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PROTRACK » GENERAL » Nitro Athletics goes off with a bang, returning crowds to athletics

Nitro Athletics goes off with a bang, returning crowds to athletics

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Nitro goes off with a bang, returning crowds to athletics

By  Simon King
The Australian
February 13, 2017

It’s a homegrown revolution that now looks set to change the face of international track and field.

And like most good things when it comes to athletic success, it was done at a good pace after only first being thrashed out over a meal less than 12 months ago.

Nitro Athletics, which has seen international teams including Australia, England and China take on Usain Bolt’s All Stars at the Lakeside Arena in Melbourne in a series of unconventional events — including mixed relays, elimi­nation miles and target javelin — over three nights of DJ and ­dancer-fuelled entertainment, has turned heads at the highest echelons of the sport across the world.

Why? Because for the first time in a long time, outside a major tournament, Nitro has had the crowds returning to an athletic stadium — and TV viewers switching on to see the action.

With very few exceptions, not since the halcyon days of the 1950s has a regular meet in Australia pulled anything like the full-house 8000-plus fans who saw Bolt’s All Stars sweep to victory in Saturday night’s Nitro finale.

And given that Australia’s ­finest athletes were competing for decades in front of little more than their relatives, the Nitro ­concept, which also allows fans to get up close and selfie-personal with the stars, needed to be a ­success ­because athletics in ­Australia was dying.

Entertain or perish
“The day I knew we had to change was the last Sydney Track Classic (March),” former federal sports minister Mark Arbib, who took the top job at Athletics ­Australia in November 2015, told The Australian. “I turned up and there was some fantastic athletes on the track on a beautiful summer’s night and there was about 150 people in the stand.

“That’s a sport that’s unsustainable. The board of Athletics Australia knew we had to innovate, adapt and evolve. We had to go after the audience or it was going to be a slow death.”

Then came a twist very few in athletics would have ever foreseen — and some would have openly criticised.

In a meeting orchestrated by radio personality Alan Jones, Arbib sat down for a Japanese meal with a man many largely considered persona non grata at AA, having been at the centre of several very public disputes with the sport’s governing body: former sprinter John Steffensen.

“We had this idea: let’s make athletics fun and, in doing so, let’s lift the profile of the athletes by ­delivering something that had never been done before,” said Steffensen, whose Prince Hal narrative is now so complete he sits on the AA board . “Track and field wasn’t in the sports commercial market; it wasn’t where people wanted to go when they wanted to spend their money.

“The problem for Olympics sports is they rely so heavily on government funding and sometimes the administration feel like they don’t really need to commercialise the sport. We decided to take a stance. It’s a great sport, we’ve all done it as kids, we should be able to make it attractive, not only to sponsors but to kids coming up so they can actually make a living out of the sport again.”

Arbib described that meeting as “electric”. And the concept they turned to for inspiration was ­another one that had captured the public’s attention in Australia: cricket’s short, sharp and entertaining Big Bash League.

“They have ... really changed the game for sport,” Arbib said. “It’s a carnival. It provides everything for a family. If the kids aren’t interested in the cricket, there’s plenty to keep them active and the players love it.

“One of our board members, Brenda LaPorte, had worked on BBL series one, so we had some ­decent insights into the challenges. And we brought in a high quality team with our CEO Darren Gocher formerly from News Corp, Nadia Benussi on the TV side, together with our AA team led by CEO Phil Jones, Glenn Turner and Tracey Gaudry.”

Originally they looked at a city-based metro model with international marquee players, like BBL, but that proved too difficult to sell to commercial TV and sponsors. And herein lies a key pillar to what AA was trying to achieve from a commercial sense: TV coverage.

“That was our No 1 aim,” Arbib said, “because it’s about giving our athletes the platform they need to get recognition, which brings in commercial revenue, which means you’ve got a sustainable lifestyle and better performances. Most of our athletes and coaches don’t get the recognition and the money they deserve.”

But athletics in Australia comes with some realities and baggage when you’re trying to pitch a new concept to investors.

