Athletics Australia plans to launch a Big Bash League-style athletics series early next year to attract the wider public and sponsors to the sport.
The Nitro Summer Athletics League, which will be launched in February 2017, will feature eight teams of up to 30 athletes competing in four events held over about a month across Australia.
A multimillion-dollar budget is planned for the series, which will feature Australian and several star international athletes. The events, which will last up to two hours, will be held in primetime on Saturday nights in order to be attractive to broadcasters.
Athletics Australia management, led by new president Mark Arbib and chief executive Phil Jones, have had several meetings with free-to-air broadcasters, which are understood to have been receptive to the idea of showing events.
The teams will be split evenly between males and females. Some events, such as relays, may include both sexes. Points will be accrued per team and non-participating captains will be appointed.
“We have not changed the fundamental product of the sport for 50 years,” Jones told The Australian Financial Review. “So this is about enhancing the opportunities for our athletes and packaging the event for a live and broadcast audience.
“And we have talked about it with some of the athletes and they have said ‘yes’. The younger ones, in particular, are keen to see some change and for the public to be more exposed to the talent that we have got.”
After several years of struggle, including the sending home of then national coach Eric Hollingsworth from the 2014 Commonwealth Games after criticising Olympic gold medallist Sally Pearson, athletics has started to turn around.
Arbib, who was sports minister in the Gillard government, said the sport was optimistic about its future at the elite level as young athletes such as sprinter Josh Clarke, Ella Nelson and Jessica Thornton emerged to complement established stars such as Pearson and walker Jared Tallent.
“Athletics really is the sleeping giant of Australian sport,” he said.
“The potential participation numbers we have through our recreational running and walking networks are enormous and the opportunities we provide for corporate Australia to engage with the community grassroots, but also our outstanding athletes, is unrivalled.”
He said the sport would also benefit from being in the spotlight at the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Olympics and the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.
Athletics Australia will release a strategic vision within the next few months, designed to set targets to take the sport through to 2030.
Among the keys points for the organisation are a closer relationship with Little Athletics – the process is under way as a series of junior events are merged in NSW – and a greater focus on the fast-growing recreational running industry.
The popular parkrun Australia, for example, holds free events each week. The organisation has 230,000 registered participants and about 170,000 runners compete in at least five events per year.
Athletics Australia wants to move closer to such organisations and events.
“We want to promote the ‘one sport’ or ‘one club’ ethos and ensure all parts of the sport are aligned and working to a common vision,” Jones said, while noting that sponsors were also keen to support the grassroots side of sports as well as the elite level.
More details are expected to come from Athletics Australia soon.