Gen Z runners want to reinvent running media

Outdoor track & field is the most popular high school sport in the United States, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations’ most current poll, with 1,093,621 total participants in 2019. To be fair, football (1,008,417), which is in second position, is essentially a single-sex sport. Track is also a “no cut” extracurricular that provides an athletic safety net for people who aren’t made out for softball or tennis. Having more than one million high school students participate each year, though, appears to be a significant advantage for a sport with a notoriously low fan base at the professional level. If only all of these teenage racers had a stronger motivation to become lifelong oval addicts.

New Generation Track and Field, a budding media brand positioned as a younger, fresher alternative to running’s legacy newspapers, is one such example. Ben Crawford, a University of Oregon senior who built a name for himself in the summer of 2020 by filming workouts of Oregon distance runners and broadcasting the results on his personal YouTube channel, founded the company, which became a registered LLC in early 2021. Crawford was interning as a social media manager for the university’s athletic department at the time, yet his excessive use of team footage led to him being “relieved of his obligations,” as he put it. (A request for comment from the University of Oregon was not returned.)

Crawford’s videos struck a chord, despite the fact that he would momentarily lose the opportunity to acquire candid footage of Oregon players like Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker. It turns out that there was a subset of NCAA distance fans who wanted a behind-the-scenes look at the country’s most prestigious programme that didn’t adhere to the sleek norms of preapproved University of Oregon programming. Crawford found that combining training footage with extended scenes of shirtless runner dudes dishing out pop culture allusions, criticising their colleagues’ strange idiosyncrasies, and commenting on favourite post-run foods was the winning formula.

Crawford says, “The official University of Oregon accounts have a lot of following and can aid the athletes.” “However, it’s New Generation’s subversive, no-boundaries aspect that appeals to individuals since there are no restrictions on what they may say and do, so it feels more genuine.”

Of course, what constitutes “no boundaries” content is always subjective, especially when you consider that being a top NCAA distance runner entails a somewhat tame lifestyle. Anyone who begins watching New Generation movies in the hopes of discovering that, when the curtain is pulled back, Oregon players live lives of excess and insanity will be disappointed. Teare feigns wrath at his colleague speedster Evert Silva’s unorthodox style of eating Kit Kats in the channel’s most successful video to date, an eight-minute film dubbed “Oregon Long Run,” which has over 300,000 views.

Nonetheless, even if New Generation doesn’t represent a new frontier of irreverence (maybe I just haven’t seen the proper videos? ), it feels representative of a time when having a robust yet “genuine” online presence is becoming increasingly important. Some grizzled old hands may be concerned that in this brave new world, social media expertise would eventually trump competitive performance, but the founder of New Generation is unconcerned about this. People only care about Teare’s view on appropriate candy bar eating because he can also run a 3:50 mile, according to Crawford.

Crawford has cooperated with other Oregon runners on new projects as the New Generation concept has expanded, including in-person events for young athletes and branded items. New Generation put together a camp for very online high school runners this summer, which was technically sponsored by On Running but whose YouTube videos feel refreshingly brand agnostic—probably because the majority of the camp counsellors compete for Nike-backed schools.

New Generation established its own print magazine earlier this year, with ad money from the company’s YouTube channel helping to fund it. Crawford and Matt Wisner, an Oregon runner in his (COVID-induced) sixth year of NCAA eligibility who recently graduated from the university’s journalism master’s programme, championed the effort. Wisner transferred to Oregon from Duke this summer, a decision he attributes in part to Crawford’s videos, which he claims helped “demystify” Oregon’s illustrious programme. Wisner and Crawford became friends after coming in Eugene, and they found common ground in their opinion that track media needs a boost.

Part of the problem, according to Wisner, is that track & field is “a young person’s sport that is mostly covered by older people.” (With the exception of golf and high-stakes bowling, this is a complaint that could be directed at most professional sports.) Wisner informed me about a recent experience covering the Pre Classic in Eugene, when established media outlets asked athletes the “identical questions to build the same tales that have been repeated so many times,” according to Wisner. While Wisner realises that sombre race summaries will always be needed, he believes that the track would benefit from newer, stranger stories that don’t fear blurring the lines between capital “J” journalism and enjoyable, frivolous entertainment. Wisner was thrilled to inform me that the upcoming edition of New Generation’s magazine will include running-themed sexual fan fiction. (There will also be regular running magazine content, such as a profile of women’s running pioneer Francie Larrieu and a Q&A with Cooper Teare.)

Of course, New Generation isn’t alone in its quest to save track and field from extinction. There’s Citius Mag, noted impresario and aspiring sub-five-minute runner Chris Chavez’s podcast-heavy internet enterprise. Wisner told me that Aaron Potts of the podcast team 2 Black Runners had recently prompted world-beating sprinter Noah Lyles to do a freestyle rap during an interview. This is an example of the type of reporting that typical running journalism lacks.

Is zanier reporting, though, truly track and field’s salvation? Other concerns, such as archaic athlete sponsorship methods and a professional racing circuit that, despite earnest efforts, lacks the coherence of other organised leagues, are evident in the sport. It’s unclear how the NCAA’s loosening of its name-image-likeness regulations will play out at the university level, which could have an influence on New Generation’s ability to continue producing college-specific video material, which has been the brand’s bread and butter. Crawford’s recordings have included top runners from other prestigious programmes, such as the University of Colorado or North Carolina State, who were also training in Boulder at the time Crawford was there. (The Colorado and NC State content wasn’t monetized, according to Crawford, because he didn’t own the rights to the music in the videos.) New Generation hasn’t paid any of these runners anything, yet the company still benefits from their teams’ name (and logo) recognition in order to gain subscribers. It’s a strategy that can only succeed if institutions don’t become overly defensive of who can video their athletes.

Crawford appears to be following the maxim that it is better to ask forgiveness than permission for the time being. (However, he insists that the runners in his videos are his contemporaries and close friends, rather than university assets that he is stealing for personal gain.) “I think it’s like the Wild West right now,” Crawford says, adding that things will change in two or three years when the NIL rules are adjusted. “However, the floodgates are now open, and it’s a free-for-all. When we reach there, we’ll cross the bridge of ‘Can we do this or not?’

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