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The National Track League (NTL) will run this year as a three-event circuit and then assess its sustainability. The league, a property of Athletics Canada, was launched in 2011 as a competitive vehicle that would raise the profile of Canadian track athletes in their home country. It would come nowhere near rivalling the top European meets like those in the Diamond League, but it would afford top Canadian athletes an opportunity to showcase themselves on home soil, earning modest prize money in the process.
The local meets continued to attract their own sponsors, but the hoped-for level of league sponsorship never materialized. Though some events still offer prize money, the league no longer does, and the cancellation of two of the league’s five scheduled races, most recently the Victoria International Track Classic, is casting doubt on the league’s future at a time when the Canadian athletics team is arguably stronger than ever.
TSR’s many attempts to reach Athletics Canada officials by phone and email for comment on the league were not successful. TSR did confirm with organizers of the three surviving track meets – the Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome Classic in Vancouver, the Aileen Meagher Track Classic in Halifax and the Speed River Inferno in Guelph – that they will be staged as part of the NTL this year.
Chris Moulton, event director of Guelph’s Speed River Inferno, says the problem is not sponsorship (although athletics sponsorship revenue is scarce) but rather government funding. The Victoria Track Classic was cancelled when it could not be assured of its needed government funding before its drop-dead date for this year’s race. It has left the door open to a re-emergence next year. Edmonton’s TrackTown Classic pulled the plug early this year when it became clear that needed provincial and municipal funding would be cut as a consequence of the province’s general economic malaise. The Toronto International Track and Field Classic folded in 2014 for much the same reason.
All NTL events are heavily reliant on government funding, says Moulton, and governments are a fickle but necessary revenue source. The vast majority of gate receipts are walk-ups. Numbers can be crushed by a burst of rain, and Moulton says he usually budgets for very poor gate receipts. If sponsorship is the only certain source of revenue, it is seldom sufficient for a track and field organizer to move ahead.
Building the relationships that leads to long-term partnership is a challenge, says Moulton, because his event director title is a part-time volunteer one. His full-time job is Alumni Advancement Manager at the University of Guelph, so he understands what’s involved in building relationships and delivering value. He just doesn’t have the time needed to do it as well as he’d like. New Balance titled the Guelph Inferno for three years, but did not renew after last year’s meet. Could that relationship have been sustained if more attention had been paid to it? There’s no way of knowing, but it’s a question worth asking.
“WE HAVE LEARNED TO RECOGNIZE THAT NOTHING IS FOREVER IN THE GOVERNMENT OR THE CORPORATE WORLD”
It’s a question often on the minds of organizers of the Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome Track Classic, the granddaddy of NTL meets and the least reliant on government support. This will be its 34th year, and unlike the Speed River Inferno, it draws upon a complement of 40 long-term committed volunteers from the Achilles International Track Society whose sole purpose is putting on the meet and developing the sport of track and field in BC. Government funding is important, but not make-or-break.
“We have learned to recognize that nothing is forever in the government or the corporate world,” says Doug Clement, Chair of the Achilles International Track Society.
Already, he’s looking ahead to the inevitable loss of his long term Title Sponsor.
“I think we all recognize the situation facing print newspapers and magazines, and we’re anticipating that this is going to change,” he says, even though the Vancouver Sun is still under contract and has given him no indication that it will not renew. The meet added TELUS as a sponsor this year, says Clement, “and we are looking at that or other companies similar to it to step into what could be a void when and if Postmedia [Vancouver Sun publisher] changes their plans.”
A new NACAC circuit?
Clement is a strong advocate of athletics competition at home, whether it be through the NTL or some other vehicle. The Vancouver Sun Harry Jerome Track Classic preceded the NTL and will survive it if it disappears. If it goes, it may be to make way for something even more interesting, he speculates.
The North America, Central America and Caribbean Athletics Association (NACAC), a division of the IAAF, has awarded Canada rights to the 2018 NACAC Senior Championships. Clement says this may signal an emerging appetite within the IAAF to invest in a North American version of the Diamond League, with two meets in each the Caribbean, the United States and Canada. If that happens, the 2018 NACAC Senior Championships (which he expects will be awarded to Toronto) could continue as one of the two Canadian meets in the new league, and the Harry Jerome would be the logical choice for the other, he says.
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