of the IAAF circuit these meetings lack a meaningful competitive edge and the relative decline in British standards means that the crowds that, in particular, flock to Crystal Palace once a year look in vain for British success. A sign of the times, if we needed one, is the fact that in the IAAF events staged at Sheffield and Crystal Palace in 2007 there were only three British winners in thirty-five events. Unlike say Switzerland or Belgium, the public here have come to expect more.

In addition there is a shocking neglect of throwing events. At Glasgow, Sheffield and London only three were staged, two for men and one for women. If our throwers can’t get international competition in Britain where else are they to obtain it?

It gets worse. When we go lower down the scale for our track and field competitions we find they are acts of sheer self-indulgence at regional and local level where the general public is deemed surplus to requirements. The word entertainment is not in the vocabulary of the event organisers. This is just as well, given the often day-long, turgid affairs (excluding many hours of travel), exhausting to athlete, official and spectator alike, that are inflicted on them. The good news is that you don’t have to pay to get in; the bad news is that you’d demand your money back if you did.

Buckner’s competition review (of which more next week) only tackles these matters at junior level and again the word entertainment is conspicuous by its absence. The idea, recently mooted, that our competitions should be “consumer driven” would drive us on a pathway to disaster rather than paradise.

Road running has grasped the nettle of social change and declining interest and combines serious competition with fun running to provide entertainment to the crowds who to turn out to run and to spectate. The three most popular athletics events on television this year have been the London Marathon, Great North Run and the New York Marathon. They provided exciting drama along with colourful entertainment from thousands of runners. On a much smaller scale there are hundreds of such races all round Britain. It may well be, if the present trends continue, that road running will overtake track and field in popularity (if it hasn’t already).

It’s not that the general public is tiring of track and field but rather that track and field seems to be tiring of the general public. Five years ago, although British athletics was not inundated with international success, our sport was on a high. The Commonwealth Games in Manchester drew excited capacity crowds every evening, who roared on competitors irrespective of nationality but reserved that extra effort for British athletes. TV mirrored the success with great viewing figures that extended into the European’s in Munich a week or so later. It was a euphoric and dramatic week; athletics went very briefly ahead of football in the popularity stakes, people wanted more. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get it then because British athletics wasn’t geared up to provide anything more than its usual uninspiring fare; they wouldn’t get it now for the same reason.

Unless UK Athletics grasps this nettle of providing, investing in and being responsible for, at every level, entertaining, purposeful athletics and sweeps aside the present mishmash of humdrum, repetitive competition, the sport is indeed in trouble. Paula won’t be running forever.

* - Sources: IFM International Sport Analysis and European Broadcasting Union


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