WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF ATHLETICS LOOK LIKE? – The following article was published on the Athletics Weekly website recently.
This athletics summer might be at the half-way point, but a look back through the output of the AW social media channels and website, shows a huge level of interest and engagement in the sport – that there is a feeling of momentum gathering. It all served as a welcome reminder that all is not entirely unwell with athletics and that the potential for growth is very real. There’s just one, key problem. For that growth to happen, the audience is going to have to widen. As athletics fans we are able to gorge on this feast but how many people outside of the sport’s bubble are aware of events unfolding? Changing that is no easy task, with every single sport on the planet vying for the attention of not just the next generation but also potential new recruits.
How do you start doing it? One person trying to come up with an answer is LAURA HILLYARD. An athlete turned events director and producer, since beginning to hone her craft at the Loughborough. International 10 years ago she has worked across some of athletics’ very biggest showcases – from the Commonwealth Games to the Olympics. However, she also decided to step outside of her favourite sport to see what others were doing. This led to her working within the British Basketball League (BBL) and, in particular, revamping the London Lions team Game Nights at the Copper Box Arena and Wembley Arena. The lessons she has learned through doing so, she believes, could help athletics to re- establish the foothold it once had on the sporting landscape. HILLYARD was at both Night of the 10,000m PBs and Loughborough International back in May. She agrees both provided reasons to be cheerful but she also couldn’t escape the feeling that they were already preaching to the choir. There should be more focus, she believes, on those new disciples. “What Highgate has done brilliantly is to tap into a community within the sport and it has reignited a fire within people to get involved,” says HILLYARD, who can still be found most days at London’s Mile End track, training under the guidance of coach CHRIS ZAH, as well as regularly competing at National Athletics League meetings.
“But the community being tapped into – ie the running community – was one that already existed. It attracts distance running people, distance running brands, but does distance running actually attract kids? I didn’t see many running around. And how many people in the crowd at Loughborough weren’t already connected to athletics in some way? “I think the events that are going to attract new people to the sport will be the sprints, the explosive stuff – the stuff that today’s kids have that short attention span for and that they’re doing in school. No kid is running for 10,000m at school. If we want to inspire the next generation, we need to activate events that kids are familiar with.” A key part of that process will be education, which applies to prospective spectators and fans of all ages. While there will always be those in the crowd who know everything from the hurdles to the high jump, in the current climate how well are the ins and outs of an athletics meeting really explained to the watching public? “Not everyone automatically knows what’s going on,” says HILLYARD of an area in which she has seen basketball excel. “When there’s a three-pointer, for example [a basket scored from beyond the three-point line], we’ll play a specific sting to the crowd, which is a cue for them to shout and show three fingers. We’ll do the same for various other aspects of the game but it’s explained to the crowd before play begins and it makes them better understand what’s going on. “In athletics, we could be replicating that with things like the start of the 100m, too, where we encourage the crowd to shush themselves rather than the stadium announcer doing it. It makes the spectators feel like an active part of it, in the same way as clapping for the long jump does.” This is all part of what’s called “the show” in basketball. The game is the performance and Hillyard feels athletics would do well to think of a meeting in the same way.
Last year’s Commonwealth Games was a success story, with crowds flocking to and lapping up all of the athletics sessions – even the ones which only featured low-key qualifying heats. There were activation areas on the way to the stands, clever use of music and then presenters in specific areas of the stadium whose job it was to showcase different aspects of the action and to activate the crowd. The fans need to be welcomed into the fold, to be given a reason to care about what they are watching – the equivalent of being the 12th player on the football
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