What's wrong with the USATF part 1: USATF.org

13 Apr 2009

(This post is a little bit all over the place. I wrote some of it a while ago, and some of it today. The original post was about the USATF in general, but I edited and added parts to focus on the website.)

For the USATF to survive, it needs to make a choice. It either needs to be an organization focused on it’s membership (i.e. the average runner who is a member for discounts, entry to sanctioned meets, etc) or it needs to become an entity that provides a channel to function and progress (as a runner). Right now it is doing neither at even an mediocre level; which is not surprising given how hard it would be to provide those two vastly different services at the same time (at least in the way the USATF is used to providing them). I don’t think it has the resources or the structure or the intuition to reach a happy medium for those two roles, so it’s essential that (soon) it picks one and strives to achieve an impressive and sustainable level with a good amount of recognition throughout the country (in terms of the general population).

If it were up to me, the obvious choice would be to take the route of creating a legitimate professional environment for athletics, and (at least for now) forget about the general membership side of things. In terms of the latter, there are several things to think about. First, (and I could be way off on this) I would think that most competitive athletes that aren’t professional to some degree are in high school or college, neither of which needs the USATF. Most HS runners have probably never heard of the USATF, and I don’t think most college runners put too much thought into it either, though they are probably more likely to currently be involved in some sanctioned events. Second, for that group of athletes who are competitive but don’t fall under the NCAA or NFHS, I think everyone needs to realize that they would still be finding ways to compete without any USATF involvement. Now I’m sure there would be some impact, given the insurance implications and sanctioning of distances or timing or whatever, but I just don’t see youth meets, club-hosted meets, developmental meets, summer league meets, etc disappearing because they no longer can look to the USATF. Such a small percentage of meets available to non-elites are dependent on the USATF at this point anyway, it really just wouldn’t make a difference. If the USATF is trying to convince itself otherwise, it’s just prolonging its inability to provide a meaningful service to the community.

Some arguments against dropping these groups from USATF focus that I can think of would be things like: lack of promotion or a central place to find events, loss of insurance for sanctioned events as I mentioned, a lack of unified rules and officials, and a less streamlined qualification process for things like nationals/olympics/etc. Now, USATF.com is currently doing very little in terms of helping mid-level athletes find competitions; the regional sites like USATF NE are much more comprehensive and up to date (but evidently get no help from the national USATF and are generally terrible websites to begin with). I really don’t know how insurance works at this level, but there are plenty of meets that get by without it, so I don’t think that would be a huge loss, if any. As far as the rules go, this is track and field. Everyone knows the rules. If a meet is important enough to need a strict set of rules that should be up to the RD to work out. Qualifications are maybe the toughest thing to overcome, but for the small percentage or athletes who aren’t professional and still fall into the group that qualifies for major events, I think a new USATF system could easily handle the low number of athletes, even if on a one by one basis, who need to be able to compete in sanctioned events and who doesn’t meet ‘elite’ status.

A pro-specific USATF could do a lot more for the elite runners. But it needs to actually make decisions are proactively beneficial. If the USATF spent even $5 on the 2008 USA Marathon Trail Championships, that’s $5 that should be really be going to make the lives of professional track, field, or xc athletes better. If that means dropping Ultra-marathons and trail running and maybe even race walking from the scope of USATF then so be it. If those events are actually making more money than track meets, cross-country, marathons, etc, than someone’s simply doing something wrong. Runners, professional or aspiring, should be able to look at the USATF and see an opportunity to use their sport as a livelihood. No one looks at the MLB or NFL and thinks, if I were a part of that, I might not be able to actually afford to compete or stay healthy. That’s what the current system has done; it’s completely un-legitimized the potential within the sport. Even if the money and the support isn’t coming from the USATF itself, the fact that the USATF is there should be a big enough indicator of success within the sport to allow people to say “I feel safe making this sport my life.”

