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Patching-up with athletes, proving health benefits to hosts – what 2020 holds for World Athletics CEO Jon Ridgeon

(Image Credit: World Athletics)

  • Friction between World Athletics and its athletes is something the governing body needs to iron out
  • World Athletics is keen to expand the breadth of its Diamond League events to Asian shores
  • Sporting KPIs for Asian nations have moved beyond medals and towards curbing health costs

When the International Association of Athletics Federation renamed itself World Athletics last September, there was more internal opposition than expected, with some delegates complaining the new name didn’t translate well and others saying it would mean a loss of identity.

It took Sebastian Coe, freshly re-elected as the body’s president, to put his foot down and tell the congress the change was needed: “As long as I can remember, and certainly since becoming an IAAF Council member in 2003, whenever anyone has asked me what organisation I am involved with, it then takes three or four minutes to explain what it means.

“The work we have done around the brand (World Athletics) is detailed. Even without it currently existing, it had a higher recognition brand rate than the IAAF and the International Olympic Committee…and we do genuinely believe this will help us engage with more young people.”

This focus on young people goes far beyond the name change, explains Jon Ridgeon, World Athletics chief executive. Speaking to SportBusiness Asia editor Kelvin Tan at the Mass Participation World Conference, which took place in Singapore last month, he revealed that using younger tech-savvy athletes to engage fans digitally would be a crucial part of the World Athletics playbook in this new decade.

“In the past, we haven’t been working closely enough with our athletes, and they’ve been really doing their own thing on social and digital platforms, but moving forward we’re now working closely with them, given athletes are the most powerful mouthpieces for the sport. These men and women have daily contact with millions of fans – our strategy is to work closer with them in promoting the bigger messages on what World Athletics is about.”

Friction between World Athletics and its athletes is something the governing body needs to iron out, especially after the World Championships in Doha last year raised much criticism from stars furious about poor attendances and welfare concerns in the heat. Other changes by World Athletics, axing events like the steeplechase and long-distance races from the Diamond League, have also been slammed by its athletes.

The chief executive said fences would be mended: “It does not fill us with pleasure when some of our leading athletes are not happy with what we’re doing, but it was necessary, with the markets responding positively to some changes. In fact, some of these changes are what led to the Diamond League successfully acquiring Wanda as a title sponsor.”

World Athletics Continental Tour meeting organisers at the Monaco WA council meeting. (Image credit: Philippe Fite)

Chinese conglomerate Wanda Group agreed a deal to become the new title sponsor of the Diamond League, from 2020 in September 2019. Electronics giant Samsung was the Diamond League’s title sponsor from 2010 to 2012 and World Athletics launched a renewed search for a new title sponsor two years ago.

Ridgeon reveals: “We’ve also started to have very constructive, but difficult conversations with the athletes themselves, and they’ve started to come around [to see] that innovation is necessary for the future of the sport, but want to be in the room when big decisions are made. Seb Coe has personally called several of them to make sure they feel engaged and explain how and why these changes have to be made.”

Engaging Asia

In the near future, World Athletics is keen to expand the breadth of its Diamond League events to Asian shores.

Ridgeon says: “The starting point has to be the major cities. If you look at WA at the moment yes there are quite a number of mass participation events like the Standard Chartered Marathon in Singapore, and that’s great, but if you look at track and field events, which are a big part of the athletics ecosystem, while there are some big events in China, and the upcoming Diamond League meeting, there aren’t many big meets across Asia.

“I’d love to see a handful of Diamond League meetings in the big cities this decade. We’ve still got quite a long way to go, but we’re motivated to achieve that given the growth and market in Asia, and athletics needs to be a part of that, or we’ll get left behind.”

He revealed how potential host cities and countries are asking more and more about how these events will help in their public health agendas – a change Ridgeon says is way overdue.

“Local governments used to regard events as a platform of taxation to raise revenue, but the fact is they should be investing in athletics and running events because of the downstream value of their population’s health. There is a trickle-down effect on participants, and how these events affect their family and friends in terms of inspiring them to begin a fitness regime as well.

“Usually our marketing goes towards the converted masses – those active in running and athletics – but that’s where our new aims converge together with governments which are looking at greater health aims. We’ve found that in China, with their initiatives towards getting more of their population healthier, and reaching out to their “unexercised”, so to speak, the commitment the government is making is huge.”

Runners compete at the 2018 Wuhan Marathon in Wuhan, Hubei province, China (Wang He/Getty Images)

Most Asian countries have an urgent need to curb health costs. Japan, South Korea, China, Singapore and other South east Asian countries are anticipating their aging populations to fundamentally change their societies, business strategies and government policies, with their working-age populations plunging and healthcare and social security costs surging.

Sporting KPIs for these nations have started to move beyond medal accumulation and national pride, to how to successfully promote a more physically active lifestyle among their largely sedentary populations.

But one key challenge Ridgeon and World Athletics faces is the lack of quantifiable data to back up their assertions that their events can help.

“What I’m not able to do with enough detail is to be able to tell how our events can help increase host cities and nation’s population life expectancy; how much health spending it can save in the medium- and long-run; and the mental health benefits.

“We all instinctively feel these things must ensue, but from a local or national government perspective they’re going to come to the table with a certain cynicism. As the sporting governing body, we’re supposed to be providing the answers, and make the case to governments for their investment.”

But these disparate data sets are held by companies in industries such as insurance and healthcare, and collaboration, ultimately, needs a prime mover, adds Ridgeon. “Perhaps that’s also where governments need to come in to provide cross-industry platforms to congregate and discuss these data synergies.”

For now, World Athletics will look to future-proof its events by working closely with host countries. “When we pitch the world championships and our events to host countries, we are insisting in the future that there be a long-term active legacy to the event, either in terms of increasing the grassroots running community, or infrastructure that will help maintain the athletic interest we have kick-started with our events,” says Ridgeon.

“Hopefully, this will help cities start to see our events as part of their contribution and duty to citizens that will improve their health and lifestyles, if we can get better data to back the case.”

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