Nationalism: Limited Value to Successful Sports Businesses and ET&F

Nationalism can inject necessary energy into challenging pursuits. The Apollo days harnessed Cold War nationalism to generate remarkable technical achievements. However, as no astronauts have left low-Earth orbit for 40+ years, it is clear that the shelf-life of this stimulus is limited. I believe that the same goes for nationalism in sports, particularly Elite Track and Field (ET&F).

As the IAAF World Championships get under way in London, remember (as the white papers discuss  link ), ET&F’s one Major selects fields by country, and by a single performance mark. So, while nationalistic zeal surrounds the games, understand that some of the sport’s best athletes will not be present. This is much different than many other (more successful) sports, which select competitors for major events in a way that maximizes past performance, and minimizes country-of-origin rules. Nothing at Wimbledon, for example,  limits the number of German tennis players that can enter. Player rankings drive qualification. Furthermore, Wimbledon coverage does not suffer, even though organizers and broadcasters do not overtly tabulate results by country. These bigger sports do show country flags in on-air displays. Apparently, some customers do care why US Men’s tennis is relatively weak these days. But, the application of this is judicious: it stops short of only allowing N athletes per country, and of making the athletes where national team uniforms. In tennis, the “countries” of record appear to be Nike, Adidas, and Fila. However, that is another topic for another time!

In the perfect case, where ET&F ensures that the top athletes compete in a large fraction of Tour events, and where Major event qualification is primarily results-based, wearing Team USA uniforms would be fine. Unfortunately, the situation is backwards: country-based qualification limits athlete participation (to some degree). The result of this is less than optimum. I can think of no major sport where the highest-profile events are as much influenced by country-of-origin rules as ET&F. Certainly, the larger individual sports (tennis and golf) do not do this. They push their nationalism-based products (e.g., Ryder Cup, Davis Cup, etc.), into tightly-managed boxes that are occasionally interesting to observe. However, they do not dominate the core product.

More ET&F! More meets and more athlete engagement time! Nationalism is not the obvious solution to the problems that afflict the sport. It has been tried for years with an unsatisfactory level of success.

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