In the first of a two-part series, UCFB’s Head of Global Marketing James McKeown takes an in-depth look at how sports, and specifically athletics, market themselves to a global audience. Following the retirement of golden boy Usain Bolt, athletics now lacks a truly global superstar to attract fans around the world, as was proven at the World Championships in Doha last year. Following years of promoting Bolt to sell the sport and their events, athletics now finds itself in new territory…

Name three current track and field athletes.

Usain Bolt has retired – he doesn’t count. Mo Farah has retired from the track in favour of marathons and road races – he half counts. Jessica Ennis-Hill is long gone. International readers, you might be able to recall a national favourite if you’re lucky.

Who won the women’s or men’s 100 metres at the 2019 World Athletics Championships? Congratulations if you named Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce or Christian Coleman correctly.

The truth is, a seriously low number of athletes around the world are recognisable to all but diehard fans. This isn’t a new phenomenon – the human brain usually doesn’t have capacity to associate more than one or two faces with a sport that they have a passing interest in. A sports agent told me shortly after London 2012 that they were having to decline opportunities to represent Olympic gold medallists because there just isn’t enough space in the public consciousness for them to become household names, and therefore secure significant endorsement deals.

This lack of athlete recognition is a problem for your sport when its only true global, transcendent superstar of the 20th century retires without an heir apparent.

Athletics lost a true superstar when the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, retired.

Usain Bolt had been the face of athletics for a decade from the moment he smashed the 100 metres world record at Beijing 2008. He drove huge crowds to events and inflated TV audiences across the globe. In the UK alone, over 20 million TV viewers watched him run 9.63 seconds at London 2012 – more viewers than any England football match this century. He featured consistently in Forbes’ best-paid athletes lists and was a face of brands like Visa, Gatorade and Hublot.

I enjoyed some of the fruits of his fame working at British Athletics. 180,000 fans flocked to a sold-out three-day event we held in 2013 at London Stadium with Bolt headlining.

Bolt’s departure from athletics has left it with a gaping hole to fill now though. The London 2017 world championships, Bolt’s final event, drew over 700,000 spectators. The Doha 2019 championships that followed it this past summer were embarrassingly poorly attended. Empty stands and a hollow-sounding stadium greeted most days of action.

Whilst the sport’s success over this period is not solely down to one man (British Athletics are the best at what they do, in my humble opinion), the sudden drop in fan interest is worrying.

The 2019 World Championships in Doha were poorly attended.

The debate has raged on inside sports teams and governing bodies since sport became a commercial entity. Do we promote the sport itself, or the star athletes to attract fans?

Examples of players, teams and leagues having differing levels of promotional strength can be found everywhere.

Some outlets suggested that Manchester United’s pursuit of French superstar Paul Pogba in 2016 was as much related to his fan popularity and commercial value as his playing prowess. He certainly drives headlines and has a massive personal following. He excites many younger fans and reminds the world that United can still recruit superstars. The potential for his on-field performances to deteriorate or for him to eventually move elsewhere are risks that the club must be aware of though, if they don’t wish to lose a chunk of their fan base in one fell swoop.

The popularity of the English Premier League has gone from strength to strength. Global Web Index calculates that 36% of all internet users are Premier League fans – a staggering statistic. Starting with its rebranding from the old Football League 1st Division in 1992 and evolving over time to be a global powerhouse, the Premier League as a product holds huge brand equity, irrespective of what teams are fighting for the title or for relegation in any given year. Star players come and go, but the Premier League remains strong. Its decision in 2016 to drop Barclays’ £40m per year title sponsorship in order to create a clean, sponsor-free Premier League brand in its own right was a bold move to firm up its iconic status as a league.

Some suggest that Paul Pogba, centre, was resigned by Manchester United for his commerical value as well as playing powers.

Athletics would probably give its right arm to be in the position of the Premier League. Did you know that the IAAF Diamond League is athletics’ top-tier annual competition, with 15 events held around the world? Probably not. Do you know who the 32 Diamond League champion athletes for 2019 are? Definitely not.

Athletics’ top man, Lord Sebastian Coe, understands that fundamental changes are needed to the structure of both the sport’s league system and the way that product is presented to consumers around the world (although some of his proposed Diamond League changes have drawn controversy already). As President of the IAAF he has overseen the start of a rebrand of the governing body to the simpler and more visually pleasing ‘World Athletics’, with a rumoured rebrand of the Diamond League itself down the line. He has acknowledged that athletics events can be overly complicated for many casual fans and that there is no clear story or narrative to follow between the Olympic Games every four years. These changes to modernise the sport and its premier league should hopefully address some of the dip in fan interest since Bolt’s departure.

Mo Farah, left, has also retiured from the track, but is still running road races.

Content is King

Perhaps a lesson to be taken from this conundrum of ‘sport versus athlete’ is to listen to an old adage in media and marketing: ‘Content is King’. The quality of the product in the stadium and on the screen that is provided to the consumer is what matters most. A long-term, committed and engaged fan base is surely the goal of any team, league or sport. Diehard fans will continue to exist in every sport, but catching and keeping the attention of the mainstream masses generally seems to take a little stardust mixed with a sound underlying product.

If athletics can tailor its product for a mobile, digital, attention-lacking generation and provide a clear, exciting structure with highlighted peaks in its sports calendar, it should go a long way to securing its future on the international stage – irrespective of who the star athlete of the year is.