Olympian Willie Banks, shown at an ANOC World Beach Games promotion, thinks marketing by private groups separate from the sport's governing body can revive the popularity of track and field.
Olympian Willie Banks, shown at an ANOC World Beach Games promotion, thinks marketing by private groups separate from the sport’s governing body can revive the popularity of track and field. Photo by Ken Stone

Six years ago, Willie Banks went to the CEO of USA Track & Field with an idea: Why can’t track emulate the “three-letter” sports — separating the “marketing” arms from the governing bodies?

Olympian Banks, the Carlsbad resident recently elected to be America’s nomination to the powerful IAAF Council, said CEO Max Siegel “pooh-poohed” his plan.

“The fear is that some people will lose power,” Banks said in a recent interview. “Well, who cares if you lose power if it brings more attention and more money and resources into the sport? The high tide raises all the boats, not just one.”

Now Banks is re-energizing a debate under way for decades.

In May 1991, Track & Field News summarized the issue with the headline: “What if They Gave a Track Meet and Nobody Came?” That cover story had a picture of an empty Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, site of two Olympic Games.

The 62-year-old former triple jump record-holder thinks track can regain the popularity of its glory days when miler Jim Ryun was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and USA vs. USSR dual meets packed stadiums.

“If you think about all the successful sports in the United States, they are run not by governing bodies,” Banks said. “They are run by promotion arms of those governing bodies — the NBA, the NHL,” etc.

Such leagues market their sport, while entities such as USA Basketball stay in their governing lanes.

“The amount of money that’s being raised by those promotion-marketing arms are like oceans compared to … the monies USA Basketball could raise, right?” he said. “We need to do the same thing.”

In fact, Banks says, track has done it before.

When Ollan Cassell was USATF executive director in the 1980s and 1990s, “he just left long-distance running to itself,” Banks said. “And now it’s a billion-dollar industry,” noting the major marathons and the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series.

“Those are all private organizations,” he said. “In the United States, you need a private organization that wants to make money to take a hold of this. You can’t hold them back.”

Banks asserts that Indianapolis-based USATF (with its $500 million Nike deal) needs to join his vision of supporting a private organization “that is going to take our sport and make it something special and not try and control it….. We have to let our sport be open.”

He cites surfing.

“How long has surfing been around? Forever, right?” He says. But the La Jolla-based International Surfing Federation is “struggling to raise money” while the recently launched World Surf League is making money “hand over fist, and they control their athletes. The ISA has no control over the athletes.”

“Ownership” of athletes is key, Banks says.

“You have to own the athletes,” he says — giving the professional team leagues as examples. “It’s as simple as that. You got to pay them. Because otherwise, you’re toast. There has to be some kind of management vs. player relationship.”

Right now, he says, USATF distributes money as grants. (It also has a foundation.)

“There’s no ownership of the sport,” he said of track athletes. “It’s just everybody for themselves.”

An example is Usain Bolt, the world’s fastest human. Even in retirement, the Jamaican is the highest-paid athlete in the world.

“People watched [Bolt] because they wanted to see that guy run,” Banks said. But his wealth and popularity didn’t enrich track in America, “because we’re getting our butt kicked by [that] guy.”

How did American track and field fall from its once-lofty perch?

Banks recalls seeing poker on ESPN, and laughs.

“Poker is a regular show on television. Bowling is a regular show on television. It’s hard to find a track meet on television. To me, something happened.”

That something was: “We tried too much control and we lost control,” he said the day he defeated incumbent Stephanie Hightower as USATF’s delegate to the International Association of Athletics Federations.

When Banks mentioned these ideas at the annual USATF meeting this month in Columbus, Ohio, delegates didn’t really focus on them much, he said.

“But a lot of people have said it’s a bold idea,” he said. “If we don’t start thinking of bold ideas, we’re going to keep on repackaging the old ideas and wondering why they’re not working,” he said. “Any idea that raises some interest or gets people thinking is a good idea.”

Others are weighing in.

Weldon Johnson, co-founder of LetsRun.com, said he’s pleased that Banks was elected, hoping it shows that USATF is becoming more dynamic and democratic.

But while he’s “all for the idea” in principle, he has doubts about a private, for-profit group taking more control of the sport.

“I’m not sure the professional sports leagues in the U.S. are the best model to copy as track and field and road running for that matter are first and foremost individual sports,” Johnson said.

A better model to emulate might be golf’s PGA Tour or professional tennis.

“Neither of those groups has an ownership group in charge,” Johnson said. “Collectively, the professional athletes in golf and tennis are in charge. Track is unique in that there are athletes competing in different events. Getting them united is a challenge.”

San Diego Track Club coach Paul Greer, the spark behind the annual “Summer Nights” all-comer meet series here, calls himself a supreme optimist and believes its possible for track and field “to be something special again.”

He agrees that opening up to private groups is a good way to go.

“This will only happen if [those] … in leadership positions within USATF simply humble themselves and work together day by day, step by step for the future,” he said.

A time existed when track was on par with soccer in America, Greer said, “but the sport of soccer moved ahead of us and track and field did not move with it.”

The brief quadrennial spotlight on Olympic track isn’t enough, he said, declaring: “We need to seize that day and take back our sport so it’s in the public eye again.”

It helps that Eugene, Oregon, will host the 2021 IAAF World Championships — the first time the meet has been held in America.

“The United States is the No. 1 track and field team in the world and the market in the United States is huge,” Banks told Jeff Hollobaugh in Track & Field News this week. “Every sport looks to the U.S. as a major area of exploration and growth. I will work to let the IAAF know that USA Track & Field is a great partner and will help make 2021 into something that people will never forget.”

