World's second most popular sport, track and field, lacks marketing, national audience
Racers compete in the men's 1500 meter semi-finals at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials Friday in Eugene, Ore.
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EUGENE, Ore. -- Dan could run the 100-meter dash in 10.3 seconds, throw a 16-pound shot put 53 feet, 3 inches and hurl a discus 172 feet.
Dave could high jump 6 feet, 10 3/4 inches, throw a javelin 236 feet and long jump 24 feet, 10 1/2 inches.
This got the executives at Reebok in 1992 thinking: If we invested $25 million to $30 million into marketing these two relatively unknown American decathletes and cleverly pitted them against each other, would more people buy our shoes? Would they suddenly care about Dan and Dave?
Reebok's prediction: Yes, and yes. Americans would fall for Dan O'Brien and Dave Johnson, friends and native Oregonians with a shared dream, and they would do it before either had ever put an Olympic medal around his neck.
That's what made Reebok's plan historic. Until then, track and field stars were made organically by their exploits on the Olympic stage. Bruce Jenner, Carl Lewis and Florence Griffith-Joyner, to name a few, became transcendent names during their eras only after earning their adulation -- the same way that swimmer Michael Phelps has now done it through three displays of Olympic mastery.
As the calendar turns to July, with the London Games fast approaching and the opening ceremony July 27, the country's gaze is squarely aimed at the pool. NBC is shamelessly touting the growing rivalry between Mr. Phelps and challenger Ryan Lochte, and, when track and field is mentioned, the subject is usually Jamaica's Usain Bolt, the World's Fastest Man.
Today, America does not have a track and field sensation to rival Mr. Bolt, and that is partly because the average American does not observe the sport outside of an Olympic year and also because companies like Reebok have found other uses for their bankroll and creative ideas.
Track and field is the second-most-popular sport in the world, following soccer. But in America, track and field's loyal fans feel more and more like a niche group, waiting for their red, white and blue brethren to wake up and realize what they're missing.
"It's a great sport around the world," Mr. Jenner said, "but here in the U.S., we have a tendency to do our own thing, and that's football, basketball and baseball."
Twenty years later, it's almost shocking to think that the Dan and Dave phenomenon could have happened, but because of names like Jenner, Lewis and Griffith-Joyner, the groundwork had at least been laid for interest in track and field. So Reebok took on big, bad Nike with the slogan, "Life is short, play hard" -- a motto that could have been an allusion to Dan and Dave's short-lived run as the company's dynamic duo.
The commercial first aired during Super Bowl XXVI. By June, there was no more Dan and Dave. A disastrous pole vault for Mr. O'Brien at the Olympic trials kept him off the team. Mr. Johnson, on an injured foot, gritted his way to bronze.
Last week, as the U.S. Olympic Track and Field trials played out in Eugene, Ore., Dan and Dave were in attendance to watch the decathlon. Mr. O'Brien, who won the gold medal in 1996 and is now helping with Yahoo! Sports' Olympic coverage, and Mr. Johnson, now the athletic director at Corbin University in Salem, Ore., were together again and shaking their heads at their brief flirtation with fame.
"We felt like Bo Jackson, we felt like Michael Jordan," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. O'Brien and Mr. Johnson hugged, and, during that embrace, camera bulbs flashed and onlookers smiled. Even after two decades, they still had some rock star left in them -- and if USA Track & Field officials could take advantage of it, bottle it for today's top athletes, they would do it in a heartbeat.
"It's hard to find the superstar that's ready to win the gold medal and has the great story behind it at the same time," Mr. O'Brien said. "That's the combination. It's not just who looks good or who's running fast. I always tell athletes, 'You want attention? Be ready to tell your story.' "
For tens of thousands of track and field fans, it has become a pilgrimage: Arrive in Eugene at the University of Oregon, find the turn for Birch Lane, take a right on Skyline Boulevard and then veer carefully -- always, carefully -- up the cliff to a wall of stacked black stones.
On this gray summer day, a charter bus idled nearby. A group of about 40 gathered around a monument as two middle-aged men stood and led a discussion defined by its reverence.
"Why are people inspired by Pre?" asked one of the men, Steve Bence. "What we hear over and over again is it's the way he ran."
Early on the morning of May 30, 1975, celebrated middle- and long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine died at this spot when his 1973 MGV convertible swerved near these rocks and flipped over, trapping him underneath the car. Mr. Prefontaine was just 24, and, in a sport now starving for a compelling story, his still captures the imagination all these years later.
Mr. Prefontaine didn't have to win an Olympic medal to be famous, finishing fourth in the 5,000 meters at the 1972 Munich Games. What captivated people were his mustache and long hair, his outspoken nature and his decision to never try to win a race by pacing himself at the back of the pack. Pre, as he was called, was always out front, and his death felt like an era ended way too soon.
Each day of these Olympic trials, Nike has driven three busloads of employees the two hours from its Beaverton headquarters to Eugene to show them the birthplace of their company. The tour inevitably finds its way here to Pre's Rock, where his admirers leave him mementos and a plaque offers the words " ... You are missed by so many, and you will never be forgotten."