First, it largely fades into ­obscurity outside the cycle of Olympic and, to a lesser extent, Commonwealth Games. Plus, ­before Arbib’s new team, and ­despite superstars like Cathy Freeman and Sally Pearson shining bright, the sport has a nasty habit of imploding in style when it was in the spotlight. Like at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, when ­national coach Eric Hollingsworth was suspended and sent home for his stinging criticism of Olympic gold medallist Pearson as a “bad example”.

And as Steffensen points out, AA was asking people to invest in Nitro believing it could work but not knowing it would.

“At the end of 2015 we spoke to Channel Seven and said, ‘It’s the Olympic trials, we’ve got all the best athletes in Australia coming, will you cover it?’ and the answer was ‘Athletics is boring’ in almost so many words,” AA chief executive officer Phil Jones told The Australian.

But last year AA got Seven Network chairman Kerry Stokes to the national championships.

“Kerry’s strongest advice, given there’s 204 countries at the Olympic in athletics, was we should play to our strengths and Nitro should be international,” Jones said. “He embraced the new product early.”

Steffensen also brought to that table another vital piece in the commercial puzzle in the form of a good mate who happened to be ­arguably the greatest athlete of all time. “I asked him if he could get Bolt,” Arbib said. “And he said, ‘We have to get him.’ I was blown away.”

Bolt and Steffensen met on the running circuit in 2005. “We automatically hit it off because we both like the same things: we like cars and we like to party,” Steffensen said. “We holiday together quite a bit, and last time I said, ‘What do you reckon?’ And he said, ‘Oh yeah, just make it happen’, and we went ahead and started making it happen.”

After that initial offer, AA sat down and formalised things with Bolt and his management at the Rio Olympics. So impressed was Bolt that he invested some of his own money in Nitro Athletics and committed for a couple of years going past what will be his ­official retirement at the world championships in August.

The Bolts All Stars were born. “This really is something that was only conceptualised 12 months ago and was only given the go-ahead by the board four months ago — it’s been a very hectic period to get it done over the Christmas break,” Arbib said.

The numbers speak for themselves. Not since the 2006 Commonwealth Games has Mel­bourne seen an athletics crowd like it. For three nights of competition the 8000-seat Lakeside was at or near ­capacity.

On night one, Nitro Athletics reached 1.4 million viewers, with Seven’s broadcast winning its timeslot in Sydney and averaging 587,000 viewers. According to OzTam figures, the big show rated more highly than last year’s Socceroos World Cup qualifier. And given coverage in Japan, China, Britain, the US, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Scandinavia, Greece, The Netherlands, North Africa, Vietnam and Hong Kong, figures aren’t available but it had the potential to reach 200 million.

By any measure it was a total success, but what no one at AA saw coming was its international ­potential. Such are the ­echoes from the Nitro explosion that the head of the International Association of Athletics Federations, Seb Coe, ­arrived on Thursday to see what all the fuss was about. And Lord Coe, who had challenged all levels of the sport to do things ­differently, liked what he saw.

In fact, he suggested it could be an “innovationary spur” for the sport worth taking to the world championships. “Everything I’ve seen and heard tells me it’s a format that seems to be exciting people, and we’re here to observe and to learn and to see what we can do to drive Nitro,” he told The Australian. “If the 20th century was about connecting our sport to the world, the 21st century has to be about taking our sport to young people — and, to be hard-nosed about it, if we don’t, then we disappear.”

Friday morning’s meeting ­between the IAAF and AA ­endorsed everyone’s faith in the Nitro gamble.

“To sit down with Seb Coe and have discussions about global ­opportunities to expand Nitro Athletics, we now have a serious business that can create serious revenue for AA in the future,” Arbib said. “That’s very pleasing for the sport and our athletics ­family. We’d be hoping in a couple of years we have global cities all competing in some sort of Nitro international series.”

Just as important, given his pulling power, is that Bolt has loved the experience.

“Nitro is just brilliant. I’ve never been in a stadium where I’ve had so much fun at a track meet, ever,” he told The Australian. “Normally you’re just in the warm-up area waiting, then you go out and do what you have to do and then you go back to the warm-up area. For me to be there (on track) all the time and see all the energy — I want to see that all around the world.