Banks said this would be a time where the United States would “finally get an opportunity to show just how important track and field is to our nation.”

Rich Perelman, who worked for the 1984 Olympic Games organizers, said Banks’ concepts have been around since the late Mike O’Hara founded the fully professional International Track Association in the 1970s.

“The concept of a privately run circuit, allied with — but not run by — USATF, has been talked about since the early 1990s,” said Perelman, editor of The Sports Examiner. “The problem has been raising the money to create a large-enough program to make track and field a ‘seasonal’ sport like the pro team leagues or a tour like tennis or golf.”

But Perelmen is confident is can be done and Banks is the “right kind of charismatic, inspirational leader to get it off the ground.”

On the Track & Field News message board, where track’s declining popularity has been a topic for years, many were doubtful. One posted a dinosaur image.

Said Conor Dary: “The idea someone is going to come out of the woodwork and bring back the glory days is slightly delusional. The old ‘let’s copy what the NBA does’ delusion. … Banks is not off to a great start.”

He also scoffed: “Ah, yes, the billionaire who comes along and saves the day. The only one who has shown the slightest interest in the sport is Uncle Phil [Knight, the Nike founder and ex-CEO] and I don’t see him doing it.”

Dary said he didn’t see a viable market for professional track since New York City “can’t even support” a Diamond League meet — an IAAF circuit that awards prize money. “And the greatest indoor meet ever, Millrose, barely exists these days.”

Another commenter said that if Nike — or an alliance of shoe and equipment makers — came up with innovative ideas, “it would INEVITABLY clash with USATF over ‘the direction of the sport.’ I see no way that the USA version of this sport advances without USATF’s help/vision (preferably from the athletes, NOT the suits).”

While wishing Banks “good luck,” another commenter said: “Uncle Phil is as close as we have as a Godfather, and he has done lots. If we could cultivate other such relationships that benefit businesses in our sport, then we’d be onto something.”

A more relevant model, said one, is golf or tennis.

“Tennis … has the USTA (with 400,000 members) as its NGB that runs the U.S. Open but a separate men’s pro circuit (ATP) and women’s pro circuit (WTA),” said a commenter who goes by halfmiler2.

But Michael Roth, who goes by MJR, posted that only a “full on team structure” and “normalized” schedule of meets would work — ending with championships “where no other meets happen after them.”

“Rosters, salaries, training camps, coaches for event areas, practice facilities where the whole team works together at the same place,” Roth said. “You know, like a real professional sport that is organized, not the half-a$$ed, shamateurism that we have going now where only those whose agents have an in w/ meet directors can actually make a living.”

USATF “killed any chance of this happening” two decades ago with a series of Track & Field Association professional meets, Roth said, “and has not lifted a finger to help the other instances of real pro track since then.”

Roth, who also manages a Facebook group called “I’m tired of USATF and IAAF crippling our sport,” said IAAF is all about power and prestige for its own reps and will do nothing to lessen its “stranglehold on the cash in the sport. The leadership is so entrenched in keeping themselves relevant/paid during the continual demise of the sport, that it won’t ever happen unless both organizations are completely dismantled.”

Banks sees similar issues, noting the success of a circuit the sport once had.

“Now it’s been usurped by the IAAF,” he said. “You’ve got the Diamond League, and the Golden League. These things came out of the private [sector] — but was usurped by the IAAF.”

Garry Hill, longtime editor of T&FN, blames pro “ball sports” for dimming track’s star.

Track and field is as popular as it ever was, Hill argues, not needing to cite figures showing the sport has the most participants at the high school level.

“But with the expansion of the major ball sports, they’ve simply become more popular and track by comparison loses,” he said, apologizing for spouting “such heresy.”

“Track’s ‘popularity’ simply filled a void that has been replaced by superior product(s),” Hill said.

Don Franken, whose father, Al, ran major West Coast indoor meets including one at the San Diego Sports Arena, is a Los Angeles-based public relations expert and event organizer.

He said track doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, citing experienced meet promoters such as Tom Jordan, Dave Johnson, Ray Flynn and Vin Lananna.

“We understand and I believe Willie also understands the importance of PR, marketing, and social media in promoting the sport,” Franken said. “Also, the value of creating stars and … building the brand…. Also, a tight, fast-paced track meet schedule that is entertaining.”

Without knowing the details, said Olympic-sports expert Perelman, it’s impossible to know if USATF or the IAAF would have any issues with Banks’ ideas.

“If athletes are behind it and will benefit, then it’s hard to see why USATF would object,” Perelman said. “They can benefit, too. The IAAF cares about the Diamond League, but [IAAF President] Seb Coe’s main concept during his candidacy for the IAAF presidency was to reform the calendar.”

Perelman said that if a circuit sought by Banks is mostly domestic and ends before the Diamond League really gets going in the summer, “the IAAF likely won’t care too much.”

“Willie is right in wanting to unleash private interests, especially in today’s emerging media landscape, to engage with track and field. It can work and he should be supported in trying to create a new business model for an ancient sport.”

LetsRun.com’s Johnson, a former elite marathoner known as “Wejo,” told Times of San Diego he isn’t sure what the solution is, “but track and field needs more experimentation, more groups willing to take risks.”

He said athletes need to understand that ultimately they are the “product with some power.”

“I’m glad Willie Banks is urging new approaches,” Johnson said.

Updated at 5:45 p.m. Dec. 14, 2018.