IAAF World Championships: ET&F’s “Major”

Very favorable news has been released about the scale of the upcoming IAAF World Championships in London. According to published reports ( link  ), 660,000 tickets have been sold for the 10-day meeting. Apparently, this indicates that London 2017 will break the existing record for the IAAF WC by almost 60%. This presents very good news, and also some interesting possibilities for the sport.

The Good:

660K spectators puts the event right at the level of the four professional tennis (PT) majors, in terms of attendance. It is more than the French Open and Wimbledon tournaments. It is on par with the US Open and very near that of the Australian Open. (Yes, starting the tennis year in the fresh sunshine of the Southern Hemisphere is a good idea: something ET&F should consider). Using fairly standard rule-of-thumb quantities (such as $100 of revenue for paying spectator) that apply to the more minor professional sports, one guesses that spectator-only revenues are circa $70M at this event.  Adding other income sources, one expects a total revenue of between $100M and $150M for this meeting, This is a good development. While it still falls short of PT Major revenue levels (on average $220M per event), it is still a strong number. In my view, this points to the inherent value of a full-event meeting that  is allowed to luxuriate in the use of a deliberate (drawn-out) schedule. As has been discussed on this site, long-form event structure is preferable to small-format/small-field offerings for many reasons. The London meeting shows that it will be very good for fan engagement and gross revenue numbers. I can see this sort of meet forming the basis of what one hopes will be multiple “Major” meets that will be held at least two times per year. This is the sort of thing that PT has done for years, and it is one of the many reason that the racquet-based “minor” sport is a much stronger business.

The Less-Good: 

While a $200M revenue PT Major doles out an average of $35M in athlete prize money, IAAF London will only provide a purse of around $7M ( link  ). Somehow, a lot less revenue is filtering down to the athletes. ET&F compensation is small in comparison to most other sports. Hockey, as an example, set a 50-50 revenue split between athletes and owners, in a recent collective bargaining agreement. Somehow, a $150M event giving $7M to its enabling athletes looks very stingy!  Improving athlete payouts from ET&F Majors should go hand-in-hand with an expansion of these types of events to include multiple offerings per year. However, an expansion will be a challenge for the current stakeholders of ET&F. For example, anyone following the attraction of major IAAF events to Tracktown (Eugene) understand that the process involves numerous steps over many years. While much of this is due to current structural requirements related to bidding/development/hosting, it is clear that it would be unsustainable in a “two or three-major per year” world. I believe that the PT model would have to be applied: fixed sites would have to be selected and developed, with a long-term view of hosting repetitive, major events. Once a local infrastructure is in place, the idea of multiple $200M ET&F Majors per year would seem more plausible.

London 2017 indicates that the ET&F world is capable of throwing a PT-sized party. For the sport to gain a scale commensurate with tennis, it will have to figure out how to do it multiple times per season.


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