Athletics organizers will try to elevate the sport in Los Angeles this spring

Described in the simplest terms, Jesse Williams and USA Track & Field host athletic meets.

Yet in organizers’ grandest intentions, both believe the separate meet in Southern California in May could spark something bigger in a sport that is looking for ways to grow its audience and relevance ahead of the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

Williams’ goal is lofty.

“The idea is to reinvent a night on the track,” Williams said at the May 6 Track Fest, Mt. which will be held at San Antonio College’s Hilmer Lodge Stadium in Walnut.

Track Fest promises races from 800 meters to 10,000 meters and sprints, as well as sprints and field events, with some of the world’s top distance runners from the U.S. and abroad expected to race, although starting lists have not been announced.

It also promises an experience that Williams hopes will not only attract the discerning fans who can predict the nuances and nuances of each race globally, but also entertain and engage the occasional fans who will be vital to the sport’s growing popularity.

Before Williams founded Santa Monica-based Sound Running and began hosting remote meetups in Los Angeles and Orange County in 2019, he grew up attending Chicago Bulls games in the 1990s, fascinated by the spectacle of lights, music and production extras. the talent on the ground. He hopes fans leaving Track Fest — with its live concert, free food truck fare included in a $15 ticket, a beer garden and a two-hour show — will feel a similar pull to return. He will complete the qualifications for the Continental Tour, the global governing body of track and field, the arm of World Athletics.

“If the sport is going to move forward, we can’t move forward in the boat it’s in right now,” Williams said. “We’ve been beating that drum and it’s not working.”

Runners line up for the women’s mile last July at Jack Kemp Stadium during the Sound Running Sunset Tour.

(Katharine Lotze/Getty Images)

He is not alone in this belief.

Three weeks later the USA Track & Field-sponsored Grand Prix of Los Angeles will be held at UCLA’s Drake Stadium, offering world-class fields of its own and hoping that the meet, through various presentations, will act as a springboard for the sport’s domestic popularity.

The Grand Prix will host the distance carnival on May 26, followed by a three-hour meet the following day, 90 minutes of which will be televised by NBC. Two hours after the meet, a concert called the “USATF Legends Jam” will begin nearby on the UCLA campus.

Bob Brisco, CEO of sponsor WebMD/Internet Brands, said the meet will pilot innovations to try to bring fans closer to the athletes, including placing a microphone on some headline athletes that will allow them to speak directly to the audience during warmups. . For fans watching in the stadium and at home, organizers hope to do a better job with storytelling, adding context to the athletes highlighted in the training phase and why they’re racing at UCLA.

“Track and field has the potential for much more innovation than it has in decades, and that innovation is at the intersection of fans, athletes, sponsors and television,” Briscoe said. “The evolution of the sport over the past few decades hasn’t quite kept up with what you’ve seen in other professional sports, but there’s no good reason for that.”

The full event schedule, and some of the top athletes, are expected to be announced in early April, but among those events in the televised window will be the men’s and women’s 100, 200 and 400 and the men’s pole vault.

Renowned sprint coach Bob Kersee is also helping organize the meet, and his coaching staff now includes some of the sport’s most decorated athletes, such as 400m hurdles world record holder and Olympic gold medalist Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, and the Olympic and world championship 800. – meter gold medal Athing Mu.

Kersee said he wants his top athletes to compete at the Los Angeles Grand Prix “if everything goes well” with training.

Bob Brisco took a photo at the 2019 WebMD Health Hero Awards.

Bob Briscoe, CEO of WebMD/Internet Brands, believes track and field meets can gain popularity with some changes to the events.

(Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Los Angeles was once a haven for high-profile professional meets, but that “diminished over time, almost to nothing,” Briscoe said. Now, the two will face each other in three weeks in what is believed to be the first meeting at Drake Stadium since the 1990 Jack in the Box Invitational. sports information department.

Kersee said when he considers the quality of the sport’s athletes, “I don’t see why we don’t have at least 15,000, 20,000, 30,000 fans for the major tracks in the United States.”

“Track and field needs a big push to get the coaches, the athletes, the administrators behind the sport involved, to get a product that the fans love,” Kersee said. “We are too locked into world records. We need good competitions, good performances, good meetings. And the athletes managed to do that.”

The challenge for organizers, from Williams to Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track & Field, is to successfully convince fans to come see these athletes in person. Track has long struggled to be the country’s No. 1 participating sport while lagging behind in the audience for its top athletes, who must relocate to Europe every summer to compete in the Diamond League, the most prestigious professional sports circuit. .

The sport has regressed in the U.S., Williams said, due to the lack of a consistent circuit of events in the U.S. that fans can follow, unlike the regularity of the NFL or NBA schedule.

“It’s about doing that with our Track Fest and saying, OK, we’ve shown this works, this is what the track looks like, now let’s do a full season, connect it all and give the fans something they can follow,” he said.

Siegel also sees the Grand Prix not as a one-time event, but a blueprint for a future league, “a preview of the new elite standard in 2024 when we launch our national live market circuit in 2024,” he said. he wrote in a text message to the Los Angeles Times.

Siegel unveiled plans for that circuit last summer as part of USA Track & Field’s strategic plan to make USA Track & Field the fifth-most followed sport in the U.S. by the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics. an essential ingredient.

The ability for the Track Fest and Grand Prix to attract strong fields, including athletes advancing to the outdoor world championships in Hungary in August, was made possible by the Prefontaine Classic, which is a major U.S. meet in late or early May. June, moved to September to host the Diamond League final.

Kersee lives in Inglewood and has seen SoFi Stadium and the Intuit Dome go up nearby. He’s excited to learn that some of the fans in his community will soon have high-level athletic meets in their proverbial backyard.

“I call it barbershop talk,” Kersee said. “I’m glad to hear you say, ‘Hey coach, I’m glad to see you’re out there having the meet.'”

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