Running’s Media Rules Keep Its Fan Base Small
By enforcing stringent rules on the video footage creators can use from their events, USA Track and Field might be undermining its own mission
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Last month, the upstart running media brand New Generation Track and Field posted a 12-minute video on its YouTube channel featuring sprint phenom Abby Steiner, who was in New York City for the 2023 Millrose Games. Most of the footage shows Steiner in the days and hours before the meet: We see her doing a shakeout workout at the Armory, ordering a salad at Sweetgreen, and cataloging the contents of her race-day bag. As YouTube content goes, it’s pretty tame stuff, but it’s easy to imagine running geeks getting a kick out of details like the fact that Steiner brings beet juice to every race. (“If you know, you know—that’s all I’m gonna say.”) As part of its “manifesto,” New Generation aspires to “shrink the distance between the sport’s top athletes and the people who follow them.” Ben Crawford, the brand’s founder and primary cameraman, has a talent for livening up the mundane routines of the best runners in the country by offering a window into their lives that for the most part eschews the banalities of boilerplate post-race interviews. The vibe is Stars —They’re Just Like Us! for trackheads.
But even a video that is dedicated to an elite athlete’s quirks and pre-race rituals can benefit from a narrative arc. To that end, the Steiner video culminates with a ten-second, stop-motion style clip from her actual race, in which she set a national record in the 300-meters. Within a day of publishing the video, Crawford was contacted by USA Track and Field, the sport’s national governing body, informing him that he had violated broadcast restrictions that specify that NBC and USATF.TV are the sole broadcasters of all USATF events. As a consequence, New Generation had its media credentials revoked for the USATF Indoor Championships the following weekend in Albuquerque. Crawford, who had already made travel arrangements for New Mexico, took to Twitter to vent his frustration. “USATF is killing the sport by not letting creators publish any video media from their events,” he tweeted, adding that he felt “powerless and defeated by a large organization who seemingly has no regard for other creators trying to grow the sports audience.”
In its 2023 broadcast restrictions, USATF states that athlete interviews are the only type of footage that can be distributed on the internet from its events and explicitly prohibits “the posting of a series of images edited together to create a time lapse.” While USATF did not respond to requests for comment on Crawford’s violation, it seems clear that the organization was within their rights to reprimand him. Whether they should have done so, however, is perhaps another question. After all, the New Generation video was published three days after Millrose took place and didn’t overlap with live coverage. And it’s hard to imagine that a few seconds of stills from Steiner’s race will compromise the exclusivity of whatever meet highlights NBC or USATF chooses to feature on its platforms.
Considering track and field’s well-documented struggle to expand its fan base and USATF’s official mission statement to “drive popular engagement” in the sport, one might ask why they would punish an enterprising vlogger for pursuing the same goal.
“It’s tough because I get the intent on both sides,” says Jesse Williams, the founder of Sound Running, an event company that annually hosts one the most competitive annual track meets in the U.S. that isn’t subject to USATF broadcast restrictions. While Williams acknowledges that NBC and USATF had a right to protect their investment and own their content, he also thinks that more coverage from third parties is “great for the overall sport, as it leads to a much further reach.”
It’s a tension that Sound Running is itself familiar with. “For our events, we battle with this all of the time,” Williams told me. His company uses a pay-per-view model to ensure that it is the primary source for real time race coverage, but it also allows YouTubers and other pre-approved media into its events to help generate buzz. There’s a New Generation video from a Sound Running meet in December 2020 that includes brief race footage and subsequent athlete interviews. While such content technically makes Sound Running’s coverage less exclusive, the company seems to abide by the philosophy that more coverage is better.
In fairness, Sound Running doesn’t have a broadcasting agreement with one of the largest television networks in the world, so the company can probably afford to be a little more permissive. (Williams told me that Sound Running is something of an anomaly because they do most of their events on their own and can determine their own rules; collaborating with a broadcaster usually means having to abide by their regulations.) Since the professional races at the Millrose Games are one of the few USATF events that get live NBC coverage, it’s unsurprising that the governing body would come down hard on any perceived infringement.
The issue, however, is that the same rules apply to a bevy of USATF events that could desperately use more attention from third-party sources. If you want to watch highlights from last weekend’s USATF Half Marathon Championships, an event that featured some of the sport’s biggest stars like Olympians Aliphine Tuliamuk and Molly Seidel, the only place to do so is on USATF’s website. It’s a setup that guarantees that an insular sport will remain insular.
This isn’t to suggest that USATF should give away all of its content for free, but rather that it could benefit from making some of it more accessible. Ben Rosario, the executive director of the Hoka NAZ Elite running team, told me that, while he would never expect USATF to allow an outside party to use copyrighted material without permission, he was skeptical of the organization’s decision to hoard all its content on a relatively obscure site. NBC, Rosario noted, was very deft at parceling out its track coverage on its YouTube channel. “USATF chooses to put all the footage it owns on its USATF.TV website,” Rosario says. “I think they should do it on YouTube instead, or in addition to. It’s a much wider-reaching platform and would bring the videos to more viewers, plain and simple.”
For his part, Crawford says he feels hamstrung by USATF guidelines that, as he puts it, “make it nearly impossible for smaller creators” to generate meaningful content from their events. When the mixed zone athlete interview is the only permissible form of video content, it becomes very difficult for a video-centric publication to distinguish itself. The format becomes oversaturated, as everyone is doing a slightly different version of the same thing. Crawford is adamant that he has no intention of cutting in on anyone’s turf by filming entire races or ripping off USATF’s official feed (clear licensing violations which, he claims, other accounts are getting away with).
“If you are following an athlete for their race and can’t even film anything at the race, what’s the point?” Crawford told me. “The narrative I want to put out in the world is a complete narrative that does not have any gaps or plot holes. Obviously, if you are missing race day, that is a pretty big plot hole.”