World champion Josh Kerr keen to get youngsters turned on to athletics

The world 1,500 metres champion concedes the sport’s entertainment value is not what it once was.

Rachel Steinberg
Friday 19 January 2024 00:01 GMT
World 1,500 metres champion Kerr is targeting gold in Paris (Martin Rickett/PA)
World 1,500 metres champion Kerr is targeting gold in Paris (Martin Rickett/PA) (PA Wire)

World 1,500 metres champion Josh Kerr concedes athletics’ entertainment value has “fallen behind” other sports.

The 26-year-old Scottish athlete stunned overwhelming favourite Jakob Ingebrigtsen at August’s World Championships and now has his sights set on upgrading his Tokyo 2020 bronze at this summer’s Olympics in Paris.

Many remain concerned that athletics is falling out of favour with the British public, a predicament exacerbated by broadcast and sponsorship challenges and backed by evidence suggesting younger audiences are looking elsewhere.

Kerr told the PA news agency: “I would say we are doing what we can in terms of entertainment from an athlete’s perspective. We’re trying to create more rivalries. We’re trying to create more storylines, which I think we are doing better at, but we are a little bit behind other sports.

“A lot of it is about TV deals but I don’t really have much say or much knowledge of what’s going on behind the scenes.

“If I’m allowed to be in any of those meetings maybe I can have more of a say but right now I’m going to keep trying to make entertaining races and hopefully get good build-up and make people watch.

“That’s the best I can do right now. I’m not sitting here complaining about the viewership of our sport. I think sometimes you get what you deserve in terms of viewership, and if our sport isn’t exciting enough maybe some things need to change.”

UK Athletics (UKA) lost Muller, their title sponsor, in 2022 and failed to renegotiate a reported £3million-a-year broadcast deal with the BBC when it expired in 2020.

UKA has since secured shorter, multi-platform deals with the broadcaster, including its 2023 major events series, while the BBC in 2021 extended its agreement with World Athletics for five more world championships and also holds the rights to the Paris Olympics and Diamond League through 2024.

Some competitions have been shown live on BBC TV, but others have featured only on iPlayer, Red Button or the BBC’s website and app, sparking fears that a lack of visibility on flagship channels will contribute to a decline in athletics’ relevance – which some numbers suggest is a genuine concern.

The 2023 EY Sports Engagement Index, which considers both participation and how Britons engage with sports live, on TV and online, revealed that while athletics still cracked the overall UK top-20, placing 15th, it did not feature in the top-20 for the coveted Gen Z (18-24) demographic, who prefer basketball, boxing, MMA, and even badminton – although “running” fared better.

If someone says that's cocky, that's completely fine with me.

Josh Kerr

Kerr, who tries to treat the Olympics as “a regular day at the office”  has embraced his growing celebrity largely because it allows him to give young athletes “access to the information that’s needed for them to achieve their goals and dreams”.

His own ambitions are clear.

Ingebrigtsen walked away with gold in Tokyo, but the Norwegian was beaten by Britons in back-to-back world 1,500m championships, Kerr succeeding compatriot Jake Wightman, who sat out 2023 with a foot injury but is set to kick-start his comeback at February’s Maurie Plant Meet in Melbourne.

A potential Stade de France Olympic final featuring the three most recent world champions feels poised to become precisely the sort of must-watch TV storyline Kerr and his rivals are trying to write.

He added: “I am going to be in a position to be available for that medal.

“Everything changes every day. I might not be in this sport tomorrow. No one knows what is going to happen, so that’s my big goal. If someone says that’s cocky, that’s completely fine with me.

“They evidently don’t know me, and they don’t know what it takes to be an Olympic champion. That’s what I set in my brain. That’s the goal. Go out and get it, and if you can’t it’s OK.”

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