Portland Feels the Rush of the IAAF World Indoor Championships

Portland Feels the Rush of the IAAF World Indoor Championships

The IAAF World Indoor Championships at Oregon Convention Center in Portland begins a sprint toward this year’s Summer Olympics. But TrackTown USA President Vin Lananna, who is also head coach of the U.S. men’s track and field team, says the March 17-20 event marks the beginning of a marathon to ignite new energy into the sport in this country.

With an international audience watching in person and on television, classic track and field has the opportunity to be presented in a more engaging manner than ever before. The hope is to build a larger, younger fan base that will fill the stands by the time the 2021 IAAF World Championships—the sport’s biggest non-Olympic event—arrives in Eugene, Oregon. Lananna, chief organizer of the World Indoor Championships, is optimistic that the Portland event—and the March 11-12 USATF Indoor Track & Field Championships, also held in Portland—will help bring new fans in the long run.

More immediately, the World Indoor Championships, being held in the U.S. for the first time since 1987, will have a huge benefit for Portland. Travel Portland estimates the World Indoor Championships will generate at least 11,600 room nights, and Oregon Sports Authority puts the economic impact at $25 million for the region. That’s to say nothing of the intangible benefits of international press exposure, notes Cathy Kretz, CMP, senior convention sales manager at Travel Portland. Connect Sports spoke to Lananna about the transformative nature of the IAAF championship and the future of track and field.

Was it difficult to convince the International Association of Athletics Federations to bring back the indoor championships to the U.S.?

The IAAF and the world like to be in the United States, and our athletes are the best in the world. They should have a chance to compete at home and be able to show off their great performances. It probably was not a difficult sell.

Why Portland over Eugene, where TrackTown USA is based? The tendency is to think because of the efforts we undertake that we are a Eugene-based organization. We’re really not. TrackTown is really a state of mind. We’re connected with anything in the sport. Portland is a cool city and we thought we could create a great venue there.

Can you describe transforming the convention center into a world-class track venue? The issue came down to what can we do to innovate. We had this blank canvas, so to speak, and thought about it like a painting. This is a gigantic convention center—the biggest I’ve ever seen. It has all the things an athlete would need to perform at their best and we were able to a create configuration so every seat is good.

How are you incorporating the city of Portland? One of the great aspects of the Olympics or a world championship is the medal ceremony. Most places, those are just kicked to the side. We’re doing all of our award ceremonies in Pioneer [Courthouse] Square, which is in the center of Portland. There will be a stage and big screens and a live orchestra playing the national anthem for the athletes who win. We’ll also have a live feed between the convention center and Pioneer Square to have a synergy between the two places.

How do you hope to create a better fan experience? We’ve taken a lot of ideas at successful entertainment events and integrated them into the indoor world championships. We created a really cool atmosphere with the lighting, music and sound. The track is a light and dark green; it’s aesthetically pleasing. With events like the pole fault, we’re going to dim the lights in the rest of the building to put the focus just on the pole vault.

What makes those changes so important? We can have a track meet almost anywhere and have track fans. The question is how we can enhance an experience for someone who is not a track fan to come to this phenomenal and compelling sporting event, which is essentially entertainment. We’re enhancing it so we can get people to buy in. When we have a track meet that feels like it is taking forever and no one can understand it, it is very difficult to move outside the track and field niche.

Is this aimed at younger crowds? We felt it important to appeal to a younger generation. That’s who our athletes are. They are young, exciting and vibrant. Our sport lost a lot of that. When people are talking about the iconic figures in our sport, they are talking about people not competing anymore as opposed to looking at [runner] Allyson Felix or [decathlete] Ashton Eaton.

What led to the downturn in interest? We have great athletes; we have great events. We’ve just done a terrible job presenting our sport. Rather than complain about it, we’re trying to do something about it.

What do you see as a long-term benefit to bringing elite competitions like the World Indoor event and the 2021 championships to this country? I think there’s an opportunity for the athletes to build their own brand. Ashton Eaton should be one of the most recognized sports figures. He is in the world. Why is he not a recognizable celebrity in the United States? Why is track not a revenue sport? It’s because we haven’t flipped the switch.