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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Athletics Australia reinvents participation model in bold plan

Athletics Australia reinvents participation model in bold plan

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Athletics Australia reinvents participation model in bold plan

By Simon King
The Australian
May 21, 2016

Even for the major football codes, the goal of becoming the No 1 participation sport in the nation requires a bold plan.

If that’s your dream and you’re Athletics Australia, well, it requires an almost complete overhaul of the way you’ve operated in the past that will not only target everyone who’s ever put on a pair of trainers and gone for a jog — or even a walk — but also the way the sport has been packaged and broadcast since the first 100m race appeared on TV.

That’s the two-pronged attack being orchestrated by Athletics Australia president Mark Arbib and his team, which includes the man who helped steer sailing to the top of the podium at the London 2012 Games, Phil Jones.

On the broadcast side, it means as of February, audiences around the world will be able to tune in to a completely new track and field concept: the Nitro Summer Athletics League.

“People want to see some change and we’re really about to change the game,” AA chief executive Jones told The Weekend Australian.

The new track meet concept will be designed for TV and will be faster-paced. It will last no more than two hours and one event will take place at a time.

More notably, it will be team-based: eight mixed sides of 28 to 32 athletes will earn points for an overall winner.

“There will be different events as well: our relay will be mixed, there will be non-competing captains and an opportunity to gain bonus points from various events,” Jones said.

“Yes, there will be a 100m ... but it becomes much more about the competition between the teams.

“In each team we’re looking at up to six marquee competitors as well, so you will have an inter­national as well as a domestic ­interest.

“At the moment, the response of all our leading athletes is, ‘Put it on and we’ll be there’.”

Jones said the meets would also be used to “show off the extraordinary nature of athletics” — for instance, demonstrating to the kids just how far long jumper Fabrics Lapierre can leap.

“These athletes are seriously talented and deserve a break and we want to portray that a lot more,” he said.

The TV product is also a way of shining the light on a sport that largely fades into obscurity three of the four years of the Olympic cycle and, when it is in the spotlight has had a nasty habit of aiming both barrels at it own feet — like the 2014 Commonwealth Games, in which national coach Eric Hollingsworth was suspended and sent home for his stinging criticism of the “bad example” he said Olympic gold medallist Sally Pearson had set.

Arbib, who became AA president in November last year, says the “sport went through a lot of heartache after Glasgow”.

“There were a number of reviews; people had to take stock and understand where the mistakes were and what the potential was for the sport,” he told The Weekend Australian.

But now, Arbib says, the mood is right at every level of the sport to mend the administrative bridges required if the biggest element of his plan is to be successful.

Because while the high-profile end of town is getting a glitzy makeover, it’s at a grassroots level where Arbib hopes there will be a people’s revolution.

And strategic pillar No 1 of that play is to embrace the country’s hundreds of thousands of casual runners by creating affiliations.

As revealed in The Australian, stage one of that began earlier this month when AA signed a memorandum of understanding with ­social running phenomenon Parkrun in a bid to tap into the talent and enthusiasm of the all-age, all-ability weekend 5km running group with 400,000 members.

“We’re reaching out to runners who wouldn’t normally see themselves as members of an athletics club and we’re throwing open the doors,” Arbib said

“Mass participation is the bedrock which will allow us to create commercial opportunities and revenue, but at the same time that’s going to be the future of our elite pathways.

“We want to take people on a journey into running and walking, where they start in Parkrun then they move through into clubs ... going through to masters and if we do that, we’re going to see big improvements at the elite level.”

Those improvements, the brains trust says, won’t be immediately obvious at the Rio Olympics, but come the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, expect results.

“It would be nice if Rio was two years later,” Jones says, “but we’ll see a lot of our emerging athletes get into the Rio semi-finals.”

Arbib believes a growing athlete base — supported by clear pathways — will also stop the tide of junior athletes who are lost to other sports.

“We’re competing with the AFL, were competing with professional sports and our athletes get cherrypicked all the time into the sports,” he said.

“We need to get more people staying on from the age of 13 through and we need to get people involved in athletics for life. This is something you shouldn’t just be looking at when you’re young.”

As proof of the potential interest and financial reward of dispelling the myth that recreational runners and club runners are two separate species, Parkrun and NSW Athletics recently trialled Track Run, which charges $20 for the opportunity to run in a stadium.

Such was the interest, entrant numbers had to be capped.

“Historically, people have said fun runners aren’t interested in being part of a paid-for model but reality is, if you run 5km every weekend you get to a stage when you want to do a bit more,” Athletics NSW chief executive Duncan Tweed said.

Largely driven by NSW embracing the participation model, in the past four years AA’s membership has doubled to more than 33,000.

That figure points to how influential Parkrun’s membership base could be.

There are other elements to AA’s plan to engage. It has also developed a school or youth group-based program for teenagers, making it fun and social to race in the often individual sport, recording their personal performances along the way. Another pillar of AA’s strategic plan is to create a “one-athletics” family.

Not an easy task in an often conservative sport with separate political pockets courtesy of the federated model.

But for the first time, Little Athletics has taken a seat at the AA board table. Albeit non-voting, this puts it in the conversation.

At a state level, NSW Athletics and Little Athletics are in talks with the state government about sharing an office and discussions like these are being replicated around the country

“Right now, there is an alignment between state associations and the national body as to what the strategic vision of the sport is,” Arbib said. “Everyone wants to work together.”

In NSW, in a couple of weeks the under-14 All Schools, Little Athletics and NSW cross country championships will be combined for the first time.

“Five years ago, there wasn’t a snowball’s chance that would happen,” Tweed said.

Such a small administrative move is massively significant for Arbib: “These things are painful for a lot of people, because they’re big changes but now there is the goodwill to do it.”

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