It has been the job of Mr. Bence, who has worked at Nike for 35 years, and Dave Pearson, a 22-year Nike veteran, to help their co-workers understand.
"It's the James Dean thing," Mr. Pearson said. "We never had the opportunity to see him grow older or make mistakes."
Back then, Mr. Prefontaine wasn't alone as a star on the track. Mr. Jenner was one in the decathlon in the '70s and still is one through his appearances as the stepfather of the socialite Kardashian sisters on E!'s reality show, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians." And even he says there was nothing like Pre in Eugene.
"He was bigger than life," Mr. Jenner said. "I remember at the 1972 trials, when he walked on the track, the whole place went crazy, and he hadn't even raced yet."
Mr. Jenner has watched track and field fall further and further out of the national consciousness since winning the gold medal in the decathlon in 1976, and it's not hard to see how.
"The ability to market our athletes is extremely important," Mr. Jenner said. "You have to admit, we've gone up against the marketing machine of football, basketball and baseball, multibillion-dollar budgets, and in golf, you had a superstar with Tiger that has really brought the sport back. We need to find a couple of those kind of superstars with great personalities, too."
Eugene is a vision for what an America that cares about track and field would look like, an alternate universe where 21,000-plus people pack into historic Hayward Field and wear ponchos in the rain for hours as they watch the athletes compete. This is "Tracktown USA," where you can eat Track Town Pizza and play an old track-and-field arcade game at a local pub or go for a run on any of the hundreds of trails that intermingle with the city streets.
"We've been running every day," said Barbara Gubbins, who came to the trials with her husband, Justin, from Southampton, N.Y. "Everywhere you go, people are running. Even in New York City, we don't see this many people running."
Eugene's quirky love for track and field can't be separated from Nike. The company's co-founder, Phil Knight, was a middle-distance runner at Oregon from 1957 to 1959 and started Blue Ribbon Sports in 1964 with former Oregon coach Bill Bowerman. The men began designing running shoes, Blue Ribbon became Nike, and now Mr. Knight is a billionaire 10 times over.
Mr. Knight has given back hundreds of millions of dollars to Oregon athletics, and he's also invested in making sure Eugene remains "Tracktown" for years to come.
Is there an up-and-comer, a future track-and-field star lurking in the shadows wearing American colors?
Since Michael Johnson won gold in the 400 meters at the 1996 Atlanta Games, some of the sport's potential stars, including Mr. Johnson, have been marred by allegations that they used performance-enhancing drugs.
The sport has tried to clean up its reputation, but, in the meantime, swimming has taken over as America's chosen Olympic sport.
On the first two days of the track and field trials in Eugene, though, decathlete Ashton Eaton offered a flash of hope. Mr. Eaton, a 24-year-old University of Oregon graduate and native of Bend, Ore., was already known in Tracktown. But he jumped onto the national radar by setting a world record in the decathlon with a total score of 9,039 points.
In the last event, the 1,500 meters, Mr. Eaton ran a personal-record time of 4:14.38 to clinch the highest mark in history and send Hayward Field into hysterics.
Days later, he reportedly received a $750,000 bonus from Nike. But it will take a gold-medal showing in London for him to have any chance of becoming and staying a household name. USA Track and Field, the sport's governing body, views Mr. Eaton as a potential total package.
"We've been talking about Ashton Eaton for close to two years," said Jill Geer, USATF's communications director. "He is obviously an amazing athlete. Smart, well-spoken and good-looking and genuinely the nicest young man you ever could want to meet."
USATF knows it has to do more to promote its athletes.
In April, it hired Max Siegel as its CEO in an effort to make needed changes. Mr. Siegel has worked as president of global operations at Dale Earnhardt Inc., and USATF is hoping that he'll bring new ideas on the marketing side of the equation through his experience with auto racing.
"Anybody can market football and basketball," said Vin Lananna, the director of Oregon's track and field program. "The sign of true marketing ability is to be innovative and creative in track and field."
Predictably, Mr. Eaton's world record in the decathlon is not what has moved the meter during these trials. The dead-heat tie between Allyson Felix and Jeneba Tarmoh for third place in the 100 meters June 23 has gotten most of the attention.
"It's been crazy," Ms. Geer said. "I've been with USATF for 12 years, and this dead heat has generated the most attention for our sport in that time, outside of a high-profile drug scandal, and that's just the fact of the matter."
Even if some of the backlash to the dead-heat controversy has been negative, USATF will gladly accept the publicity. It is not known yet whether Ms. Felix and Ms. Tarmoh will have a runoff or flip a coin for the last spot in the 100, but if it's a runoff, NBC officials said they'd prefer to broadcast it nationally.
Fans of track and field may be disheartened that something like the dead heat is the only way for Americans to tune into their favorite sport. But that's simply the reality with London on the horizon.
"I think we have the best sport in the world," Mr. Lananna said. "I don't think we are a niche sport. We're not globally, so we shouldn't be in the United States."
First Published July 1, 2012 12:00 am