As the first year of the Diamond League drew to a close last weekend, reviews and commentary are beginning to pop up online. The comments so far, however, have focused mostly on whether or not the series has been good for the athletes. I think that’s a fairly simple question to answer: it tends to be better for some of the minor events and worse for the top events. The shot putters I’ve talked to have loved the series. The event was rarely included in the Diamond League in the past decade, but this year they have been included in a high-profile meets getting the athletes both more exposure and more money. Other events have seen a decline in competitions and earnings. Because more events have been included, appearance fees have become rare in order to pay for the extra events (except for the select few Diamond League Ambassadors). A Twitter exchange between sprint star turned TV announcer Ato Boldon, high jumper Jamie Nieto, and sprint Lisa Barber concluded with Nieto saying “The Diamond League is making it real hard to make a living. Something has got to change.” The split program concept, where meets alternate hosting certain events, also means less meets for 100m runners and stars from events that used to be included in every meet. Sprinter Carmelita Jeter told Spikes Magazine that “This year I had about 40 to 50% less races, because of the split programme concept.” (By my count, she’s only done 13 meets outdoors this year versus 23 last year). This also hurts mid-level athletes, since some of the top athletes are now entering mid-level meets to fill the gaps in their schedule, which is leaving the mid-level athletes with fewer chances to compete.
So, to summarize, some athletes win and some lose. And that doesn’t even mention the hammer throw, which was excluded from the series all together. Of greater interest to me, however, is whether the Diamond League met its goal of expanding the brand of athletics. Meeting that goal will help the athletes, coaches, meet directors, and everyone involved in the sport.
Creating a brand is a big problem that all individual sports have faced over the last century. Team sports draw on the loyalty of a region in a way that local sports cannot. When the Mariner’s play 81 games a year in Seattle, they are bound to create a following that will be even stick with them through the retirement of Ken Griffey Jr. and horrible season’s like this year. Individual sports, on the other hand, compete across the globe and rarely are in a single city more than once. The key for them, then, is to create a brand for the sport that is bigger than each individual event. Motor racing, tennis, and golf are three sports that have done this well. Formula 1 is a worldwide phenomena. Fans tune will tune in 19 Sundays this year to watch each event, no matter where it is, because the stars will be there and they will be fighting towards the championship. They are not tuning in because of the scenic landscape in Abu Dhabi or the great history of the Malaysian Grand Prix. They are tuning in because of the brand, not the events. Tennis and golf have the grand slam and majors, but their ATP and PGA brands are also successful. Again, the series is the star bringing people in to watch the brand, not the event.
Athletics has been less successful in creating a brand. While the New York, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, and London marathons are all great events, the creation of the World Marathon Majors has not been able to leverage that to create a bigger brand. The same goes with the Diamond League. Ask someone on the street in Zurich about the Weltklasse meet and they can tell you all about it. But chances are they have never heard of the Diamond League.
In my opinion, the Diamond League is definitely a step in the right direction. Compared with the Golden League, the Diamond League has multiple stops America and Asia. In addition, it includes more field events, which is definitely a plus for throwers. However, there is room to grow since the series definitely lacked a few things. Most notably, it lacked suspense. Most of the Diamond League champions were claimed before the final meetings, taking the additional excitement out of many races. Vice Chairman of the Diamond League and Zurich meet director Patrick Magyar has said the league will learn from this year and make some changes. After brainstorming at practice, I have come up with a few suggestions for them:
- Spice up the brand. The Diamond League has a terrible website and a dull logo. The Diamond League website is facing some of the same problems that the Diamond League is facing: it is basically just a collection of meet websites. Adding interactive features about athletes, improving the design, and making it easier to find information would be a great first step. In this regard, they could learn from the Pre Classic, which operates its own website with the help of Runnerspace. While they are at it, I like Gerd Kanter’s idea of having extra internet feeds to show the field event action.
- Add some consistency. The sports I mentioned above have been successful because each event is consistent. The Diamond League has tried to do this by contracting Ambassadors to appear at meetings throughout the circuit. However, this plan backfired since the Ambassador program has turned into the new Madden Curse: Yelena Isinbayeva temporarily retired before the season, Kenenisa Bekele and Sanya Richards Ross missed the entire season with injuries, Steven Hooker failed to win any event and no heighted at four of the meets, and both Asafa Powell and Usain Bolt ended their seasons early with injuries after facing each other at just one Diamond League meeting. This is not the Diamond League’s fault. But I think it is their fault to focus on individual stars rather than great competition and battles. You think about the last decade of tennis and it was the great Wimbledon finals between Federer and Nadal that stand out in my mind, not the record breaking years in which Federer annihilated everyone else. Unlike tennis, we don’t have to put up with boring years since there is always at least one event that brings drama and close competition among the best. The key is doing whatever it takes to get that competition in front of the fans. That didn’t always happen this year. The big Bolt vs. Gay vs. Powell battle never came through. The Gay vs. Dix 200m duel also fell through at the last minute as Dix withdrew due to “financial reasons.” Getting stars to face each other has been an issue in athletics, and we need to find a way to solve it. Gay is one athlete who is not affraid to fight and has shown that losing some races will not hurt your image. Hopefully the other athletes will follow his lead and the sponsors can put pressure on the athletes, since it will only help them gain more exposure.
Make it easy to watch. In addition to having a consistent slate of athletes, make the viewing experience consistent. Forumla 1 is always on Sunday. Monday Night Football is on Monday. When is the Diamond League? Who knows. Some weeks it is on Thursday, some weeks it is on Sunday. Some weeks it is televised, other weeks it on another channel or not on TV at all. Many people in Zurich actually missed out on watching the meet since it has historically been held on a Friday, until it was changed to Thursday this year. The Diamond League should always be on the same day of the week and they should attempt to nail down some television contracts so that viewers know where they can always turn to watch the event.
- Just for fun, add some diamonds. The Golden League’s name name sense since the winners took home some gold bars which were on display at every meet. That was cool. But I don’t actually know why it’s called the Diamond League. The winners get a diamond trophy (without any real diamonds) and a check for winning. Why not throw in some real diamonds to add to the allure? Cash is boring, even when it comes in the form of a novelty sized check.
- Finally, add some suspense. As I mentioned above, most of the diamond champions had been named before the final race was run. While it was fun to watch Zurich, it would have been more fun to know the winner of each race took home a huge bonus. The Diamond League should consider the idea of having a true final rather than the current system that only awards extra points in the final meetings. The early events could be used to accumulate points to qualify for the final meetings in Zurich and Brussels. Once there, everyone would enter with a clean slate and it would be winner take all. The only advantage the top point getters would have is that they earned more money along the way and would get a better lane assignment. Now that would be exciting. There might be some downfalls to this approach, for instance early qualifiers for the final might skip a few meets, but stars are already skipping many meets and this format could only improve attendance.
If I have time in the next few weeks, I will also provide a recap of the new IAAF Hammer Challenge’s first year and suggest some changes for that series as well.