You may not have heard of the Occidental High Performance track meet. Sure, you know about the famed Prefontaine Classic meet in Oregon, which is a showcase for Nike’s marketing muscle. And probably the Adidas Grand Prix Diamond League meet in New York City. Or perhaps the USA Track & Field National Championships. But the Oxy HP meet might be the most compelling meet in the country.
This meet is different. Like a few other big meets, the fields are world-class—this year’s event featured much of the US Olympic team as well as global distance superstar Mo Farah. While the Pre meet and other Diamond League races do have faster fields overall, their heats are stocked with Kenyans and Ethiopians whom are unknown to all but the most hardcore track fans. Oxy showcases, for the most part, the stars of American distance running. Moreover, it also doesn’t try to cram every track and field event into one evening. Just distance events: The 800, 1500, Steeplechase, and 5000. That’s it. One of the biggest mistakes brands, or events, make nowadays is trying to be all things to all people. The fact is that a single traditional track meet is actually playing to several audiences with sprinters, jumpers, throwers, and distance runners all on display. The distance fan really is a discrete tribe, so why not create an event just for them? I love that Oxy does this.
The organizers of this event—Rose Monday, Frank Gagliano, and Jon Marcus—have done an incredible job building it thus far. I commend them for creating such a great meet in such an intimate venue. The value of their foundational work isn’t lost on me. But neither is the opportunity to take Oxy to the next level. Currently, Oxy is the equivalent of holding a PGA Tour event, with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, at a local municipal course with a miniscule gallery of insider spectators and almost no media coverage. Hard to imagine, right? Well, in track and field it’s commonplace. But that’s also the opportunity here. Outside of the Olympic Trials or a big city marathon, I can’t think of a better way to bring distance running to a new audience. Not only is this event already great and getting better, but it’s in Los Angeles, the fittest big city in America. If Rose and her team want to grow Oxy to it’s rightful place as America’s best track meet (and to be clear, they may not), they require some significant upgrades. Oxy needs to mature along with its potential.
Here’s my 10-point plan to build this meet into a world-class event:
1. Immediately move the meet to UCLA’s Drake Stadium. While Oxy has benefitted from the quaint environs of the 2,400-seat Jack Kemp Stadium, this venue is at capacity and there’s no real estate to add temporary seating. A move to Drake, with its 12,000 seats, would allow the race to scale upward for years, with plenty of parking and amenities.
2. Professional media team. Currently, the Occidental meet does almost no media or press whatsoever. That needs to change. I’d add a small media team starting a month or so in advance of the event with PR, social media, and video content.
3. Create a real social media profile: Twitter, Instagram, facebook. Proper hashtag usage, including a hashtag chalked onto the infield so all of the spectators can get on the same page. Then they need a professional social media staff the night of the race to be constantly tweeting, posting to facebook, sending out photos and video, etc. This approach is critical for any live event nowadays.
4. Build a website. It’s hard to imagine any event without even a basic website, but Oxy currently doesn’t have one. It took me 10 minutes on Google to find even their basic page on the Occidental College site. This can be built in a few weeks for a couple thousand dollars. It should incorporate all of the social media channels and be updated on a daily basis in the weeks leading up to the event.
5. Great video content before, during, and after the meet. Flotrack did a good job with live video of this year’s event, but it could be even better. This is inexpensive and effective storytelling. Shoot some preview pieces in advance and get them out with press releases. Then do a really nice live streaming production with RunnerSpace or Flotrack, and immediately (night of event) cut a highlight video and send it around with a wrap-up press release.
6. A comprehensive PR strategy. They need to get local and national media excited about this event. A friend of mine is a local news anchor in LA and a committed marathoner and triathlete. He’d love to cover Occidental, but I’m guessing no one bothered to tell him about it. I follow running media obsessively, and I saw absolutely no coverage at all of Occidental before or after the event outside of Flotrack and the usual diehard tweeters.
7. Analytics: It’s super important for events to understand how their media is or is not working. So one needs to use a comprehensive social media data mining platform. There are free ones like Addictomatic, and more in-depth tools like Tracx. Either way, this should be a priority.
8. Get sponsorship. I wasn’t aware of any sponsors at the event. There may have been some, but they weren’t visible to me. Oxy could hire a competent corporate partnership agency like Collective Sports & Entertainment, someone who is a pro in both sponsorship and running. There are all kinds of opportunities to provide ROI to brand partners, but the biggest win will be in the digital space. Sponsors can get placement on the website and in social media, involvement in video and broadcast elements, included in email blasts, etc. And the sponsors don’t necessarily have to include running shoe companies. There are so many other ways to go. Look at the HyVee Triathlon in Iowa. It’s got one of the richest prize purses in the sport, and it’s sponsored by a Midwestern grocery chain.
9. Actively reach out to the local community. It shouldn’t be difficult to get 10,000 spectators out for this event. I’d start by making a deal with Nike to bus in kids from the Students Run LA program (which Nike already sponsors). They train 3,000 at-risk middle school and high school kids every year to run the full LA Marathon. Why not get 2,000 of them to come out and be inspired by world-class performers? Then I’d offer half price tickets to every high school track and XC team in the region. After that I’d reach out to the dozens of running clubs in Southern California. There are so many potential attendees—it’s just a matter of connecting with them.
10. Create a great spectator experience. I’d start with a mandatory autograph alley. Every athlete would be required to spend half an hour before or after their event meeting fans and signing autographs. At this year’s event there was zero opportunity for the many high school runners in attendance to meet their idols, unless they stood outside the back gate and intercepted athletes on the way to their cars. The athletes were sequestered all the way across the field from the grandstand. The autograph zone could also include distance stars who may not be running at the event but would love the chance to grow their tribe: Meb, Deena, Ryan Hall, and Shalane Flanagan. There should also be great food, fun giveaways, a VIP skybox, and a scoreboard loaded with useful info. Any event needs to take time to understand the customer experience and optimize it.