Condense it, keep the key elements, add something new, and you’ll create a media-rich product that engages a younger fan base.

It’s the magic formula that’s come to be known in sport as the ‘T20 effect’ – coined via the introduction of Twenty20 in cricket and the rub-off it has had on the likes of rugby union (sevens), rugby league (nines), tennis (tie break tens) and netball (Fast 5s).

Even golf, that great bastion of tradition, has been
dabbling in innovation with six-hole team events and one-hole knockouts
entering the fray in recent months.

February marked track and field’s debut in this arena: Nitro Athletics, a Usain Bolt-pioneered team event consisting of three meetings staged in Melbourne over the course of a week. The traditional running, jumping and throwing elements were all there – albeit with some tweaks – but personal achievement and chasing of the clock were shelved for the benefit of the team.

The IAAF’s top brass were in attendance in the form of president Sebastian Coe and chief executive Olivier Gers. Neither knew what to expect, Gers admitted to Sportcal Insight, “other than there would be innovation.”

Innovation was a buzz word of Coe’s manifesto prior to his election in August 2015, in which he wrote: “Our sport is still strong. But everyone knows it’s hard to persuade young people to join us. That’s the big challenge. We’re going to have to be imaginative.”

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Usain Bolt’s All-Star team celebrate on stage after winning the Nitro Athletics event


They left Melbourne sufficiently impressed – to the extent that track and field’s governing body is to invest in Nitro and play a role in shaping the future of the series, which is the brainchild of former 400-metre star John Steffensen and Athletics Australia, and in which Bolt also holds an equity stake.

Gers joined the IAAF in October having been global president of the LiquidThread brand agency, a division of Publicis Media Group. The Frenchman knows what it takes to sell and market a product. “We will invest in Nitro and roll it out around the world,” he says. “But it’s not going to replace the world championships, it’s not going to hurt our traditional formats.

“What we saw in Melbourne was not a revolution for track and field. We are still about high performance and world records. This was innovation… The challenge for our sport is to ensure the in-stadia experience is as strong as the at-home experience. That has not always been the case in track and field.”  

For Gers, there were two obvious ‘take-home’ learnings from Melbourne that could be adopted at IAAF World Championships and Diamond League meetings: athletes warming up on the track and the use of the back straight, as well as the home straight, to stage sprint races.

He explains: “The way Athletics Australia and the production teams [commercial broadcaster Seven and NEP Australia, an arm of the USA-based provider of outsourced solutions to the broadcast and live event industries] used the first two lanes as a warm up track was smart.

“Typically in our events the athletes turn up on the track just to compete, give interviews, then disappear. Here they were on the track warming up. Kids were chasing up and down the stands, trying to get autographs and ‘selfies’. How often do you see that in our sport?

“Second was the use of the back stretch as well as the home stretch, which allowed for a fast turnaround of events. It also allowed for a better in-stadia experience and the action was more evenly spread throughout the stadium. As such, they had good ticket sales: usually the back stretch sells out a lot later because everyone wants to sit on the home stretch and see the finish.”

The Nitro series pitched six teams (Bolt’s All Stars, England, China, Japan, Australia and New Zealand) of 24 athletes participating in non-traditional events, such as 150m sprints, a three-minute distance challenge, mixed gender relays and hurdles relays. 

“I have been involved in this sport at an international level for 15 years, and I’ve not seen that level of excitement”

Pierce O’Callaghan, head of operations, London 2017

Teams could call in a bonus round to double their points tally from an event, while penalty points were imposed for false starts.

Pierce O’Callaghan, an experienced athletics administrator, who is head of operations for London 2017, the organising committee for this year’s IAAF World Championships, says his doubts prior to the Nitro meeting on 4 February were quickly forgotten. He tells Sportcal Insight: “As an athletics aficionado I had some reservations, but I wasn’t the target audience. I have been involved in this sport at an international level for 15 years, and I’ve not seen that level of excitement.”

He continues: “The use of national team uniforms, power plays, mixed relays, it just worked. We need something between the Olympic Games and World Championships to keep people engaged and entertained in athletics.

“It was an attractive model and it excited the public, which has not been an easy task with athletics.”

O’Callaghan, a member of the competition commissions for both the IAAF and European Athletics, credits Athletics Australia for being “nimble enough” to take advantage of a wider desire for innovation in track and field.

He adds: “I have been pushing for change for a number of years but it is hard when the programme is 100 years old. There is a feeling among certain generations ‘OK, it’s working at the Olympics so it’s a success’. But we have to engage the youth more.

“Football matches last 90 minutes, rugby 80 minutes. That’s what fans want. Four to five hours is too long to sit down and watch athletics.

“It’s like you’ve been selling cars for 100 years and you’re finally asking the consumer what car they want to buy.”

European Athletics is on the case. It announced in December 2016 that it will create a new event to feature in the second edition of the European Games, the multi-sports showpiece scheduled to take place in Minsk in Belarus in 2019. The federation’s governing council is due to provide more details of the event following a meeting in April.

“Kids were chasing up and down the stands, trying to get autographs and ‘selfies’. How often do you see that in our sport?”

Olivier Gers, chief executive, IAAF

O’Callaghan believes organisers of Diamond League meetings will look to implement elements of Nitro into their events. “Some are struggling to sell tickets,” he says. “Let’s be honest, 15 Kenyans running a steeplechase is not going to excite everyone. We need more innovation; chasing a pacemaker and a clock is 20th century stuff.”

Not that the Diamond League has been immune to innovation. Organisers of the Weltklasse, the prestigious Zurich stop in the Diamond League, staged the pole vault competition in Zurich Main Station in 2015, while the shot put competition at last year’s Brussels meeting took place in the city centre.

Gers cautions against a one-size-fits-all approach to innovation in the sport. “This is not about turning athletics into a circus. It’s about making it more accessible and engaging for fans. Innovation will take different forms depending on the event… I come from a world of marketing, where you always go after new demographics.”

Since winning Olympic gold at Beijing 2008, Bolt has transcended track and field. Cynics argue it was only his involvement in Nitro that got people through the gates, that his retirement from the sport after this year’s World Championships means Nitro will be a one-hit wonder.

It’s not an argument that holds much weight with Gers. “It’s a challenge of everybody in this sport to find personalities,” he notes. “Take that [Andre] De Grasse moment in the 200m semi-finals in Rio [Bolt and De Grasse laughed and joked as they crossed the finish line], we need more instances like that of athletes expressing themselves.

“What is definite is that Usain will stay involved in Nitro for three years. He is a fan of the sport and wants it to live beyond his retirement this summer.”

While in Melbourne, Gers met with James Sutherland, chief executive of Cricket Australia, which runs the hugely successful Big Bash League, the domestic T20 competition. Gers says: “Take the Big Bash, it has improved the quality of the equivalent of our World Championships, the five-day test match.

“We have to learn from people that innovate. In a way, we are competing against each other for audiences but we are part of the same family, sport. Cricket Australia was very welcoming. For James and his team to share their learnings and how they market the Big Bash, the use of colour, music and social media throughout, was great. We’ll look to replicate that in Nitro.”

Gers says he sees similarities in the way the Big Bash has evolved since its inception and how Nitro can live beyond Bolt. “When talking to Cricket Australia, it became clear to me that Big Bash started with cricket’s Bolt equivalents, the test match stars, but now it is generating the top talent who are getting into the test teams,” he says.

“Little by little, we will not be as reliant on Bolt. Going forward Nitro will be a great way for us to showcase the new, upcoming talent.”