Olympic sprinter Gabby Thomas speaks during a conversation with Alexis Ohanian, Principal Owner, Angel City Football Club & Los Angeles Golf Club, during the Business of Women Sport Summit in New York on Tuesday. (Elsa/Getty Images)

Alexis Ohanian Makes an Unprecedented Investment in Women’s Track

312
0

By Adam Kilgore

NEW YORK (Washington Post) — Alexis Ohanian, the billionaire co-founder of Reddit and husband of Serena Williams, had some questions for one of the fastest female sprinters in the world.

Already a co-owner of a professional women’s soccer franchise, Ohanian developed a sudden curiosity in women’s track and field last year. He reached out to Gabby Thomas, an Olympic medalist who figures to be one of the faces of the Paris Games this summer, and picked her brain.

“Can the track be laid out like an F-1 circuit, so it’s not like an oval every time?” Ohanian asked at one point.

In Ohanian’s recollection, Thomas replied, “That’s a terrible idea.”

Ohanian and Thomas kept talking, and his interest in women’s track and field led to a stage inside Chelsea Factory on Tuesday afternoon at the Business of Women’s Sports Summit. Seated next to Thomas, Ohanian announced an unprecedented investment in women’s track and field.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

In late September, about a month after the Paris Olympics, Ohanian’s venture capital firm Seven Seven Six will host the 776 Invitational, a meet with the largest prize pool on record for a women-only track event.

Athletes from the United States and abroad will compete for a total purse of at least $500,000, with $60,000 going to first place, $25,000 for second and $10,000 for third in a yet-to-be determined number of events. It is richer than most events on the professional circuit, men’s or women’s; gold medalists at last year’s world championships earned $70,000.

In 2019, Ohanian deemed women’s soccer an undervalued business opportunity and, through Seven Seven Six, started the NWSL franchise Angel City in Los Angeles. He views women’s track and field similarly: not as a cause, but a business opportunity.

“I never want it to be misconstrued as, ‘Oh, it’s because he’s a girl-dad or it’s because he’s Serena’s husband or it’s for charity,’” Ohanian said. “No, that’s what’s held this s— back. First and foremost, I’m here because I think it is great, and I invest in greatness. If it just so happens it inspires a generation of young girls, awesome. I want to keep investing across all these elements of sport, and the women’s game continues to be where there’s tremendous upside.”

The invitational’s location has not been finalized, although Ohanian said he has a venue in mind and that it will not be Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., which has hosted nearly every major U.S. track and field event in recent years, including the 2022 world championships and the U.S. Olympic trials.

Ohanian’s entry into track and field offers promise for a sport that struggles to gain traction in America outside of the Olympics every four years. For now, he is limiting his investment to only women’s events.

“I suspect there will be some people who will be a little upset on the internet that the biggest prize ever is going to a women’s-only event,” Ohanian said. “But I’m okay with that.”

Ohanian’s interest in track and field began when he watched an interview with sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson, who won the 100 meters at the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials before a failed marijuana test led to a suspension that prevented her from competing in Tokyo. Richardson shared that she had learned her biological mother died shortly before competing, which led her to self-medicate. The story resonated with Ohanian, whose own mother died while he was starting Reddit.

“In that moment, I felt like, wow, I can really empathize with this person,” Ohanian said. “I was like, she can smoke all the weed she wants. She was dealing with some serious s—. I instantly decided that day. I was like, ‘I’m a fan.’ ”

Ohanian immersed himself in track and field’s online culture. He viewed track as “an elegant, simple, amazing” sport that was easy to follow and exciting to watch.

“At some point, I was like, wait, this is just like women’s soccer,” Ohanian said. “I was like, ‘How is this is a sport people only care about in America once every four years?’ It doesn’t make sense.’ ”

Ohanian got Thomas’s email from soccer player Midge Purce, about whom Ohanian’s company is producing a documentary. Purce overlapped with Thomas at Harvard. As he considered his own event, Ohanian viewed Thomas as “just a perfect partner to launch with.”

Thomas became a global track and field star at the 2021 U.S. Olympic trials, winning the 200 meters in a stunning 21.61 seconds, then the second-fastest time ever at the distance. She won a bronze medal in the 200 meters in Tokyo and a silver in the 4×100 relay. At last year’s world championships in Budapest, having missed the 2022 worlds because of a torn hamstring, Thomas won silver in the 200 and gold in the relay.

Thomas has not won an individual gold at a major global meet, yet she will enter the U.S. Olympic trials in June and — most likely — the Paris Olympics as one of the biggest stars on the U.S. team.

“If you’re excited about what we’re doing,” Ohanian told her, “it will work.”

Thomas has been outspoken in her ambition to grow track and field and honest in criticisms of the sport’s decision-makers. Last week at a USOPC media event, she said the Diamond League “completely backtracked” when it signed a U.S. rights deal with FloTrack, an obscure streaming service that will charge viewers far more than previous broadcast partner Peacock. She also called for USA Track & Field to consider more diverse and easier-to-reach venues than Oregon for major events.

“I’m so excited to see what we can do with track and field,” Thomas said Tuesday. “I have such high hopes for our sport. I think we have something special here.”

Seven Seven Six has plans to broadcast the event but did not share them. Ohanian envisions a party atmosphere at the one-day event, with an infield crowded with fans, a musical act providing entertainment between races and a disc jockey beat-dropping the second runners cross the finish line. “Bring the energy of almost like a Coachella,” Ohanian said.

Ohanian has no solidified plans beyond September’s invitational, but he did not dismiss the idea of eventually starting a league or tour.

“I’m not a small thinker,” Ohanian said. “We’re trying to be ambitious here, but one at a time. If this goes as well as I think it will, and folks show up and show out the way I know they will, this won’t be the last. If folks show up like I think they will, [a league or a tour] sounds like a great idea.”

(This article originally ran in the Washington Post on April 23.)

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: