Lyles is doing a good job of making the world care about athletics…again! 

Almost never do we see an athlete take up the mantle of marketing a sport for the governing body. What is the norm is for the athlete to focus on building a brand name for themselves, and naturally, the money begins to flow into their bank accounts. It’s usually the byproduct of having many fans of the sport watch you on a daily basis. 

The superstars of the sport are the biggest draw for branding and endorsements. More importantly, the appeal of the athlete cutting across various cultural and national lines also plays a huge deal. It’s a long list, but the drift is athletes feed off being a big part of a popular sport.

Athletics is a strange phenomenon. You won’t be wrong if you call it the most popular sport in the world, as it gets the most attention and media hype at the Olympic Games. The problem with that is the games only last less than a month. As for the world championships that take place every two years, the governing body, World Athletics, has just gleaned the execution plan from the Olympics. 

The numbers this year have been astonishing, to say the least. Over the nine days of this year’s world championships in Budapest, traffic was more than double that for any previous events. It got so bad that the website crashed as the global body didn’t envisage the over 14 million per hour visits going into the event. 

Noah Lyles, World Athletics Championships
Budapest, Hungary
August 19-27, 2023, photo by Kevin Morris

What that has done is to make the eleven months outside the World Championships dormant. Aside from the hardcore fans who follow the track and field, it’s rare to find neutrals taking interest in the sport outside the Olympics and the world championships. That has to change. It should change. Recently minted triple world champion Noah Lyles knows it has to change. Hence his outroar at the post-200 m race press conference where he says it felt livid seeing the NBA and other National leagues in the United States tag themselves as the world champions.

And that’s what it took for most superstars in sports to pay attention to Lyles. He’s the three-time 200m Champion in the 200m, multiple Diamond League winner, and third fastest man in the world, only behind Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake. But does that really matter to global fans who support Kevin Durant, Novak Djokovic, Tom Brady, or Lionel Messi? Lyles just doesn’t have the fan base these stars have. To a large extent, it’s not his fault. He, however, wants to do something about it.

More than anything, though, Lyles is on a mission to make the wider world care about athletics again. “I feel we have a great sport,” he says. “But I am a firm believer that track and field is just not marketed the right way. We could do a better job in selling ourselves and selling our stories.

Zharnel Hughes, Noah Lyles, Wanda Diamond League
London Athletics Meet
July 23, 2023, London, England, U.K., photo by Kevin Morris

What Lyles is doing is trying to market the sport with his personality. With Bolt, it just came naturally. The fans loved him and his achievement. On and off the track, it was a blitz. The problem is, that World Athletics didn’t take good advantage of that and leverage on the popularity of the big Jamaican. Decentralizing the sport to focus more on the stars and building great storylines around the Diamond League event, which takes place between May and September, will go a long way in building the brand of the superstars. 

The NBA made Durant popular, the UEFA Champions League increased the visibility of Messi, Tom Brady won his seven rings in a very commercialized Super Bowl., while Lweis Hamilton has leveraged the increasing popularity of Formula 1. One thing they all have in common is their governing body, making the sport marketable enough for its big names to flourish. It all feels amateurish at this point, and Lyles knows that. 

“It’s going to take some professionalism. That’s what it’s going to take. I’m sorry, but no more of this amateur stuff.” We got to treat ourselves like a business, not like a nonprofit,” he says. “Hopefully, the money will come. But if we aren’t even professional with ourselves, then we’re just a joke.”

Noah Lyles and Coach Lance Braumann,
USATF New York Grand Prix
Continental Tour Gold
presented by Global Athletics & Marketing Inc., photo by Kevin Morris

A large chunk of these statements was what some Basketball stars leveraged when Lyles took that subtle dig at them. After all, he’s more of a world champion than Durant or Tom Brady is. Lyles has just stoked the fire; it can be fanned down in no time. Other stars such as Mondo Duplantis, Yulimar Rojas, or Neeraj Chopra need to lend a voice and take ownership of their event. 

Chopra has a huge fan base in India, Rojas in South America, and Duplantis in Europe. Every kid in each region wants to be like them. And to its simplest form, that’s why kids picked up a spike or started to jump in the first place. Lyles has dabbled into music, fashion, and a soon-to-come docuseries on Netflix, which will air next year and will continue to push the word to every nook and cranny. Afterwards, marketing sustainability is key, and this is what will transcend athletics.