Is women's track the next sport ready to boom? Alexis Ohanian is betting on it


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Alexis Ohanian, at his first-ever track and field event, found himself transported. In seats close enough to feel the tension, he was back on edge, equally stressed and thrilled, as he used to be at Serena Williams tennis matches. Instead of a box at Wimbledon, this time he was at Hayward Field on the campus of the University of Oregon for last month’s U.S. Olympic trials. Instead of living and dying with his wife’s every serve and groundstroke, he was agonizing as Gabby Thomas made the turn into the final home stretch.

He’d never been to an NWSL match before buying and founding Angel City Football Club. So he didn’t need to experience track to spark his motivation to invest in track. But sitting next to Thomas’ boyfriend, Spencer McManes, he felt that feeling again. The gripping drama. The fierceness of the competition. The brewing of excellence.

“Seeing in person, it was a little bit of Grand Slam PTSD,” Ohanian said. “It was a fountain of stories, a fountain of storylines, a fountain of drama in those trials. So I definitely was spoiled to have that be my very first. But it also opened my eyes … and reinforced the idea this is a huge opportunity.”

If Ohanian, the founder of Reddit, knows anything at this point, it’s to bet on women’s sports. A massive quarry in the industry still scarcely mined. He proved it true with the creation of Angel City FC, that his instincts and the data were spot-on about the untapped potential.

To that end: Athlos, a track-focused extravaganza designed to aim the spotlight on sports’ hidden treasure. Confirmation of a hypothesis already proven.

Formerly dubbed the 776 Invitational, as it’s rooted in the venture capital fund Ohanian founded, Athlos — Greek for athletics — announced Thursday the kick-off of its inaugural event, at Icahn Stadium in New York City, on Sept. 26. A final chance to capture some of the magic before the Olympic fervor fades.

Scratch that. The potential is beyond question. Many of the biggest names in track are women. Sha’Carri Richardson. Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce. Athing Mu. Even Alica Schmidt, a social media star and middle-distance runner from Germany.

Gabby Thomas and Alexis Ohanian


Gabby Thomas and Alexis Ohanian speak at the Athlos announcement in April. On Thursday, Athlos announced its inaugural event for September 26 in New York. (Elsa / Getty Images)

Athlos’ first athlete inked is Thomas, who by the time Athlos NYC is launched, figures to be a household name. She is the quintessential figure of the bet Athlos is making. Because once you see Thomas run, once you come to know her — a Harvard graduate with the charm of an elegant breakfast spread, concurrently changing lives in the healthcare landscape while collecting precious medals around her neck — it’s nearly impossible not to want more.

Athlos NYC is a beta test on the possibility of women in track to capture the attention of America’s sports fans without the stakes of Olympic glory, purely on the talent and appeal of the athletes and the competition.

That’s the difficulty of track and field. It’s a hard sport to follow. Its great athletes are more like comets in the United States, periodically streaking across this atmosphere. Captivating. Majestic. Fleeting.

Track and field events are but carnivals of athletic brilliance. Hours of simultaneous feats in a multiplicity of disciplines. It requires some level of expertise to know where to look, to understand the contexts and drama, all of which are present in the most attractive ways. That’s what makes the Olympics easier to follow. Everybody already understands the stakes — either making it to the Olympics or winning a medal. Those goals are tangible and inherent.

The trick is going to be finding the allure without that golden carrot, leaning into the personalities, the rivalries, the histories, the competition. Few things are more purely competitive than track.

The belief is that investment and attention can make the seeds of track grow strong roots in America, with modern structure and operandi are applied.

“A lot of people,” Ohanian said, “are saying this right now about women’s soccer. A lot of people are saying this right now about women’s basketball. I really believe people will be saying this about track in three years, four years. That’s why I’m investing in such a big way today.”

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Gabby Thomas, Olympic 200-meter favorite, is firmly in the spotlight — and ready for it

The plan of Athlos is three-fold. First, simplifying. Not only is it limited to women, but the number of events will be trimmed to six, all of them in track: 100 meters, 200 meters, 400 meters, 100-meter hurdles, 800 meters and 1,500 meters. Thomas, the American queen of the 200 meters, is joined by Alexis Holmes (400 meters) and Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon (1,500 meters) on the roster of what will be 36 athletes.

Kipyegon is one of those gems of women’s track. At 30, she’s the No. 1 ranked woman in the world of athletics after breaking her own world record in the 1,500 in a Diamond League event in Paris this week. The two-time Olympic gold medalist is arguably Kenya’s greatest athlete ever.

The second part of Athlos’ plan is prize money. Winning an Athlos event will pay $60,000. Let’s put that in perspective.

The Diamond League, the sport’s premier league, pays $10,000 to meet winners in 14 events. It ups to $30,000 for the league final. World Athletics, the governing body of track and field, announced in April it would pay a $50,000 reward for Olympic gold medalists across 48 events. World Athletics also recently announced its Ultimate Championship, a biennial event kicking off in 2026 that will pay $150,000 to winners. Plus World Athletics pays a $100,000 bonus to athletes who break a world record.

So $60,000 for one event is significant, especially just for women.

Second place will earn $25,000. Third place: $10,000. Fourth place: $8,000. Fifth place: $5,000. Six place: $2,500. Ten percent of event revenues will go into a pool and be split among all participating athletes. Showing up means getting paid — a noteworthy paradigm shift in a sport that often costs its athletes money.

Money is the easiest part for a venture capitalist.

“All that takes is a will and dollars,” he said. “If that’s the top prize money, think of all the other athletes who cannot professionally do this sport. So how much are we missing in the array of talent? How much you’re gonna get, if we actually professionalize this a bit more. That just makes it appealing. And no one should be complacent with a $60,000 top prize. This is just a starting point and how we now work to build the infrastructure.”

The third part of the Athlos plan is to make track a big event. To spectacularize what it is inherently pure and simple. Athlos NYC plans to feature an entertainment headliner, a D.J., and a bedazzled broadcast presentation.

Ohanian isn’t alone in believing in the possibilities in track. Netflix just dropped its documentary “Sprint,” highlighting Noah Lyles, Richardson and the stars of the sprint world. Amazon has a documentary series out on Lyles and one coming on Norwegian middle-distance runner Jakob Ingebrigtsen. American sprint legend Michael Johnson announced the launch of Grand Slam Track, a new league focused on sprint and distance runners.

Macroscopically, it’s become the trend to mine for gold in lesser-excavated sports. The WNBA, NWSL, Formula One, the Tour de France — they’re all benefitting in some way from the industry’s current exploratory spirit. Perhaps because the investment required is far less burdensome than the saturated markets of the powerhouse men’s professional sports, such as American football and basketball. The entry price tag and necessary access are cheaper enough in “minor” sports to be more alluring.

What Ohanian is seeking to prove, again, is that women’s sports do provide returns.

“I’ve had a good run so far,” he said. “None of this is about what feels good or feminism. This is just data. More Americans, even to this day, are gonna watch the U.S. Open women’s final than the men. And, at a minimum, that means they’re both equally valuable.”

(Top photo of Gabby Thomas celebrating at U.S. Olympic trials: Andy Lyons / Getty Images)



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