Valuing the hair-raising moments and the athletes who deliver them
Editor's Note: We're lucky to have personalities like Jeff Merrill in our sport. For the uninitiated, Jeff wears a number of hats, but the ones of most relevance to you would be his hosting of the popular Tracklandia series on YouTube, and his work with Portland Track - hosting and facilitating top tier meets in the PNW. Jeff is probably best known as the man behind The Portland 5000 held at Michael Johnson Track in 2019, but he has done that and so much more for the sport. In the following piece, Jeff is going to outline some of the work his team has been doing over the past 12 months, and some important context for the chosen path forward. Enjoy.
The TL;DR version of this article is this - Tracklandia is going to take your money to watch a track meet, but you might be interested in where that money is going and the influence that this could give you as a fan...
Beginning with meets organized by Sound Running and Tracklandia’s birthing organization, Portland Track, the creative track-focused media house will charge a small fee in a one-time transaction pay-per-view model per meet.
Tracklandia and the meets and partners associated with them will give the bulk of the money brought in to the athletes competing. In the ever-evolving financial model of the sport, rolling from the rejection of amateurism in the 1980’s until now, we hope this will be a meaningful step forward in athletes’ ability to pursue their dreams within the sport they love.
What follows is the story behind the decision...
Last year, the outbreak of a global pandemic effectively shut down in-person, face to face, physical interactions that run a good portion of the global economy and all but eliminated the possibility of having sports. You know that. This sentence was written for posterity.
Like everything else, the track world was sent into a tailspin. Meets were cancelled until the calendar was completely empty. It was necessary. No one knew how to handle what was in front of us. Medical professionals and state officials could only give their best advice when it came to how to proceed but there were no clear answers. Again, I don’t know why I’m telling you this, you were there.
Set against this backdrop, Portland Track had been negotiating the rights to stream top level track events that we host- namely the prestigious Portland Track Festival and the Stumptown Twilight. Along with those discussions, we were keeping in close touch with state officials and medical professionals to gauge when we might be able to host meets, in what capacity, and exactly how those meets would look. Early ideas thrown around were solo time trial pursuits on the track a la cycling, team-scored competitions where one team (training group) races on the track in one heat, followed by the next team, and so on. The total results would be compiled and then scored cross country style to crown a champion. We even kicked around the idea of having these heats be run in different cities and stitching the broadcast together heat after heat to be shown to the viewing audience. I was pretty amped on this idea.
Also around this time, Tracklandia (Portland Track’s creative media wing founded by myself and Andrew Wheating) had been growing and JJ Vazquez entered the equation. With Andrew focusing on other important things (like his paying job), JJ and I began to craft the vision for what we wanted Tracklandia to be. We envisioned a creative house that worked to craft compelling stories to add dimension and character to the figures you see clashing on the track. Up until this point, amazing was being done through written content, the podcast world and photography (chef’s kiss) to shape the lives of the athletes off the track, but we found storytelling and production inside the arena lacking depth and excitement. It was our assessment that most coverage of track racing was just that, coverage, it was not interwoven into the fabric of the race, it did not attempt to push the story forward or to craft authentic character molds of the competitors using alternative mediums that could make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
It was reactive.
We wanted to build off of our work on The Portland 5000 and keep digging into the seeds of track racing to grow them out into an experience unique to itself, unlike any other sport. I often say it’s like taking a skeletal rollercoaster at Six Flags that offers the thrills and making it Disneyland- dripping with narrative to make the thrills come to life. We want people to be worried that they might pee themselves a little bit and then ask themselves if that’s even wrong in this new world they’re inhabiting. But I digress… It’s an ongoing process and one that is never completely finished.
As the Covid restrictions began to ease in early summer 2020, they were alleviating to the point of allowing us to put on highly restricted events for local elite athletes, but were not progressing enough for safe travel, which meant that the streaming company that we had been negotiating with was unable to send a production crew to produce and livestream our events. It was a basket of lemons.
I called JJ and asked him if we had the technical capacity to livestream a track meet and act as the production group. He said, “yeah, of course!” with blind confidence, and he and our accomplice, Michael Flotron immediately began researching how to do this on remote Oregon tracks with shaky internet and cinema cameras as opposed to broadcast cameras. I excitedly called Pete Julian, coach of the elite Nike racing team we had been working with and told him that we had a plan to film and produce the meets ourselves and then push them through the aforementioned streaming company’s platform. A brief moment of silence met my comment followed by: “We don’t really like that model.” This took me by surprise. I fully expected him to be as excited as I was about the team’s dogged determination and MacGyvering abilities. “Why not?” I asked. His response went something like this-
“Say that we have some of the best athletes in the world running these meets and the meets are behind a paywall facilitated by the streaming company. The best athletes in the world are the reason that people are tuning in and they don’t see any of that money, and on top of that, their moms have to pay to watch them race.”
