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World Athletics eyes mass participation boost and doubling of sponsors in four-year plan

(Image Credit: World Athletics)

World Athletics has stated it ambition to double its number of commercial partners, align its hosting protocols with the needs of cities and broaden the mass participation components of its business in a new four-year strategic plan.

The global federation, formerly known as the IAAF, said the plan had been led by the organisation’s new chief executive, Jon Ridgeon (pictured), in consultation with its executive board, and 214 member federations.

The document indicates the governing body for athletics will attempt to reposition some of its non-stadium running events to take advantage of the mass participation boom and align them more closely with the health and social objectives of host cities.

World Athletics also states its objective to have cross-country running confirmed as an Olympic sport.

Additionally, the plan talks about creating “weekend festivals of running” combining “a significant mass participation component” with professional road events like the World Half Marathon Championships and the World Race Walking Team Championships. It says there is also the possibility that it could combine off-road events like the World Cross Country Championships and other trail and mountain running events in alternate years.

World Athletics has been criticised in the past for not doing more to benefit from the emergence of the mass participation sector and the fact that millions of amateur athletes participate regularly in athletics in some shape or form.

Earlier this week, the federation reached an agreement with amateur running event company Parkrun to organise a series of permanent Parkrun races in the host cities and countries of world championship events, including the 2022 and 2023 World Championships in Oregon and Budapest.

The four-year strategic document promises to establish a “Pro-Running Board” to create tailor-made “solutions to recognise area and regional related needs, targeting recreational runners and focusing on societal issues – health, social and environmental responsibility”.

The plan also promises to construct “best-in-class engagement and activation platforms”, committing to have a database of one million known fans by 2024.

World Athletics said that it is aware that its strategy is being launched “at a time when the world is gripped with the Covid-19 pandemic which is challenging every part of normal life”.

The Monaco-based federation added: “We do not underestimate the pressures the fight to beat the virus is bringing on all our stakeholders – our member federations and their athletes, coaches and officials, our area associations, elected officers, our partners, the cities, governments and venues we work with, the media, our fans and all those who help deliver athletics every day.”

Commercial future

World Athletics says the combination of more participation and more fans will help it to deliver on an objective to double its current number of commercial sponsors, although it does not elaborate on how it plans to achieve this.

The global media and marketing rights to the organisation’s World Athletics Series, a group of events that includes its most lucrative event, the World Athletics Championships – and the World Cross Country Championships – are tied into a controversial 10-year global media and marketing rights partnership with Japanese marketing agency Dentsu from 2020-29.

As previously reported by SportBusiness, World Athletics has already had to renegotiate parts of the long-term deal, agreed unilaterally by former president Lamine Diack shortly before he left the organisation. The original contract was structured in such a way that there were few incentives for the agency to exceed its minimum guarantee threshold by greater margins.

The current sponsorship line-up is dominated by Japanese companies (Seiko, TDK, TBS and Asics) in a reflection of Dentsu’s activity in its core market.

Last year, World Athletics also signed a 10-year deal with Wanda Sports and its Infront subsidiary for the international media rights to the Diamond League, from 2025 to 2029; international rights to a ‘second international tour’, from 2020 to 2029; and title sponsorship of the Diamond League over the same 10-year period.

That deal was thought to be worth a total of $115m, although World Athletics shoulders substantial costs in the partnership. The organisation is thought to underwrite around $3m per year in athlete prize money, and $1.2m on general grants and promotional costs to events and meets. Historically, the Diamond League has been a loss-making enterprise for the organisation.

World Athletics does not say how it will finance the new initiatives outlined in the plan. In the document, the organisation claims normalised annual income is circa $50m to $55m per year, derived from the Dentsu contract, partners and broadcasters and the funding it receives from the International Olympic Committee.

However, financial accounts seen by the Sports Examiner revealed the organisation made a loss of $19.33m (£15.36m /€17.77m) in 2018, having generated $47.51m in revenues against operating expenses of $66.84m. They also showed the organisation held total assets of $59.52m and reserves of $45.25m as of 31 December, 2018 – a significant decrease from 2017 when it declared $77.79m in assets and $64.8m in reserves.

A global federation would expect to balance the books in major event years, but the organisation is also reported to have incurred a $20.3m loss in 2017, the year the World Athletics Championships were held in London. 2016 is also understood to have been an expensive year as it dealt with the cost of investigating allegations of Russian state-sponsored doping in the sport.

World Athletics also looks likely to have to wait 12 months to get the $40m share of Olympic revenues it receives every quadrennial from the IOC. The sum is usually paid shortly after a summer Olympic Games but, like other summer international federations, it faces a payment deferral because of the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

The strategy document presents the postponement as a positive, saying: “The recent decision by the IOC to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and stage them in 2021, and the subsequent decision to reschedule our own World Athletics Championships Oregon [from] 2021 to 2022, provides the sport with five consecutive (2021-2025) years of world class athletics anchoring every northern hemisphere summer.

“Whilst athletics is already a hugely popular sport globally, we believe that everything we do now should capitalise on this extraordinary opportunity to grow the sport to the next level of popularity and involvement.”