• Loading stock data...
Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Why Alexis Ohanian Thinks Women’s Track Is Ripe for Heavy Investment

  • Ohanian’s new track meet will feature the largest prize purse in the sport.
  • Athletes will also receive a cut of the revenues from the event, an unusual arrangement in running.
Sara Diggins/American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

Any fan is familiar with the rush and confusion of getting into a new sport: You slowly get sucked into a world you knew nothing about. Before you know it, you’re signing up for obscure streaming services to watch faraway events at odd times and following inscrutable social media accounts. Often, you start wondering: Does the way this sport does things make any sense?

Alexis Ohanian, the wealthy Reddit cofounder, serial sports investor, and Serena Williams’s husband, went through the experience recently with track and field. In an interview with Front Office Sports, Ohanian said he spent the past few years going deep into track’s almost quaint culture of posting wars and social media accounts. “There’s such an energetic fan base that’s so engaged online,” he said. “This is the heat that I’m drawn toward. You can’t fake that. If you have this vibrant community online that has its memes and its culture and its in-jokes … you can build a ton.”

Unlike most of his fellow posters and lurkers, though, Ohanian had the money and influence to act on his frustrations.

In April, Ohanian announced the 776 Invitational, named after his venture capital firm. Details were scant, but two items stood out: It would be a women-only track meet, with an enormous prize purse. 

The event announced more details Thursday, including a unique revenue-sharing scheme. There will only be six races—the 100, 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 meters, plus the 100-meter hurdles—with six women each. All participants will take home prize money, with $60,000 for the winner, $25,000 for the runner-up, $10,000 for third, $8,000 for fourth, $5,000 for fifth, and $2,500 for sixth. 

Those may sound like small sums for professional sports, but they’re positively eye-popping amounts of money in track and field. The Diamond League, track’s premier circuit, pays just $10,000 to race winners, and $30,000 at its final meet of the season. Ohanian said it was “wild to see the announcement from World Athletics,” in which track and field’s governing body said it would be making its first-ever cash payments to Olympic gold medalists this summer in Paris.

At the 776 Invitational, 10% of all event revenues will be pooled and split evenly among all the athletes, an arrangement he compared to giving start-up employees equity in a company. That way, “even the most junior employee has skin in the game,” he said. (He added it was incumbent on him and the meet organizers to create an event compelling enough that the athletes were genuinely enthusiastic to discuss it on social media.)

The location, precise date, and full slate of competing athletes have not been announced yet. Austin-based sprinter Gabby Thomas, who won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics in the 200 meters, will be competing; she helped Ohanian come up with the idea for the meet.

At the Business of Women’s Sports Summit in April, Thomas recalled Ohanian asking her, “Can the track be laid out like an F-1 circuit, so it’s not like an oval every time?” She told him that was a “terrible idea,” and Ohanian dropped it, but that’s the spirit he’s bringing to the event.

A year ago, he says, he began asking the top U.S. women in track what he calls “dumb questions” about how their sport works. “And what I found was just, embarrassingly cheap prize money,” he said. “It felt like women’s soccer in 2019, when I saw Megan Rapinoe’s team sell for three-and-a-half million dollars. I was like, ‘Someone is very bad at their jobs’ if that’s all they’ve been able to monetize this with.” (The soccer team in question, the NWSL’s Seattle Reign FC, sold for nearly $60 million earlier this year.)

Thomas has publicly complained about meets being behind expensive paywalls, and Ohanian said that their event will be “accessible,” with an emphasis on “world-class entertainment.” 

Money is rushing into track and field right now as a sport that often struggles to be relevant outside of the Olympics. Investors are hoping to capitalize on both an Olympic year and a sustained post-pandemic running boom in the United States. Earlier this year, legendary sprinter Michael Johnson raised $30 million in seed money for a new track league to start in 2025.

Ohanian compared track’s current moment to where women’s soccer was ahead of the 2019 World Cup: a sport that gets “tons of attention every four years,” and one that is primed to break through otherwise. He joked that people are currently trying to invent other sports—“make fetch happen,” as he put it—while track is sitting right there, underfunded and ready for a cash infusion to make it soar. 