“I want people to experience what I’ve experienced, to see what I’ve seen, to feel the energy. The next step is globalisation ... because that’s what we want around the world. We want to make track and field exciting.”

There’s more to come. AA has promised new events like a hurdle relay or long jump all about ­distance that doesn’t require hitting a board perfectly on takeoff.

And while he never jumped ­behind the DJ turntables at an event like young Aussie sprinter Morgan Mitchell after her race on night two, the poster boy of yesteryear, 1960 Rome 1500m Olympic gold medallist Herb Elliott loves what he’s seeing.

“Somehow we haven’t yet found a way to regularly make athletics an attractive proposition for television, and maybe this is it — it seems to be a hell of a good start,” ­Elliott said. “We had a magic time. John Landy was competing against the rest of the world to be the first to break the four-minute mile and every Australian became engrossed in that battle. Then we had blokes like Ron Clarke breaking the world record all over the place, as well as me winning the odd race here and there. When there was an event on people turned up. I ­remember 30,000 to 40,000 turning up to Olympic Park to watch Landy run. You do say to yourself that was ­really good, what’s happened? Let’s hope we’ve got it right this time.”

The early sign is they have got it right. Just ask young Australian 100m speedster Jake Hale, who has lined up against the greatest in his sport several times in the space of a week. “I don’t think any Australian athlete had experience of this sort of crowds domestically,” Hale said. “And to race Bolt is something an 18-year-old doesn’t experience. What everyone’s after now is to keep the ball rolling around all the domestic meets, ­because we have the athletes.”

And that’s the plan. “Look at our team captains, Gen LaCaze and Ryan Gregson,” Arbib says. “They have risen to the challenge and are the perfect role models for our sport. Add Michelle Jenneke, Riley Day, Luke Mathews, Anneliese Rubie, Jack Hale, Morgan Mitchell — the list is endless and their profiles will keep growing. It’s been wonderful to see our athletes being mobbed for autographs. That’s why … Nitro’s a model for the future.”

"Let's Go While We're Young"



Aussie teen’s incredible showing encapsulates everything we love about Nitro Athletics

By Scott Gullan,
Herald Sun
February 12, 2017

THERE are two images which encapsulated Nitro Athletics.

The first was the sight of Riley Day with arms raised as she crossed the finish line for victory in the 150m.

Two weeks ago no-one had heard of her, not even some in the athletics community.

Now she’s the ‘it’ girl for track and field in this country.

Legendary commentator Bruce McAvaney is an athletics junkie and he knows when he’s seen something ‘spppeeeeeccciall” ... Day is his new Cyril Rioli.

The 16-year-old from Queensland has captured the nation’s hearts in the space of a week thanks to her brilliant performances being on national TV and in front of a packed stadium — two things which have been foreign to the sport for a long time.

Day took on Bolt in the opening night of Nitro in a mixed relay to put herself on the map but when she took care of two talented Olympians on Saturday night in the 150m, a star was born.

The other image which will last is the smile on Bolt’s face.

This wasn’t put on by the world’s fastest man, he wasn’t just doing the PR thing, he was genuine about the excitement and joy he felt about what he’d experienced over the three nights of Nitro.

“It was magnificent,” Bolt declared. “No-one has ever been a part of something this much fun, you know your teammates are counting on you, you are competitive but at the end of the day you’re just having some fun.

“It’s less stress but a lot of fun and that’s what we need in the track world, something exciting that people can come out and watch and cheer for their team.”

The team aspect is what the athletes loved. Bolt’s celebration when his All-Stars line-up won the inaugural Nitro trophy and then singing arm-in-arm ‘We Are The Champions’ was not scripted or made up.

He gets it. He knows how important this new concept was which is why he was legitimately pumped that its debut had been a raging success.

All week the eight-time Olympic champion has thrived on the banter with Team Australia who it must be said performed brilliantly over the three nights.

The profile of Genevieve LaCaze has skyrocketed thanks to her excitable performance as team captain while her partner Ryan Gregson further enhanced his reputation on the track.

