In addition to my comments below, read my thoughts on watching Weltklasse Zürich over at Jesse Squire’s Track and Field Superblog.
Although I’m a track fan and athlete, my interest in athletics goes well beyond spectating and competing. For me, I also love the business side of the sport and am constantly thinking about the challenge of how we can grow athletics. One recent idea that has proved very successful is the shot put’s move outside the stadium at many meets. This has been a classic example of thinking outside the box (and the stadium) that has worked.
How We Got Here
While throwing outside the stadium is nothing new, the idea has been gaining traction in the past decade. The short lived Titan Games first tried it in 2003. It was easy for them to decide to put the shot put outside the stadium since it was the only track and field event included in the strength oriented program. But, the rest of the events took place indoors and the shot put was held outside. The atmosphere was still great, leading Adam Nelson to say, “it was like the combination of a rock concert and fight night.” Nelson had an amazing foul at the 2004 meet before the event disappeared. During this time, the Oregon Track Classic also held the shot put outside the stadium before the meet, creating an intimate setting leading to an intense experience where Adam Nelson set his personal best of 22.51m and Kevin Toth placed just third with a throw of 21.78m.
Not long after the Titan Games, an even bigger meet, the Olympics, decided to hold the shot put outside the stadium and also began to use the event as a publicity tool. The shot put was held at the ancient Olympic stadium in Olympia. With the return of the Olympics to its ancient homeland, Greece wanted to do something to recognize the history of the Olympics and elected to hold a competition at the historic grounds. The shot put, however, was not their first choice since it was not even contested in the ancient Olympics. The discus was the first choice since it traces its roots back to Greece, but it required too much space. The shot put, on the other hand, requires little space and seemed to be the perfect fit. Again, the competition was a great success, with thousands of spectators making the drive from Athens to watch the historic event. Everybody won with this decision. The shot putters got to be the center of attention. The Olympics got additional press coverage and was able to bring attention to its history. The live fans were also get watch the event in a more intimate setting and fans at home were treated to abnormally good coverage of the event.
It wasn’t until 2008, however, that the idea caught on with the bigger one-day meets at the DN Galan. The meet decided to create the Big Shot competition, a shot put meet one day prior to the rest of the competition held in the city center as an outreach project. It was very successful and and the idea can now been seen in the main train station at this week’s Weltklasse Zürich and earlier this year at the scenic Goree Island before the Dakar Grand Prix.
Everybody is a Winner
For the one-day meet, the shot put provides several big benefits. First and foremost, it is an advertising tool. By placing one event in the middle of the city the day before the meet, the hype for the meet begins to build with the thousands of people that pass by. Rather than a billboard add, a competition is interactive, load, and fun making it a much better marketing tool. The meets have also treated the event as a platform to build on. In addition to the competition, Zürich let the public try the event themselves, with a constant queue about 20 people long for several hours on Wednesday. Sports celebrity Werner Günthör was brought in to provide live commentary to the crowd and Puma was among many sponsors that set up a booth right next to the stands to sell their latest Bolt line of clothing. In addition, the meet also benefits since they don’t have to repair their precious football field after the competition.
The shot put is always a fun event to watch, but some of its allure is lost when you have to watch the event across eight lanes of track and a dozen Kenyans scaling steeplechase barriers. The rest of the track meet can sometimes dampen the event, even though the rowdy shot putters do their best to prevent that and have famously delayed some headline races with their noise. By putting the shot put outside the stadium, fans can stand feet from the event and, for me, better witness what an amazing physical feat it is to throw the 16-pound ball over 22-meters. Weltklasse Zürich meet director Patrick Magyar put it nicely when he said, “the Shot Put is an aesthetic discipline, offering exciting competitions. Unfortunately, it tends not to get the attention it deserves when staged at its traditional stadium location, simply because the action is so far away from the spectators.”
The athletes, in turn, get to feel the crowd right on top of them. They get to be the center of attention with a crowd estimated at over 700, which is more fans than many full fledged U.S. meets get. They get to expose their event to new faces. They are also given more chances to compete. Only the women’s shot put was on the original slate of events in Zürich, but the men’s shot put was added as a non-Diamond League event because of the idea. While not everything has been smooth for the athletes, the first round reportedly took 30 minutes in Stockholm since every athlete was individually introduced before their first attempt, it is a big upgrade in most cases.
Learning to Think Outside the Box
As I’ve written about numerous times on here before, the hammer throw is already on the fringe of track and field and on the verge of being moved further offstage. Just this week, Magyar, one of the most influential men in athletics, even warned in a newspaper interview that öur sport needs to ask tough questions like whether we need the discus or race walking events or else we will drive into a wall.” While the interview mentioned the discus, Mr. Magyar was obviously referring to the hammer throw since the discus has a secure spot in the sport and, unlike the hammer throw, is actually being contested in Zürich.
While I disagree with Mr. Magyar’s statement that the question of dropping the hammer throw should be on the table, I agree with him in that we need to be asking tough questions about how to improve our sport. And the answers to the questions will need to be ideas where we are thinking outside the box like the recent changes to the shot put. It is through such ideas that will we be able to both reach new fans and excite the current fan base. I don’t have those answers yet, but there must be some idea that can help our event get some extra attention and we need to constantly search for it. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, as some have suggested, but we should be looking for new ways to market the wheel.
If nothing else, the shot put movement has shown once again that moving an event outside the stadium is not always a bad thing. The sprints have been held in city centers and the pole vault has numerous street and beach vault events. Even the hammer throw can be successful outside the stadium, but other ideas will be needed to bring the event back to the limelight.