Makes sense. Now, some of you might be thinking, wait a minute! You said earlier in this letter that you were negotiating with the streaming company, which means that they would be offering something in return for the rights to the coverage, potentially legal tender. You’re absolutely correct, however, contracts between streaming companies and meet organizations are not especially lucrative and greatly limit a race organization’s ownership and usage of race footage.
At this point, stepping back and looking across the landscape of the sport, very few meets in the country have significant prize money, at least significant enough to make a difference to an athlete’s livelihood. In a sport with an already small amount of money floating around it, it seems that a very small portion goes to the people actually running in it- the athletes. Instead, they rely on precious endorsement deals with footwear and apparel brands, which although extremely helpful for those who have them, are not only few in number but also not entirely dependent on performance in sport. The lack of big checks cut by meets for winning on the track shifts an athlete’s focus to races where they can secure standards in order to get themselves into bigger meets where the logo of the company sponsoring them will be most visible ie the Olympic Trials and the Olympics. In turn, many contracts with apparel and sporting goods companies have bonus structures geared towards standards and times achieved...but when it comes down to it, these are just parts of the equation that also includes an athlete’s social media presence and marketability. These factors add up to the overall picture driving a company to sponsor any person in order to represent the brand as a whole and help push product.
For the record, I don’t think this is wrong. The qualifications for representing the mission and vision of a brand should be steep and encompass more than just winning in the arena.
Back to Portland- With a few weeks to go and having an enormous amount of Covid safety precautionary work to do in order to be the first sanctioned meets in the US to proceed during the pandemic, we couldn’t solve all of the track world’s problems, but we could make a dent. We decided that if we were already going to film, package and produce the meets ourselves, that we would put them out to the public ourselves and do it free of charge. Streaming meets for free makes them more accessible to anyone interested, and gets more eyes on the athletes and consequently, the brands that sponsor them. And so we embarked into the world of footage capture, wires, streaming and the Internet- the invisible beast.
The first meet we put on was called The Big Friendly and featured an amiable slate of races where the Oregon Track Club faced off against Pete Julian’s yet to be named team. The first Friendly is now most famous for being the meet where Donavan Brazier struck fear into the hearts of every 1500m runner in the United States, running 3:35.85 and closing his final 400m in 52 seconds- essentially a “don’t make me come up there” to every metric miler preparing for the Olympic Trials. Due to Covid safety rules enforced by the school where the meet was being held, we were unable to test our pilot and livestream the competitions but instead captured all the footage and commentary as if it were live, sat on the results and with the help of our friends at Tempo Journal, put out the recap, photos and tape-delayed broadcast two days later to be experienced as if it were live. The broadcast was uploaded and available to be viewed free of charge on YouTube.
The next meet we held was called The Big Friendly 2: The Bigger Friendly, and it not only featured the two honorable teams from the first Friendly, but members of the Brooks Beasts, Oiselle Littlewing, Adidas athletes and local high-level unattached runners, all adhering to the strict safety protocol. The Bigger Friendly was held at the Mckenzie Community Track in Blue River, Oregon, a facility unmatched in surrounding natural beauty, but also unwired to the grid with a wifi connection that could not sustain our livestream. We again tape-delayed the competitions, which included a world best of 8:40 in the 3000m by Shannon Rowbury, and put out the broadcast on YouTube the very next day.
The Big Friendly 3: Revenge of the Friendly. We worked with the fine folks at Newberg High School and Beynon Sports to have the track surveyed, remeasured and fit for the old Hayward Field rail we trucked over from across town. The facility was prepped for world class competition inside of a week and we were ready to show top level track racing on American soil live and free to the public- a rarity for any sporting competition at the highest level. Film cameras were set up covering every quadrant of the track and enough wiring roping them back to central command to choke a python. JJ and Michael (Flotron) manned the switchboard, graphics and audio in the control center, Portland State film students operated each of the cameras and I sat in the empty stands delivering commentary next to legendary Oregonian reporter, Ken Goe.
The majority of the feed flowed without a hitch, we nixed many of the bells and whistles to channel our bandwidth into simply showing the races.
As we approached Donavan Brazier’s debut outdoor 800m of 2020, arguably the main event of the evening, things were going well and around 15,000 people worldwide were watching a live track meet take place in rural Oregon during a pandemic.
In the middle of the reigning world champion’s first crack at his signature event, the feed cut to black.
