OPINION: Can Nitro Athletics change a sport?

17 Feb 2017

By: Sport Industry Group

Owen Laverty, head of fan intelligence at Ear to the Ground, discusses why he thinks 4th February 2017 could be a turning point for athletics...

We’ve all read the articles, seen the news reports, and probably all come to a similar conclusion…athletics is broken. 

Over the past few months, we’ve spoken to key influencers in the world of running and athletics, and what immediately became clear is that with all the well documented issues - from drugged athletes and corruption, to flawed officials & dodgy deals – athletics newest issue is now within its fan base.

Whilst an athletics audience tunes in on average every 1.7 years for their intense hit of outstanding performances, they are becoming increasingly disenchanted, disillusioned and unengaged with the sport. 

So is Nitro Athletics the answer? This ‘novel’ approach to track and field competition was born out of a desire to stem dwindling interest in traditional one-day meetings in Australia. But could the re-presentation of a traditional sporting format achieve so much more than that?

Throughout all the scandals over the years, athletics has been able to lay claim to a stable fan base. Lamine Diack, in 2015 quoted the 2015 IAAF World Championships as ‘reaching over 2bn fans’ globally. The argument prevailed that actually, do fans really care? As long as they get their sub 10 second hit every four years, everything is okay, right?

But that's not the case. There might be a big audience, but the sad fact is that they do not have an engaged one. Facebook isn’t the only barometer of engagement, but 693,000 followers from a global audience of ‘billions’ is an uncomfortable starting point. Over 70% of fans we have spoken to saying that they have ‘little or no respect for the IAAF’ makes for slightly worse reading. 

What we’ve seen from speaking to these audiences are not fans at all, but spectators. They will watch the sport, but the fundamental driver of emotionally investing in the object of your fandom is not there. To fans, track and field is a bad investment, with the risk of not seeing your emotional loyalty rewarded too high.

This is an issue. Rights holders can derive more value from a more engaged fan base. More money from ticket sales, merchandise, broadcast & memberships. But also deliver value for partners. Commercial partners want to buy into an engaged fan base and benefit from this through targeted activation plans. If the audience merely see the sporting occasion as wallpaper with some extremely short moments of excitement, where is the value for a brand? 

I believe that this why 4th February is so important. The introduction of Nitro Athletics.

If you haven’t seen anything of it yet here is a little synopsis. Whilst even it’s biggest admirers will admit it wasn’t perfect, the introduction of new event formats, mixed gender relays, entertainment being bought central to the event and even emotive and celebratory officials gave a completely fresh take on what audiences considered a static sporting format. 

Over the course of the three days of sport, attendances built to almost sell out crowds, which at the launch of a much derided concept by industry experts and the small groups of ‘obsessive fans’, is no mean feat.

The key development however, has to have been the placing of an idol, front and centre. While most teams were national representatives, Usain Bolt’s own team, the ‘Bolt All-Stars’ took the golden crown, and gave fans an easy focal point and emotional attachment to the event.

We have seen Nitro Athletics try to recapture fans imagination, creating new champions, new ways of winning and new ways of supporting your team! It’s getting audiences to think about athletics in a new light, and understand that faster athletes taking more drugs, isn’t the only way to improve the spectacle.

Social and media conversation shows it has done job number one - got everyone talking about the future of athletics in a different context, exploring it through different types of races, events, even teams. And on an emotional engagement level, we’ve seen small uplifts in the positive sentiment and excitement for the sport as a whole, not just a handful of superstar performers.

It won’t all be plain sailing from here on in, initial media responses have demonstrated that. And where it goes next, I hope they haven’t decided that yet. The best thing they can do now to make this work, is get to grips with their audience and really understand them. What do fans want from the sport, what’s missing and how can they continue to learn and innovate to re-engage a huge, global audience. 

What’s also interesting, is how brands in the track and field space are going to use this surge of intrigue and energy around Nitro Athletics to really get behind the mindset of track and field fans and turn this into a real opportunity.

Owen Laverty is Head of Fan Intelligence at Ear to the Ground. Ear to the Ground connect brands and rights holders with sport and music fans. www.eartotheground.org