Tom VanZandt’s manifesto for elite track: Try pro tennis formula

Tom jumped [high] at 2006 USATF masters nationals in Charlotte, North Carolina

Tom VanZandt of Redondo Beach, California, is a former masters high jump champion looking to raise the bar on pro track’s horizons. Using the men’s and women’s professional tennis tours as a model, he argues elite track and field (ET&F in his parlance) should have four or five times as many invitational meets as the Diamond League and others afford. He also thinks IAAF should bow out of the Summer Games (as NHL has for the 2018 Winter Games) to get a better deal. Big ideas. All debatable. But his 11,000-word manifesto, with 77 supporting footnotes, makes some undeniable arguments about TV coverage and other issues. Attention must be paid. When I suggested he send this work to USATF President Vin Lananna, Tim replied: “Vin was my college coach. I have bugged him for years about these ideas. Many times, he has said, ‘This is exactly what Phil [Knight, Nike boss] is always saying. You should talk to him.’ Any time! He understands the ideas well, but so far he has really focused all of his energy on making very good meets at Hayward Field. There is nothing wrong with this, particularly as he is doing a great job. But most of his stuff embraces the small-format/small-field, which I am convinced will never make the sport into Pro Tennis. Still, I appreciate people’s efforts…. I have just tweeted [USATF CEO] Max Siegel.”

Tom, 55, has posted long and short versions of his manifesto at etf-forward.blog. “My thought is that what is needed is about 10X bigger than what current stakeholders of ET&F can really consider. Any hope of getting a tennis-level product will require different people at the table. I have no illusions that I can bring this about, but I am willing to try to start.”

Here are some key quotes (read manifesto for full context):

  • Roughly speaking, about 400 combined men and women in tennis earn more than $100K per year. In contrast, ET&F, through its major tour (IAAF Diamond League), provided $100K+ to only ten athletes in 201619. 400th place on the ET&F list (the ranking position corresponding to ~$100K annual prize money in PT) was worth only $4K in the Diamond League!
  • The data indicate that PT [professional tennis] puts on a larger number of events at all levels, and that it provides a much larger amount of direct athlete compensation (~18X, relative to ET&F). Currently, PT supports a franchise of annual “happenings” (major events) that are much larger, and more frequent.
  • Rather than simply asking “what ET&F should do in the future”, I believe that there is value in trying to understand those critical attributes of PT, which ET&F may be lacking.
  • I suggest that ET&F has put too much emphasis on individual stars. The media speculation of the impending retirement of Usain Bolt is one example. The uncertainty that this inevitable event causes for ET&F (and even the entire Olympic movement) leads to the type of existential crisis that PT seems to avoid.
  • Quite simply, ET&F athletes do not compete very frequently.
  • One calculates an average number of races/events per male athlete of 9.92, within an average 8.12 distinct meetings, during the 2016 outdoor season.
  • Within our PT archetype, it is observed that a similar sample of male ATP athletes competed in a per capita average of 22.25 separate tournaments in 2016, playing an average 61.19 individual matches39. Women WTA players are similarly active: WTA Singles players played in a per capita 19.5 tournaments, involving 60.25 matches.
  • I propose that ET&F’s overall competition structure, which limits meetings, athlete starts, and overall customer exposure, is a root cause of this disparity. To be blunt, ET&F Tour is not yet successful enough to indulge in a relatively short work schedule!
  • The strong sense I have is that ET&F does not have significant confidence in the overall value of its product. It makes numerous (seemingly rational) accommodations and adjustments to the format of what it does offer to its customers.
  • The alternative approach, proudly offering more of nearly everything (e.g., more and longer meetings, larger fields, more rounds of competition, etc.), seems far more consistent with the approach of PT.
  • Fox Sport’s coverage of the recent 2017 US Open golf tournament, I counted about 90 complete video sequences per hour, showing individual player shots. That is a lot of camera switching over 5 hours of live TV! In comparison, coverage of ET&F is not big on rapid switching between venues. Rather, it likes to limit, and to more heavily edit, what it does show.
  • I maintain the view that that the totality of these efforts amounts to a business that is offering too little of a product to potential customers.
  • Again, my intent is not to endlessly attack the current state of the ET&F enterprise. On the contrary, the archetype of PT offers an existence proof that points the way toward improvement. A key takeaway for me from this data is that in both cases, the value of TV to the each enterprise pretty much matches the size of the entity itself.
  • Perhaps the value of the IOC/Olympics to ET&F is bigger than I understand. It may be, but no observable data seem to argue this point. Rather, I have concluded that the economic benefit to ET&F of Olympic participation is relatively small.
  • It is clear to me that as one of the flagship sports at each Summer Olympics, ET&F is not sharing sufficiently in a pot of revenue that it is helping to generate.
  • An alternative way of looking at the position and value of ET&F in the Olympic business is to ask the thought-experiment questions: “What would happen if ET&F decided not to participate in the Olympics? Or, what would the IOC be prepared to pay to ensure its participation?” These are not completely academic questions.

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July 1, 2017

6 Responses

  1. Ken Stone - July 2, 2017

    I corrected last name of Phil noted by Tom. Not the USATF exec but the Nike founder.

  2. Steve Morris - July 2, 2017

    USA Track & Field needs HELP! The L.A. Times had NO COVERAGE of last weeks USA T&F championships which decided who was going to this years World Championships in London. The sport is sinking FAST.
    If it wasn’t for the Olympics every 4 years the sport would be DEAD!

  3. B Beller - July 2, 2017

    Agreed. We need to explore new ideas to help the sport because it IS in trouble. Did y’all see how few people were in the stands at Sacto Nats? Pathetic. I’m in a bubble here in Eugene because the meets are always close to packed but that’s FAR from the case elsewhere. We need more dynamic and energetic folks like Tom. Way to go Tom…keep it up! I’ll tell Vin to listen to you next time I bump into him!!

  4. Dexter McCloud - July 3, 2017

    Steve Morris – not true. I just went to the LA Times web site and found coverage of the USA Track & Field Championships as well as the bid to win the next Olympics

  5. Steve Morris - July 4, 2017

    Website yes but black and white L.A. Times newspaper thrown on my porch on a daily basis NO! Read the Saturday July 1 L.A Times Sports section under OFF TRACK in Letters to the Editor. Lanny Powell writes that ignoring coverage of the 2017 USA T & F championships is akin to completely ignoring the GREATEST jazz or classical musicians simply because Beyonce or Taylor Swift are more popular.

  6. David E. Ortman (M64), Seattle, WA - July 4, 2017

    Nothing new here. For problems in trying to follow the Olympic Trials in the press back in 2000 see:

    http://ortmanmarchand.com/fsc.html

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