Why British athletics is no longer running on empty

Two major marketing deals have allowed UK athletics to turn a corner and take the Fast Track to future success. Now the athletes need to perform.

Those of a nervous disposition should look away now. In a summer of English sporting humiliation – Euro 2000, Davis Cup tennis and the World Cup bid – this is a tale of British commercial and sporting success. A story that few people imagined possible just three years ago: the resurrection of British athletics.

In 1997 it was dead – buried under a welter of stories about drug tests and an unsuccessful legal battle against one of its best athletes, Diane Modahl.

British athletics wasn’t much better on the track or field. The 1996 Olympic Games brought no gold medals, income from sponsorship and TV was falling and in October 1997 the sport literally went bust. The British Athletics Federation (BAF) was forced into administrative receivership with debts of &£530,000.

And yet, in ten days’ time, the Norwich Union British grand prix at Crystal Palace will host some of Britain’s top young athletes, including those who – like Katherine Merry and Jason Gardener – will become household names during the Sydney Olympics. There will also be a roster of top-class international athletes, such as the fastest man and woman in the world: the Americans Maurice Green and Marion Jones.

The sport is back in the black, “financially stable, if not buoyant”, says Steve James, commercial manager of UK Athletics, which replaced the BAF as the sport’s national governing body. And, give or take the odd drugs case, the future looks remarkably healthy.

So how has a sport that looked dead on its feet managed to turn itself around?

The first act of UK Athletics chief executive David Moorcroft was to separate responsibility for running the sport from the pressure of marketing it. Two years ago, he drafted in former team-mate Alan Pascoe and his sports agency Fast Track to handle the commercial exploitation of athletics and promote it to the public, television and sponsors.

A multi-millionaire who made his money in sports marketing, Pascoe is the architect of the sport’s commercial renaissance. Fast Track has to take much of the credit for almost trebling the sport’s annual commercial income between 1998 and 1999 – to &£8.4m.

This improvement is founded on two major deals. The Crystal Palace meeting will be broadcast live on BBC as part of a &£17m, five-season contract to cover up to ten UK Athletics showcase events a year. At least seven of the televised events will be sponsored by Norwich Union after parent company CGU struck a &£10m, four-year deal in 1999 to be associated with the sport.

The irony of a sober financial institution sponsoring a sport that months earlier was heavily in debt, not to mention wracked by the constant spectre of positive drug tests, should not be lost on anyone. While the money was welcome, the vote of confidence in the new administration was even more valuable.

Underlining the sport’s flexibility, it agreed to stage a further three pre-season events to satisfy the BBC’s appetite for athletics. The Aqua Pura Road to Sydney series brought in a further &£500,000 from the soft drink manufacturer. But Norwich Union remains both the biggest sponsor and the most symbolic of the sport’s resurrection.

Commercial improvements have been matched by those on the track. Sports secretary Kate Hoey might be guilty of exaggerating the potential of the British Olympic team when she says it will bring back 34 medals from Sydney, but several British athletes can realistically expect to win gold. If they do, some of the biggest cheers will come from the team which is selling the sport.

“Every year we are dependent on the success of the athletes,” says Fast Track’s Jon Ridgeon. “Success in Sydney is imperative to what we are trying to achieve.”

Success at the European Championships in Budapest in 1998 – when the British team won nine medals on the final day – made it easier to sell sponsorship and TV packages to Norwich Union and the BBC. National Lottery funding for elite athletes, which means that they don’t have to do a Saturday morning shift in McDonald’s before competing in the afternoon, is also helping.

The question is: where does the sport go from here? Expanding the number of televised events will dilute their quality, but the sport still needs money. It is seeking &£1m sponsorship to support its development programme, and finding a technology partner is also high on its agenda.

One option is to sell the stadium name rights to the Lottery-funded &£60m Pickett’s Lock site, which will become the home of British athletics in 2004. The site formed part of the successful bid to host the athletics World Championships in 2005.

But there are still dark, pill-shaped clouds on the horizon. At least five British athletes have been suspended pending the results of hearings by either UK Athletics or world governing body the International Amateur Athletic Association following positive drug tests.

British athletics has come a long way in a short space of time. Its resurrection could be compared with that of Lazarus. But he was only dead when Jesus brought him back to life; British athletics was dead, buried and forgotten about. What a difference three years, a few sponsors and an improved TV deal can make.

Tom O’Sullivan was formerly deputy editor of Marketing Week

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