Is athletics about to experience its Twenty20 moment this week? Or will the new-look Nitro Athletics event that will run for three evenings in Melbourne, starting next Saturday and witnessed by interested parties including the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) President Sebastian Coe prove to be no more than a brief starburst of colourful enterprise?
The need for innovation is urgent in a sport that has been beleaguered by doping and corruption charges in the last 18 months and has been puzzling for some years, like many another established sport, over how to attract a younger demographic to secure its future.
Coe expressed the position earlier this week in the most recent IAAF newsletter: “Athletics, in its traditional form, remains the cornerstone of the Olympic Games.
“And our World Championships remain an incredibly strong and attractive event, as we will see in London later this year as fans pack out the stadium and tune in to watch the world’s best compete for records and medals.
“However, we need innovation and more opportunities for our athletes to interact with fans and show their personalities – and Nitro Athletics is a great example of what can be done and what needs to be done to revolutionise how we present our sport and how our fans connect with the sport and the athletes.
“Athletics is a global sport with a global following, but we need events that bring back the fun, the kids and the crowds. And we need to create events that deliver that and add a different dimension to the record-setting events like the World Championships.
“Why not change the format of how athletics is presented? We need brave, bold ideas that engage fans in events and across a range of platforms. The only thing stopping us is our imagination and the courage to try something new.”
So what exactly will the event that will take place on the evenings of February 4, 9 and 11 in Melbourne’s Lakeside Stadium look and feel like?
Teams of 12 men and 12 women from Australia, China, Japan, England, New Zealand and an international selection headed by multiple Olympic sprint champion Usain Bolt, the Bolt All-Stars, will contest 12 events each night. For Bolt it will be a first race in Australia.
As in Twenty20 cricket, the teams will sit together and competing athletes will go back and forth from their respective groups.
“Team performance rather than individual performance is rewarded,” says the official release.
“With some events featuring individual results, but many focused on combined placings and performances to reach the final event score.”
Points in each event will range from 100 for first place to 40 for sixth, and each team will have two opportunities to level the playing field by using one Nitro Power Play, double points for a selected event, and one Nitro Steal where they will take half of another team’s points.
The long jump will be enlivened by the Nitro Turbo Charge, where athletes can boost their points by clearing a distance nominated beforehand.
Other events include an elimination mile for men and women where runners are eliminated on designated laps, a reworking of the old devil-take-the-hindmost principle, and a three-minute run which will be undertaken by a male and then female team member with the winner being the combination that achieve the longest distance.
The pole vault will involve just four attempts, all at heights chosen by the athlete. The javelin will offer bonus points for landing in a defined target area. There will be a mixed high hurdles relay.
New enough for you?
“The sport needs to look at a different model, and this is one that has provoked a huge amount of interest,” Phil Jones, the Athletics Australia chief executive told insidethegames.
“Channel 7 will be showing the three main sessions on the Saturday, Thursday and Saturday. So that means two hours of athletics on a Saturday evening.
"Last year when we spoke to them about showing the national championships, which were also the Olympic trials, there wasn’t interest from them.
“Our President for the last 12 months, Mark Arbib, used to work with James Packer. He recognises that the sport needs to change and has worked very positively for that. What we have created may not be perfect but we need to do something. Our sport deserves better.
“We have spoken to Seb about it and he’s enthusiastic about the idea. We don’t intend for it to be an eight-day wonder, the sport needs an athletics option that does something different.
“We are clearly not alone in recognising the need to look at ways to present athletics differently. Certainly, a number of the events we are including in Nitro Athletics have been tried before but never, as far as we are aware, all in the same competition, with the innovations that we have included, and certainly not a competition that is team-based.
“The obvious parallel is with Twenty20 cricket. It is on the same basis. We tried to think what would an athletics version look like? How could it be more focused and take less time?”
Before the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) introduced their 20-overs game at county level in 2003, it had only been used on an informal, knockabout basis by cricket professionals, mainly for a spot of amusement between matches.
