Cricket seems to have struck a goldmine with its Twenty-20 format. Tournaments like the Big Bash League have increased fan interest both at the ground and on TV. As a result, the current trend of sports administrators is to create a shorter and/or more accessible version of their game to attract fans and sponsor interest.
Nines is the T20 of Rugby League.
Fast 5 is the T20 of Netball.
Fast 4 is the T20 of Tennis.
You get the idea. Condense it, but keep the key elements, add some extra exciting stuff and hope that the kids watch it (and eventually come to their local club to have a go at it). Not everyone has been successful at creating a new format. Rugby 7’s, Rugby League Nines and Fast 5 Netball are all exciting, but played in two day tournament blocks, which is not easy for the time-poor or families to attend. They work well on TV though, which is another key element – you’re still getting kids interested in watching your sport if they see it on TV. Then there’s Fast 4 Tennis, which if you ask me is just a truncated version of tennis where Rafael Nadal still takes 30 seconds between each point.
It seems nobody has really been able to properly replicate the T20 feel and style in other sports. So now it’s the turn of athletics to introduce its new format. Nitro Athletics.
In some ways athletics is the most pure of all sports because it isn’t complicated by interpretive rules – you run fast and if you get to the line first, you win. You throw or jump the furthest, you win. But athletics hasn’t been drawing fans recently (outside of the Olympics of course) so it’s trying to shake things up to bring the fans back. But how do you make a new version of this event without sacrificing that purity? How do you create a short version of a sport that already has a format that lasts only 9.58 seconds? And how do you draw the fans to that event?
Well, you get the greatest of all time to attend. Mr Usain St.Leo Bolt. The big drawcard for Nitro Athletics was the presence of probably the greatest athlete of all time, the nine time (sorry, eight – damn Nesta Carter) gold medal winner and 100/200m world record holder. He was heavily involved in the promotion, to the point where a lightning bolt was part of the competition logo. I’ve loved watching him run on TV for years, getting up early to watch his Olympic events and I have a signed, framed picture of him on my wall. Now that we had a chance to go see him before his retirement later this year after the World Championships in London, I had to take the opportunity. To be honest, I didn’t even care about the new events or the format when buying tickets – it was all about seeing Usain run.
So, having attended the event, and seen these new events, will I go back? Well, some of it was good, and some of it left a bit to be desired.
What didn’t work?
I worked out pretty quickly that this event was not designed for those of us at the venue. At the start time of the event, we were treated to TV repeats of the same interviews we’d heard on the PA system 20 minutes earlier. Later, when the field events were entering their final rounds, we’d be shown replays of what we’d already seen earlier.
Actually, I’d say the preliminary rounds of the field events were a bit of an afterthought in the eyes of the organisers as they were drowned out by advertising and music, and the commentators only focused on the final round. The live commentary during the final round of the field events (over the PA system which could be heard by the competitors while jumping/throwing) was a bit strange at times. Not in the sense that it was there, because there was all sorts of noise going on during the field events – including advertising. What was weird about the commentary was that they were openly barracking or sledging competitors. I’m sure Dave Culbert is good mates with a lot of the competitors but his yelling about how badly they had been going, while they are about to do a vault, came across as a bit ordinary. However, to his and Steve Hooker’s credit, when they were pumping up competitors, the during-event commentary over the PA was good fun. Keep it positive and the on-field commentary will work. I’d love to see a bit more focus on the early rounds of the field events, because when they finally focused on them, not a single competitor made the height in the last round of the pole vault, and it looked a bit second rate as a result.
To the commentators of all events – call competitors by their name. Do some research. Don’t say “The Japanese competitor”. I’ll be interested in tuning in on Thursday to see what the TV coverage is like.
Coles was the major sponsor of Nitro. You couldn’t miss it. At one point while competitors were about to jump at the Pole Vault we were treated to their ads about mince to the tune of ‘That’s Amore’. I know that when a sport hasn’t had many sponsors recently, and someone throws a lot of coin at you, you need to bow to some of their demands. But the incessant mince ads, and the bucking bronco game in the shape of the Coles Red Hand, really took away from the spectacle. They need to learn how to integrate the advertising in a less blunt way. You could say they need to turn it ‘down down’…
Other things that didn’t work in the entertainment space include the dancers and MC. The MC’s job appeared to be to say “Make some noise!” into the microphone a lot. I couldn’t help but laugh when he tried to say something else and stumbled over his words.
“Who’s here to see Mr Bolt do the… running?”
The dancers at other sporting events seem to react to things on the ground, or dance during breaks in play. The dancers at nitro athletics were quite random, wandering around the ground and dancing in front of the fans. With a bit more targeting they will add to the experience. Towards the end of the night, one group of dancers that had been roving around the stands all night doing routines parked themselves in front of us on the fence – they knew Bolt would be running there soon and just stopped dancing, found their position to watch the race, and stood there. I hope organisers only paid them until 9.30pm!
Fortunately for the sporting aspect, most of these issues I had with the night related to the entertainment aspects of the event. You can tell I was attracted to this by the sport, not the off-field stuff. So, what of the actual sport? Well, some of the new events were a bit tacky. The 60m sprint and 150m sprint may as well have been 40 or 50 metres longer respectively. They also need to look at the timing of events because there were a few times where nothing was happening on field and the crowd were getting restless waiting for another event to watch – this was probably not noticed on TV! Maybe put a bit more spotlight on the early rounds of the field events to give everyone something to focus on?