Ohanian made clear he’s not getting into the running business out of the goodness of his heart. Yet he’s also not cutting corners on this meet, promising a heavy investment in production in addition to prize money, and he does not anticipate making money on the first edition of the invitational. 

“In tech, in start-ups … I’ve always been very comfortable with the idea that if you focus on making something that people love, and you can draw the attention, you can draw the engagement, you can draw the interest in the short term, creating a profitable, successful business in the long term is very, very doable,” he said. “The most important thing is doing right by the athletes … when you do right by athletes, everything else tends to fall in line.”

Copy Link
Link Copied
Link Copied

What to Read

Teoscar Hernandez Wins $1 Million at Home Run Derby

The Derby is one of the most lucrative skill contests in sports.

Colombian Soccer Federation President Arrested in Copa Madness

The 71-year-old on the FIFA Council was arrested alongside his son.
Apr 29, 2024; Baltimore, Maryland, USA; Baltimore Orioles shortstop Gunnar Henderson (2) swings through a first inning solo home run against the New York Yankees at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

The Home Run Derby Has Become a Big Business Opportunity

New format, narrowing gap with All-Star Game ratings highlight the event’s importance.
Feb 18, 2024; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Western Conference center Karl-Anthony Towns (32) of the Minnesota Timberwolves shoots the ball during the first half of the 73rd NBA All Star game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse.

NBC Poised to Grab NBA All-Star Game Rights

The deal would be a major coup for the network.
podcast thumbnail mobile
Front Office Sports Today

MLB Draft, ASG Highlight Teams’ Shifting Approach


Featured Today

Jan 7, 2024; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Calvin Ridley (0) reacts after scoring a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans during the first half at Nissan Stadium.

Without Hard-Line Bans, Pro Athletes and Personnel Will Keep Betting on Sports

Penalties often aren’t stringent or consistent enough to deter banned behavior.
Oct 2, 2021; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goddell speaks during the Don Shula Celebration of Life at Hard Rock Stadium.
July 13, 2024

The NFL Is Confident It Can Overturn the Sunday Ticket Verdict

The league may have good reason to believe it can win.
July 8, 2024

NFLPA Report Cards Have Become the ‘Talk of the Locker Room’ Across..

NFLPA report cards have become the ‘talk of the locker room.’
July 7, 2024

The New College Sports Insiders Are Graphic Designers

Joe Tipton and Hayes Fawcett have become premier news-breakers on social media.
Jul 4, 2024; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees right fielder Juan Soto (22) reacts after hitting a two run home run in the seventh inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Yankee Stadium.

The $500 Million Juan Soto Question Lingers at MLB’s All-Star Game

Yankees superstar could attract second-largest player contract in U.S. team sports history.
Jun 15, 2024; Pinehurst, North Carolina, USA; Ludvig Aberg hits from the number eight tee box during the third round of the U.S. Open golf tournament.
July 14, 2024

NIL Has Made Many Golfers De Facto Pros Before They Leave College

Many young players have apparel and club deals.
July 15, 2024

Why This Copa Title Netted Argentina an Extra $10 Million

The 2024 prize pool nearly quadrupled that of the ’21 tournament.

TopSpin 2K25 Brings the Legends of Tennis to Your Living Room

2K sports is reviving a classic with TopSpin 2K25.
July 14, 2024

Carlos Alcaraz Starts Huge Day for Spain With Wimbledon Title

It’s a great day to be a Spaniard.
Jul 11, 2024; London, United Kingdom; Barbora Krejcikova (CZE) celebrates after match point against Elena Rybakina (KAZ)(not pictured) in a ladies' singles semifinal of The Championships Wimbledon 2024 at The All England Lawn Tennis Club.
July 13, 2024

Krejčíková Wins Wimbledon and $3.45 Million First-Place Prize

This year’s tournament had a record purse of $64 million.
July 12, 2024

Jalen Brunson Agrees to Give Knicks Stunning $100 Million Discount

He is sacrificing a staggering amount of money.
July 12, 2024

Copa América Gets Near-Ideal Miami Final After Sometimes Rocky Tournament

Argentina and Colombia face off Sunday evening.