Championed by the then marketing manager of the ECB Stuart Robertson, the short, sharp format was proposed to fill the gap left by the departed Benson & Hedges Cup one-day competition that had been in place since 1972 and to arrest the steeply declining attendance at county matches.
Unsurprisingly, there was widespread opposition, but the county chairman voted narrowly, by 11 votes to seven, for the new idea to be tried out.
It worked, with bells on, and 15 years later the biennial ICC World Twenty20 competition is one of the highlights of the calendar.
There has been opposition in some quarters too to the Nitro Athletics idea, but as Jones points out, even opposition is sometimes preferable to a complete lack of interest, which is what conventional athletics in Australia appeared to be engendering in terms of TV commitment.
“Outside the coverage of the Olympic Games and sometimes the World Championships, we have struggled in Australia to get any significant media interest in covering conventional athletics competitions,” Jones said.
"Channel 7 was not alone in declining to cover our National Championships/Olympic Trials. Nobody wanted it.
“This caused us to rethink our strategy. Australia is a very competitive market when it comes to sports coverage. There are too many sports vying for a very small market. Over the years, many sports have changed their offering to make it more entertaining, especially targeting younger audiences.
“We took the view that whilst our existing properties, like our National Championships, play an important role in our performance pathway and needed to be maintained, we couldn’t change these sufficiently to make them attractive to a new audience.
“So we set about inventing a new product with the primary objective of exciting, engaging and entertaining a live and broadcast audience, allowing us to showcase and promote our athletes, hopefully secure broadcast and media interest and generate commercial support for the sport.
“The new product has been developed after extensive consultation with Channel 7. It was important for us that Channel 7, as a partner with a lot of experience in what makes live sport work, were a part of the journey. They are committed to producing and broadcasting Nitro Athletics Melbourne, free to air, live in most states of Australia but delayed in some, for two and half hours over all three nights. That is seven and hours of athletics broadcast nationwide.
“In the longer term we hope that once captured, the audience we secure through Nitro Athletics, might take an interest in athletics more widely. If all goes well, the next time we are looking for coverage of our national championship, perhaps there will be more interest.”
The active interest of the paramount athlete of his generation in the Nitro Athletics model has been a vital element.
Bolt addressed the impending challenge of Nitro Athletics while he was in Monaco in December to collect a record sixth IAAF World Athlete of the Year trophy.
“I’m really excited about this,” he said.
“This is something different. The most exciting part for me was competing with my team-mates. Any team I compete in for the 4x100, I am always excited. This is going to be a team, for me it going to be brilliant. It’s going to be a big step and I think it’s going to draw more people towards track and field, and hopefully a lot more sponsors.”
Jones added: “Usain being part of this is important not only to Channel 7 but to all of our partners. The timeframe for getting Nitro Athletics off the ground has been frighteningly short. When discussing the plan at the Olympic Games in Rio, I am sure most thought we were mad.
"The timing was driven by just one thing. To get this off the ground, we really needed the hook of Usain running in Australia. It is well known he will retire shortly. This, coupled with the broadcast window that Channel 7 identified in February, meant it was now or never.
“What has been really encouraging has been the commitment of Usain and his team to the project. From the first discussions, he has understood what we are trying to do and recognised the need for a different approach. For someone whose background and global success is based on conventional athletics to recognise, embrace and support the need for change was a real encouragement for our team.”
Jones explained that Bolt’s interest in the project had initially been attracted by John Steffensen, Australia’s 2006 Commonwealth 400m champion and Olympic silver medallist in the 4x400m at the 2004 Athens Olympics.
Four years after his Commonwealth win in Melbourne, Steffensen refused to defend his title in Delhi, boycotting the Games after a series of disputes with Athletics Australia, which he accused of mismanaging athletes.
But fences were mended and the mercurial Steffensen has proved a talented advocate for his national federation after being invited onto the Board by Arbib in 2016.