However, some of the new events were terrific. The night started with a Mixed Medley Relay which was set up as follows:
Leg 1: Female Runner runs 200m
Leg 2: Male Runner runs 400m
Leg 3: Female Runner runs 600m
Leg 4: Male runner runs 800m
Because it was a close event, it was interesting, and when the Australian team won it fired up the crowd. It also showcased the talents of the distance runners.
Another interesting event was the 3 minute distance challenge. The Female runner would run for 3 minutes, and wherever she finished, the male runner would start from there. It was an interesting concept as runners tried to gauge the pace of the race before working out when to burst away to cover as much distance as possible. After 3 minutes, Aussie Genevieve La Caze had given Australia a good distance lead. When the males started their half of the race, Aussie runner Luke Matthews looked as though he had dropped back to the pack, but he was merely conserving the energy that the others had used to catch up with him – and kicked away at the end to win the race.
My personal favourite of the new events was the elimination mile. It was a usual mile race, 4 laps of the field. However, at the end of each lap a competitor was eliminated, so instead of the usual pacing of the race and trying simply to keep with lead group, you couldn’t afford to be the last across the line, even if you weren’t far off the lead, because your race would then be over. As the runners approached the finish line after each lap there was excitement as if it was the end of the race. Then, the leaders were left to smash it out for the last lap with everything on the line. It was a great spectacle!
As I said earlier, when the on-ground commentators were pumping up the athletes and being positive, it was great. In the long jump, final round, each of the competitors was given a distance where if they got past it, they would earn bonus points for their team, so it meant the commentators were pushing the jumpers to get to that longer mark. We were fortunate to have seats near the long jump pit, and really enjoyed the competition, as well as the crowd engagement as each of the athletes encouraged crowd involvement by getting a slow clap going before their jump. I know this happens at a normal event but it was a whole lot of fun anyway. Jarrion Lawson of the USA, representing the Bolt All-Stars, was the winner on the night, earning bonus points for his team. He then stood by the long jump pit taking selfies, posing for photos, and signing autographs for 25 minutes! This is a key element for making your sport popular – make the stars accessible to the fans. Whatever the Nitro organisers were paying him should be increased – so many kids are going to walk away with happy memories of meeting a star.
Having para athletes as part of the event was another positive. It was a short, handicapped race based on disability classifications, but the handicapper was reasonably close to setting perfect handicaps as most of the competitors swooped to the line together (although the exception was the winner from NZ who was in front of them!)
I thought was the best element of the event was the teams concept. After running her leg of the 3 minute challenge, Gen La Caze would run from side to side of the track to cheer on Luke Matthews as he battled for the lead. It was awesome. Athletes would all gather after the end of their events to cheer on other competitors. It added to the entertainment of the night as Australia shot to a lead and slowly the Bolt All Stars began catching them ahead of the last event of the night. In future, you probably don’t need too many novelty events to make a team concept work. Make sure there’s plenty of relays and the team concept will work well.
I read a Reuters report which said “The crowd was lower than the 8,500 stadium capacity but total tickets sold over the three nights of the series had comfortably outstripped those sold for the entire program of national athletics events last year”. Another positive for the event. As I write, Saturday’s final event is sold out, so the crowd numbers are a definite winner for the event. If the many kids there head to their local little athletics club it will do great numbers for participation. If the ones who turned up in their little athletics gear are inspired to train harder, maybe it will generate a future champion?
Of course, the presence of the great man was the whole reason I was there, and watching him run at the end of the night as part of the 4×100 mixed relay was a real highlight. When he came out for a bit of relay practice earlier in the night he was cheered merely for walking along the track. He would be participating in the 4×100 mixed relay. Two men, two women in each team, with each team trying to work out strategy so that their best runners were placed on their strongest leg. This means Aussie Riley Day, 16-year-old girl, would be running against Bolt. A great experience for her, but she was not running against him. She was taking off well after him. You see, the lead runner for the all-stars team was another sprinting legend – Asafa Powell – and he had built a strong lead by the time he got to the second runner – Bolt.
I sat mesmerised for the ten or so seconds he ran along that straight with my eyes glued to Usain. Each stride seemed to extend further than the last. Seeing how quickly he covered that short distance brought all those TV images to life as I was actually able to take in just how quick this guy was, and how well-built a machine he was – designed for this sport. He was at full stretch as he passed our seats and made the baton change cleanly to teammate Jenna Prandini.
The Bolt all-stars romped home in the relay, taking the final lead in the points competition. I was happy to have seen the greatest of all time run, and that vision of him gracefully moving – almost floating –along the back straight at Lakeside Stadium would be indelibly inked into my mind forever. Poetry in motion.
When cricket started up the city-based Big Bash League, it made sure all of its stars were out in force for the opening games. Athletics has done the same. BBL now exists without the stars of the game. The question for Nitro Athletics will be – will the fans still come without the presence of Usain Bolt? Time will tell. I think there need to be a few adjustments to the format, the entertainment, and the scheduling. After the event, Bolt apparently said to one of the organisers “This can work”. It can, but there needs to be a bit of further development.