The major issue I have with the USATF is that it’s actions seem to consistently be answering the question, “What can we do related to running,” rather than “What can we do to make the sport of running better.” Even within the current all-runners system, from the largest national programs to the littlest details, it just doesn’t seem like anyone over there knows what would make the sport better. As an example: the visa championship series…what do those points even mean!? Half of the people in the top five are hardly shown on tv. It’s obviously not a meaningful metric within the sport since you can’t go anywhere and easily see the current standings (try and find the standings on usatf.com, I dare you…). And quite simply, no one cares. So why does it even exist? It’s just extra fluff that makes the sport even less legitimate. Another example: the false start rule. Outside of championship competition, why are we taking people out of races at all? If a major name gets DQed, it hurts the fans that came to see him or her race, if it’s not a major name then why not let them race? They’re either not going to win, so it won’t matter, or they’re going to be a huge upset, which gets people talking about the runner, the race, the meet, the sport, etc. Who actually sat down and thought “We have almost no fans, so let’s change the false start rule. Let’s make it EASIER for runners to not run, and fans to not see them run.” We have the rule that if someone falls in the first turn the race restarts with everyone, why not with a false start. Athletes and fans are out there to see who can win the race, not who can avoid false starts the best. There are countless other examples of decisions the USATF has made that have no benefit, from the commercials with Deena that don’t actually say what the USATF is or why someone should join, to having big name athletes show up to elementary schools and talk about god knows what instead of having them show up at a local  high school track practice a couple days before a big meet to run with the kids, do a 4x100 versus Wariner or something, and try to get some people (who can actually drive, and have money) to come pay and watch. This stuff’s not hard to figure out…

Basically the USATF (or some athletics entity) needs do whatever it takes be be recognized. Lacrosse a couple years ago was a nothing sports. Now MLL is on TV all the time, and people that watch sports recognize MLL as a brand. Even if they don’t know any players or teams, they’ve done enough for people to make that association. NO ONE knows USATF. People probably watch entire meets on TV and don’t realize what a USATF is. We’ll never have success if all we give the public is runners and meets and records. We need to provide a brand. We don’t have teams, so we need to do what the PGA and NASCAR have done; make the USATF a brand. If you look at how NASCAR is presented to the public, it’s always NASCAR first, specific event second. “Nascar on Fox, 4pm on Saturday.” The cable lists say “NASCAR racing” not “Stock car racing”. People watch it because it’s nascar, not because it’s the Whatever 6000 or because someone’s racing. But there should be an effort to make athletes their own brand also. Second tier golfers are more recognizable than the USATF and all it’s athletes combined, and it’s huge what Tiger Woods as a brand has done for golf and the PGA. If USATF can find and advertise a runner who people love, people will learn to love the sport.

Now, as for USATF.org: there is so much potential for improving US running for athletes and fans, it’s almost unbelievable how long it has been wasted, and how fast and easy it would be to fix. From technical aspects, to design, to utilizing new technologies, to just what it seems like the site is designed to do, there’s almost nothing I can look at on the site (as a professional designer and developer, or a runner) and say “that’s helpful” or “wow that’s a great, original idea”.

Let’s take a little tour of the website. I just got to USATF.org, and what do I see? Well, the two biggest things I see are ads for backpacks and clothing. Now, the chances a majority of users are coming to the site a majority of their time to buy something are probably zero percent. But just by looking at this, I would have to believe whoever made the site thought that’s why people are coming here. What else do I see? Well I see a lot of design elements that don’t match. There are two or three different shades of blue background that makes this look like a complete amateur designed the site, I see some graphical elements have diagonal edges which is a pretty nice look, but oh wait, there are some new elements that are just regular rectangles and ruin the whole feel.

OK what else do I see. There’s the event box in the middle that’s telling me about some upcoming events. Aside from the fact that the labels below the boxes take me to a different webpage and don’t just show me the info I was looking for, and the playback control are TINY, all I’m being shown are the 2009 outdoor championships in two months and Relays Weekend. Isn’t the Boston Marathon in like 10 days? Aren’t two Americans actually going for the WIN this year? Maybe, but I guess the USATF doesn’t care too much about it.

Latest news, ok let’s catch up on what happened this week. Ok we have two ‘News and Notes Volume 9’s, two Athletes of the week (which don’t include first names…), a Clean kids program, and one other thing that is getting cut off because it’s too long to fit in the box. Ok well I certainly feel caught up on what went down this week in US running. Actually no I don’t. I wasn’t even interested enough by any of those headlines to click one. I’ll just go get my news from letsrun.com, since they actually cover real news.