“John has been a close friend of Usain for many years,” Jones said.
“John spoke to Usain and introduced the concept of Nitro Athletics, a concept being developed by the Board when John joined. Usain was immediately enthusiastic and supportive. An agreement was reached with Usain’s management company that sees Usain have a stake in Nitro Athletics and his own team, the Bolt All Stars.
“As you would expect, we can’t discuss the commercial agreements. Usain has many offers put to him but he feels that Nitro Athletics is something that fits well with him because it’s different, it’s a team concept and allows the athletes to show their flair in an environment that’s different to the traditional format of athletics.
“He and his team share our view that athletics needs to reach new fans and be presented in a different way. The fact that Usain has his own team, is captain of that team and is leading by example is an example of how invested he is in Nitro Athletics.”
Bolt appears committed. Others are certainly interested.
Coe will be accompanied in Melbourne by the IAAF’s recently installed chief executive Olivier Gers, while the European Athletics (EA) chief executive Christian Milz will also be in attendance.
“Christian is indeed going there to ‘take a look’ at Nitro Athletics,” the EA President Svein Arne Hansen told insidethegames.
"We started an Innovation Project a year ago to find new ways of presenting our sport. Nitro Athletics is new and might give us ideas for a future way of presenting athletics in Europe.”
Jones added: “We have had considerable international interest. European Athletics are looking at introducing new forms of competition. Their CEO will be joining us for Nitro Athletics.
"We have plenty of other interest, initially sceptical, now generally very supportive. We have already had a number of other national federations and host cities make enquires about hosting a Nitro Athletics series. The discussions at this point are broad.
“All our focus at this point is putting on the first series. From there we will look at how we refine and expand, but the interest and support we are getting from Europe, the IAAF and many others in the athletics family is very encouraging.
“Seb Coe has been privately supportive from the outset and has recently made a number of public statements about the need for change. Whilst athletics remains the leading Olympic sport and the IAAF World Championships continues to draw significant live and broadcast audiences, with the some notable exceptions, athletics events are struggling to draw audience interest. Nitro Athletics is not intended to distract from but rather to complement our major events.
“We are delighted that Seb and new IAAF CEO Olivier Gers will be joining us to experience Nitro Athletics Melbourne first hand. We are looking forward to discussing the future of Nitro Athletics with Seb, Olivier and others.”
Asked if he was confident Nitro Athletics can run and run, Jones responded: “The only things certain in life are death and taxes!! Obviously all our partners will assess the benefit after the first event in February. Our objective is to see Nitro Athletics become a regular feature of the Australian Athletics calendar and to grow the product internationally.
"The staging of the Commonwealth Games in 2018, when many leading athletes with be in Australia, clearly presents a great opportunity to run Nitro again. Obviously we have a general plan but we’ll get through the first one before we refine these and make decisions about the future.”
Meanwhile the final push on tickets is being made under a banner of “C’mon Australia!” that could as well read “C’mon Athletics!”.
Bolt’s All-Stars will be a mix of young and experienced athletes, the latter category including his Olympic gold-medal winning compatriots Asafa Powell and Michael Frater and Beijing 2008 100m silver medallist Richard Thompson of Trinidad and Tobago.
The United States will be represented by, among others, Kerron Clement of the United States, gold medallist in the 400m hurdles and 4x400m relay at the 2007 and 2009 World Championships, and 2008 Olympic 100m hurdles champion Dawn Harper-Nelson.
Britain’s 2008 Olympic 400m champion and double world gold medallist Christine Ohuruogu will captain a predominantly youthful England team.
“Ticket sales are going well,” Jones said. “The final night is already approaching a sell out across most ticket categories. The goal is to sell it out, whether we get there or not we will know soon. The key objective is create great atmosphere for the athletes and audience.”
As Freddie Mercury once asked in a rather popular song: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”
We’ll know more in a couple of weeks.