It was unclear to us at the time what happened, but with quick calls to YouTube headquarters, we were able to get the feed back shortly after Brazier crossed the finish line in a world leading 1:43.84. The comment section of an internet posting is a cruel place, and if you haven’t scrolled through the chat feed of a live streaming YouTube production, we recommend never considering it. We also can tell you that whatever was typed in the chat did not compare to the voices in our heads.
That being said, the remainder of the broadcast which saw Josh Kerr lay the hammer on a stacked field to run a world leading time of 3:34.53 and Shannon Rowbury scorch a 4:03.62 1500m went smoothly, and we were able to air Brazier’s race in its entirety at the end of the stream. As highly visible pro athletes know, the classroom can be a cruel place when the world is allowed to grade your mistakes. Following the Revenge of The Friendly, we went back to the workshop to troubleshoot and assure that our mistakes would not repeat themselves.
We held two more Friendlies in the summer of 2020, The Big Friendly 4: Force of the Friendly and The Big Friendly 5: The Meaning of Friendly. Both events streamed live for free to the public and both without major mishaps. After all was said and done, we held 5 pop-up meets over a 7-week period in the summer of 2020, giving athletes the opportunity to showcase their talents and sponsors over broadcasts free to the public. We received a generous amount of money from Willamette Valley Track and Field to be able to put on the meets, but all of it went to operating costs: facilities rentals, timing services, rail installment, surveying costs etc.
No one within the Portland Track organization or Tracklandia was paid for the work done. If athletes weren’t being paid, it did not make sense for us to get paid.
Until we felt that we could do this respectably, we weren’t going to take one red cent - athletes are the ones doing the work to keep the sport afloat and deserve to eat first. We, in all of broadcasting, need to prove ourselves. We thought about taking the few hundred dollars earned through YouTube views and divvying it up to the athletes, but it would amount to roughly $14 an athlete. The money is still sitting. Providing it doesn’t come off as an insult, we may still cut them checks.
After the season, Pete’s words from the beginning of the summer kept rattling around in my head...If the races are behind a paywall, the athletes don’t see any of that money and their moms have to pay to watch them race.
This February, the Tracklandia team went down to Los Angeles to broadcast the TEN and then The Sound Running Invite in early March- two highly competitive events that delivered top notch results.
We piloted a system for these events where we showed them for free on YouTube and in addition to corporate sponsorships, we asked fans of the sport to ‘Build the Purse’- a system designed for viewers to throw money into an online pot to then be divided amongst the winners and top placers in each race. Initially, it was a success with $10,000 divided between the top two placers in each of the 10,000 meter races at The TEN. The attrition rate, however, showed heading into the Sound Running Invite where from the close to 40,000 unique live viewers, $6,000 was raised and then split between 6 different races.
The concept was favored by some but met resistance with others who saw it as most like a fundraising charity for athletes. Without goods or services being exchanged for money, Build the Purse felt like a program raising money for athletes that directly competed against other worthy charitable causes that people could be supporting and that was not a position in which we want to put athletes. We should not place athletes in the uncomfortable position of appearing as if they are competing with the fight against world hunger. There is also a feeling that the correct and only model for securing funding is procuring it from corporate sponsors and advertisers, giving them visibility in exchange for funding to show an event to the public, cover operating costs and provide a lucrative prize purse.
This is a good model, but we can take some pressure off the sponsors and make the model more sustainable. The question is, how can we improve on the current model? How can we work towards athletes getting paid appropriately for what they produce on the track?
The paywall, as it has become known drums up a lot of emotion - and rightly so. In a lot of ways, it's the future (whether we like it or not) with publishers like Disney, ESPN, NBC, and others now offering their own pay-to-watch services. In theory it's great - a monthly or annual fee to access a library of on demand content. The issue arises when we think about value - if you only want to watch a couple of events per year, you're locked into an annual contract that very quickly makes those events feel expensive.
The next sticking point with some, and others may not even think about it is that the streaming services don’t really consider payment for athletes- the people who draw the viewers who pay the subscription fees. It is unclear how much a track-focused streaming service makes from a single broadcasted event but typically a good deal given to a meet from a streaming company is roughly $5,000 per meet.
If a meet has 8 professional level races (4 men’s and 4 women’s races) and the entire sum was devoted to prize money, that would be $625 per event. Maybe you give $300 to the top place finisher and spread $325 out for the rest of the field. Not really the kind of money you imagine when you think world class, professional, bright lights, air horns, chest painting sports. This isn’t a shot at the streaming companies, they do a tremendous amount for the popularity and visibility of the sport and the athletes in it, across all levels. They provide valuable visibility for athletes on the rise and sponsors of top athletes. They just aren’t built to pay pro athletes; they’re built to cover and promote every level of the sport from middle school to masters’ races and pay their employees for doing so.