Oh hey look at that, an tiny little icon to join the USATF! How could I have missed that? And here I was thinking one of the main functions of the USATF was to get people to join, but I guess the margins are better on those drawstrings bags and hats, so good thing most of the screen real estate is clothing ads.

Ah, a blog by Doug Logan, now for some real information. I guess I’m lucky I follow T+F news and I know who Doug Logan is, cause if my mom, who really loves watching track meets on TV, showed up here and saw that she’d have absolutely no clue who he is. Or even who the girl in the photo is, since I guess it’s too much trouble to put a caption like ‘Doug with teen phenom Jordan Hassay’ or a headline for what the blog post is about.

StretchStudy. Why does it have a flashing exclamation point? Ouch.

Let me find out a little more about Kara Goucher. Ok her she is in a very long list of T+F athletes that’s not even organized by Track or Field. Hmm, this doesn’t look at all like the box stats I’m used to when I look up athletes on any other sports website. “2005: bests of 4:12.31 and 15:17.55.” Wait I can’t even get a list of the meets she ran? How about her splits from that half-marathon a few weeks ago? Didn’t they invent databases for this type of thing? I bet there’s a video of her though, since every website in the world has videos these days, maybe some highlights from that time she medaled at worlds. Oh well, AT LEAST I KNOW WHO HER AGENT IS!

Ok moving on, let me find the next track meet in my area. I’d love to watch one or maybe even run in one since the weather’s getting nice. Events/calendar. Type: track meet. Dates: 4/10/2009 - 5/10/2009. State: Massachusetts. NO RESULTS?! Wow I can’t believe there are zero track meets in the state for an entire month. Especially since I know there’s a pretty big street meet in Boston on the 26th. Oh well, I guess it was cancelled. Maybe next year they’ll have one of those nice google maps and a slider so I can select a date and see exactly where on the map there will be races. It’d be great to see track meets with a 5000 and 5k road races on the same map.

Oh well, maybe I’ll make it to the Race Walk championships in El Salvador. The first event that comes up when I go to the calendar is a race WALK, in a different country, and there are only 11 athletes from the US in it.

I’m feeling a little nostalgic. I was a USATF member for a couple years, I wonder what I ran at the sanctioned meet that I paid for, and paid for a USATF membership so I could run there; I’m sure the results are somewhere on USATF.org. I can’t even find somewhere to log in, or look up results, or search, or do just about anything useful on this entire website. There are just pages and pages of stuff that doesn’t matter to anyone, that don’t look the same, or even look nice, and don’t make me want to run or follow running any more than I did when I got here.

The problem isn’t that this site is just not good, it’s that all these things were DECISIONS made by someone, who has no real idea of what US running needs and how this one simple website could vastly improve the whole situation. The entire sub-elite competitive running scene could be improved and automated by a web application that I could make in a week. Pay for your membership, find races, host races, promote races, register for meets, get results, find training partners and routes, keep a running log. I should be able to log in and do all of that on USATF.org. Attracting and retaining fans could at least be improved by providing a well designed, up to date, inclusive page for news, photos, videos and results. ESPN isn’t going to start covering running anytime soon so the USATF has to step up and do that itself. Once a little bit of time and money is spent on planning and building a pretty, useful website for this stuff, real effort can be spent on getting the professional sport some attention. And it is hugely important to remember that this process can’t just be ‘copy what the other sports are doing,’ because they make decisions based on the fact that people love those sports, and will put up with some annoyances. For instance, every time I go to MLB.com some highlight automatically starts playing. Regardless of how many times I tell it not to, it still auto-plays. But I can deal with that because after I hit pause for the millionth time, the rest of the page has scores, stats, summaries, and tons of other information I want to know. If I went to USATF.org and a dumb video started playing, I would not be sticking around for too long. It’s the same thing with ads, and sponsors, and charities, and anything that isn’t what I’m actually there for. ‘They’ can get away with that stuff, USATF can’t.

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