Bob Coll readily acknowledges he exists in a different environment than most.
The owner of the Eugene Running Company in Eugene, OR, Coll understands the euphoria that surrounds running in TrackTown USA and how that can benefit his 17-year-old store. Elite events at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, Olympic athletes roaming about, Nike’s history with the college town and a running-rich culture have long made Eugene one of the nation’s premier running cities.
And around the Olympics, Coll and his Eugene Running Company tend to turn up the heat. His store has hosted meet and greets with Olympic champions Bob Schul and Billy Mills Ð 5K and 10K champs in 1964, respectively Ð peddled USA-themed gear and shared information on the Olympics schedule and its athletes to drive interest in the sport.
But the big question for Coll and other run specialty retailers who have previously jumped onto the Olympics marketing and promotional bandwagon with both feet is whether to go for the gold this summer, or not..
“There’s no reason why we shouldn’t be piggybacking on excitement for the Olympics and the best athletes in the world,” says Coll, who operates the retailer with his wife, Laura, an accomplished long-distance runner who competed in four U.S. Olympic Team Trials herself.
But just how far to jump into the Olympics game this year Ð as the question of whether the Tokyo Games would even be held lingering into the summer as the July 23 opening ceremony inched closer Ð has forced retailers and brands to hedge their bets on Olympics-themed efforts.
Running Takes Center Lane
The good news: After a one-year delay and much consternation ignited by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics finally appear to be on pace for their late-July start.
For the nation’s running stores, the Olympics have historically presented a unique opportunity to cultivate interest in running, foster community and build energy for the sport. No other event after all Ð not the Boston Marathon nor the World Championships nor manufactured, made-for-TV showdowns Ð matches the mainstream appeal of the Olympics. This year, NBCUniversal plans to broadcast 7000 hours of Olympic coverage across its various properties and track and field, as has been the case in past Olympics, will be among the marquee sports beaming into American homes.
Though some run shops were understandably wary of devoting too much time, money and attention to events or offerings in their stores given the uncertainty around the Tokyo Olympics as 2021 unfolded, the event’s impending arrival is starting to stir up its typical excitement in the run specialty ranks.
“If we can lean into the Olympics as a store and get people more excited, then it makes the sport more approachable,” Run Detroit owner Justin Craig says. “And that can only help.”
As the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials approached in February 2020 Ð the last “real” track event before the COVID pandemic shut down the world of running Ð Run Detroit hosted a panel discussion featuring two Trials participants Ð local high school teacher Zachary Ornelas and Erin Heenan, a mother of two making her Olympic Trials debut Ð as well as Desiree Linden’s husband, Ryan Linden. About 100 attendees filled a local brewery for the moderated Q&A event in which panelists answered questions about daily routines and training while peppering in tips and encouragement to guests.
“Everyday runners sometimes see the elite athletes and think they must be aliens, but this humanized the athletes and built some hometown pride, too,” Craig says. “It was aspirational for the average person and I think everybody left that night feeling a bit more motivated, pumped up and excited to do their next workout.”
Every Olympic year, including this year, the Eugene Running Company tries to build on the buzz the Games generate for running. On June 22, the store hosted 1972 U.S. Olympic steeplechaser Steve Savage with a fun run and special event that included Savage telling stores of the historic Munich Olympics.
The Eugene Running Company is also leveraging the Colls’ personal relationship with U.S. distance runner Grant Fisher to share his story on the store’s Instagram page. Coll says these efforts help to build connections between everyday runners and the athletes they will watch on television.
“This is gives us authenticity and a genuine connection to elite-level running,” Coll says, adding that the social media interaction with Fisher, who boasts more than 15,000 Instagram followers, also brings new eyes to the Eugene Running Company. “We can cross-pollinate and build out our respective audiences.”
While run shops might not have such direct connections to elite athletes as the Colls enjoy with Fisher, Coll says retailers can nevertheless use Instagram to highlight different distance runners on the U.S. team in advance of their events or call out outstanding performances in a way that is accessible to a general audience. In fact, that’s something the Brooklyn Running Company will be looking to do throughout the Tokyo Games on its well-followed social media pages.
Hosting viewing parties for events like the Olympic Marathon or key distance races like the mile or 5000 meters offers run shops a way to bring running to the masses in a casual format. Such events provide socialization, of course, but also open the door to education, including conversations around issues such as race tactics, pacing and nutrition.
For the Olympic Marathon Trials in February 2020, the Brooklyn Running Company hosted a watch party at a local bar and the store’s marketing and events manager Steve Crnic anticipates streaming races from Tokyo in the shop later this month.
During the 2016 Olympics, Run Detroit had two screens streaming competition from Rio in its store and Craig is considering a larger-scale watch party this time around.
“I think such events help to build a stronger community,” he says. “If we are going to get people energized and bring new people into the sport, then taking away some of that elitism is important.”
Stores might also turn customers from spectators into participants with challenges, races and other special events that capture the Olympic spirit.
Hyping the Games
In conjunction with the 2016 Olympic Trials, the Eugene Running Company and ASICS teamed up to host an interactive track and field experience for children. The group took over a parking lot near Hayward Field for youth to engage in track and field-themed games such as throwing a soft javelin and running the 30-meter dash on a synthetic track. Participants also received bounce-back coupons to the store, which sits about two miles from Hayward Field.
On Aug. 8, the final scheduled day of the Tokyo Olympics, the Brooklyn Running Company will host the annual BKLYN Mile. Crnic hopes the hype of the Olympics spurs even more energy for the popular road race.
“We’re excited about giving people the chance to compete on the roads in Brooklyn while simultaneously being inspired by the magic happening on the track in Tokyo,” Crnic says.
And even if its local runners will not match the performance of those in Tokyo, they can at least look patriotic doing it. Numerous running stores across the country have been promoting red-white-and-blue gear from the likes of Brooks, Mizuno, goodr and Swiftwick of late, including iRun LOCAL in Saratoga Springs, NY, Fleet Feet Huntsville and North Carolina’s Run N Tri Outfitters. At the Eugene Running Company, Coll will soon roll out Nike’s Team USA kit.
“There is patriotic gear that any store can leverage to get into the Olympic spirit and tap into American pride,” Coll reminds.