Even ESPN’s model (one that exists behind a paywall depending on your cable service, à la carte choice, or whether or not you have your parents’ DirecTV login info) simply affords meet directors the opportunity to sell a third of the ad space offered in order to fund meet operations, production costs and the prize purse. Right now, this is the best available option, providing MD’s are able to sell that ad space. The prize money for these meets could be anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000 total and these are broadcasts that reach up to half a million viewers. Spread across 8-12 events, this is roughly $5,000 per event. Still not an incredible amount when it is broken down paying out placers from first to fifth let alone first to eighth.
While doing a service by providing visibility to the sport and sponsors, these models pass the bulk of meaningful compensation of athletes down the table to the companies signing their endorsement checks. Even if an athlete won all of the domestic track races that were offered in a year in their event (without breaking their body) absent a sponsorship contract they would probably be living paycheck to paycheck.
So, what do we do?
Back in January, Michael Bergmann (Portland Track President), Jesse Williams (Sound Running) and I started kicking around the idea of a pay per view model (Jesse proposed it). I know the stigma around paying for track. I was a card-carrying, flag-bearing soldier of the free track movement- I mean we were the first ones to offer top level racing for free during the pandemic and we were proud to inspire others to follow in our footsteps. As we continued conversations, it made more sense to me though, this could add to the current sponsorship-based model and close the loop on getting athletes paid their fair share.
What if we charged $5 per broadcast of our meets? The price of a hamburger, pint of pilsner or fancy coffee. After accounting for the bare minimum costs it takes to produce a track meet, we could roll $4 of the $5 straight into the prize purse. Under this model, if somehow on God’s green earth over blood, sweat and tears, we were able to claw our way up to half a million viewers like the meets on ESPN, this would yield a bare minimum prize purse of $1,990,000 per meet.
Imagine a track race where $250,000 is on the line, to be split up amongst the competitors! That would be the breakdown for an 8-event meet. Imagine the power this would place in the hands of the consumers. One of the biggest gripes amongst fans of the sport is that the top athletes don’t race each other often enough, sometimes missing each other in their primes. Much like PPV boxing and MMA, if we opened the ticket office early and the pot was to get big enough, it would become increasingly more enticing for athletes to enter the ring to face off for a share of it. On top of this, hypothetically speaking, if somehow half a million people watched this pay-per-view broadcast, it would be equally if not more valuable to sponsors to support the event- since those tuning in will be invested viewers.
Now, I realize that the likelihood of garnering 500,000 viewers is small, but even a viewership of 10,000 would actually yield a competitive prize purse in this day and age, especially in a meet with a limited number of events that allows for a greater exploration and build-out of the characters bumping elbows on the track and the storylines that develop from the flying sparks. I imagine this push to empower athletes and fans would be a compelling mission for sponsors to align their support.
Long story short, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to bust our asses to make the broadcast captivating and we’re going to pay the people who run this sport their fair share. Our live events will be available for viewing for $5.99 (includes processing fees). Have a viewing party with your friends and teammates! Maybe this time around, it’s your job to buy the broadcast and your buddy’s got the nachos...although $5 nachos to share doesn’t seem like a good move considering commercial breaks will be limited. We’ll spearhead programs to get free viewership tickets into the hands of young runners and people who can’t quite afford a ticket, in order to grow the sport and inspire the next generation. We will also put all the races up on YouTube for free over the following week ensuring that everyone who would like to see them can and to provide maximum visibility for companies sponsoring athletes. But if you want to watch pinnacle level racing, live with an ever-evolving production arm constantly working to make sure the hair-raising moments do that and more, well climb aboard my friend and let us punch your ticket. There are plenty of seats and nacho trays.
As this train keeps chugging down the tracks, we promise to be transparent with you, to show you our process, to increase visibility to the pot and creatively make that visibility engaging to provide a valuable and ever-evolving experience that will exceed your expectations. We will work with athletes to distribute money to maximize the impact for all competitors.
The athletes in this sport consistently deliver on a high-level deserving of reward, our duty is to strive to match their determination and ensure that we’re showing the sport in a way that is rooted in authenticity but branched out creatively. It’s what we believe in.
This is not a silver bullet or fix-all for the sport, we know that.
I think the best way to push the sport forward is one event at a time, one race at a time, one story at a time delivered honestly and thoughtfully. Devoting all of our energy into making what is right in front of us come alive in its own unique way, and then repeating the process for the next unique one-of-a-kind experience. The creation of those experiences will always be our main focus, paying athletes is just something that we believe is the right thing to do.