Morgan Mitchell was everywhere, running three events on the final night, and ticks all the boxes when it comes to stardom — looks, personality and serious ability.

Her partner in the relay Luke Stevens was a no-name from Werribee until Nitro came into his life, now Australia knows him as the kid who fought off two-time Olympic champion Kerron Clement in one of the best finishes of series on Saturday night.

The distance crew definitely shone in their time in the spotlight with Jeff Riseley, Luke Mathews, Heidi See and Linden Hall all winning new fans with inspired performances in the two most popular — and toughest — events the elimination mile and three-minute challenge.

And then there was 19-year-old West Australian Matthew Ramsden who was part of the Bolt All-Stars but like Day announced himself as a future star with his performances against Riseley, Mathews and Gregson.

So what now for Nitro?

Bolt is committed and even though he’s retiring after this year’s world championships in London, he’ll still run in the event for the next two years with Melbourne likely to be locked in as the long-term venue.

Athletics Australia and Bolt both have a stake in the company that runs Nitro and an international event, most likely in Europe this year, is already on the agenda.

“I think it can go international,” AA CEO Phil Jones said. “The IAAF are interested in where this goes and we are keen to work with them on that.

“I think that momentum is important, that’s something we are very conscious of, there are obviously opportunities in Europe post world championships.”

Nitro was a punt for the federation, it took some guts and initiative but the fact they got Bolt and found Day means the sport in this country suddenly has a warm fuzzy feel about it again.

"Let's Go While We're Young"


Usain Bolt's Nitro athletics on course for global sweep

Such was the Usain Bolt-inspired success of the inaugural Nitro Athletics series that it is likely to be replicated overseas later this year.

Athletics Australia (AA) owns a majority share in Nitro and Bolt also has equity in the project.

Eight-time Olympic champion Usain Bolt lead his All-Stars team to the inaugural Nitro Athletics trophy in Melbourne.
The eight-time Olympic champ is committed to returning to Australia in 2018 and 2019 to again lead the All Stars – most likely back in Melbourne, although there is serious interest from other cities.

But the bigger picture is to take Nitro global, an idea that has the enthusiastic backing of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and its president Sebastian Coe, who was an interested observer at Lakeside Stadium as the All Stars completed a clean sweep of the three-meet series.

"It's too early to say what the IAAF's input would be," said AA chief executive Phil Jones.

"[Part-ownership] is a possibility.

"We have to be careful with this concept because it's not the intention that it would replace anything that currently exists in athletics.

"Clearly the world championships and the Olympics will always be the pinnacle of the sport.

"We need to look at how a complementary product like this fits into the calendar."

Taking Nitro to London in the immediate aftermath of the August 4-13 world championships is a clear opportunity. There is also likely to be major interest from the Middle East, China and Japan.

The 30-year-old Bolt, who was paid a seven-figure sum to compete in Melbourne, did a superb job leading his team to victory and spruiking the concept to a wider audience.

"I knew this was what track and field needed," he said.

"The energy and the vibe and even people from Jamaica who watched it and everybody I talked to really enjoyed it and said it was a lot of fun.

"I've had different emotions and that's what was so great."

Ryan Gregson, Morgan Mitchell and Genevieve LaCaze were among the established names in Australian track and field whose profile was lifted by their involvement in Nitro.

Queensland schoolgirl sprinter Riley Day and little-known Victorian runner Luke Stevens performed way above expectations and now have profiles that they can build on.

They were among the many winners in a concept enthusiastically embraced by competitors and fans.

Bolt expects his phone to be running hot in the coming months with people keen to earn a spot in his team.

"You have got to show me you deserve to be on the All Stars," he said.

"People are going to want to be a part of this.

"If they saw it on TV we were laughing, we were enjoying ourselves, cheering other people on.

"It's definitely going to help athletics overall.

"I'm just looking forward to this growing internationally."

"Let's Go While We're Young"


ProTrack Star
ProTrack Star
Maybe a 50m skins similar to Pro athletics may be a good idea.
Would have the crowd keenly watching 5 x 50 races.

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