Michael Johnson on how a ‘Drive To Survive’ strategy could turbo charge triathlon’s appeal

News Director

‘Drive To Survive’ helped an already well-established sport in Formula One reach huge new audiences, especially in the United States, so could something similar help take triathlon towards the mainstream?

The Netflix phenomenon has spawned a series of sporting docuseries, and one of the latest – and also produced by Box To Box – will focus on track sprinters next year.

In the first part of an exclusive and in-depth interview with TRI247, athletics legend Michael Johnson spoke to us about the similar challenges facing both triathlon and his sport of track and field, suggesting the former was in a better place to now start moving from relatively niche to higher profile.

And while many argue it’s all about raising the profile of the big-name triathletes in order to make that leap, the four-time Olympic gold medallist and eight-time World Champion feels it’s far more nuanced than that.


Love the sport first, then the athletes

He told us: “I think you have to make people love the sport as opposed to taking this idea that if people love this athlete, they will love the sport. I don’t think that it works that way.

Triathlon has to make people love triathlon – that’s then going to cause you to look at your product as a sport and how you present it as opposed to the athlete.

“What is it that really resonates about the sport? What makes it great? What do people enjoy?

“And how do we then tease that out and really create a narrative around that and push that to people so that they understand it?


Transcending the sport

“But what tends to happen with a lot of sports, and I think triathlon may be one of them and certainly track and field has been one of them over the years, is it gets just more and more complicated and more complex in terms of what the message is about. And it becomes very fragmented.

“One similarity between triathlon and track and field is that as sports they’re a little bit smaller and a little bit more niche compared to the big team sports.

So if you get a huge star like a Usain Bolt, that’s great, but that could be the worst thing for your sport because now he’s transcended the sport.

“I did too. But those people that were fans of mine were interested in me, not track and field.

Michael Johnson in action picture courtesy of PTO
Michael Johnson smashing the 200m world record at the Atlanta Olympics [Picture courtesy of PTO]

“You have to focus on getting people to love this sport as a product. All of those other things are a bit of a by-product of that. Those things are important but the real focus has to be primarily on getting people to love the sport.

“People need to understand the rules of the sport. They need to understand the dynamics of the sport. And you need to help again. You have to understand what you absolutely love about the sport, what it is that keeps you coming back.”


BTS and backstories

But Johnson still believes that telling the stories of the athletes is a vital part of broadening the appeal of triathlon.

He explained: “Part of acquiring new fans is to help people understand who the athletes are and what their backstory is, what their personality is. Help them kind of get some insight into the personality of those different athletes. Create some rivalries or let those rivalries shine through and highlight those.

“And I think the PTO has done a fantastic job of that via their media channels and I’m following a few of the athletes now as a result.”

Johnson is a big fan of Formula 1, where ‘Drive To Survive’ has taken that process to the next level, though he doesn’t think a triathlon or track and field equivalent will change the landscape all on its own.

He said: “I think that as long as it fits within part of a larger strategy, which I think PTO are great at, then it could be helpful.

“It can help as part of that larger strategy for two of those very critical things, which is to help the casual fan understand the sport better and also get them into some of those personalities that are already in the sport.

“You start following that athlete because you watch them on this series and it’s something about them that resonates with you or something that you like because you got to see a bit more of their ‘off moments’ or behind the scenes as opposed to just when they’re out there competing.

“I’ve been vocal in my comments to people in the track and field world and those fans who say we need a ‘Drive To Survive’. But we don’t have a PTO-type organisation that steps outside of the federations.

“There is a series coming out next year about sprinters by Box to Box Films [the producers of ‘Drive to Survive’] but will it move the needle? To some degree it could help. It can’t hurt, but it’s not going to save the sport.”

Michael Johnson Taylor Knibb PTO press conference US Open 2022
Michael Johnson chats to Taylor Knibb ahead of last year’s US Open [Photo credit: PTO]
Jonathan Turner
Written by
Jonathan Turner
Jonathan Turner is News Director for both TRI247 and RUN247, and is accustomed to big-name interviews, breaking news stories and providing unrivalled coverage for endurance sports.  
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