Meet track media monarch Ben Crawford

Image of Ben Crawford
Ben Crawford/Courtesy

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Who is Ben Crawford? It’s a question many have asked after stumbling upon Crawford’s once self-titled YouTube channel, which he recently renamed New Generation Track and Field in unity with his burgeoning magazine series.

Featured prominently in the channel’s videos are members of the University of Oregon’s cross country team, with frequent cameos by members of the distance running community from the University of Portland, the University of Colorado, Boulder, Cal and beyond. But Crawford, a senior at Oregon, is not a member of any of these groups; instead, the channel’s (now former) titular character is the man behind the lens.

In the summer of 2020, Crawford released a series of videos that offered YouTube viewers an authentic depiction of how D1 NCAA runners train, interact and pass the time, garnering more than 38 thousand subscribers in the process. Many of these subscribers aren’t runners themselves — as they readily admit in the comments section — but return time and again to observe the high jinks in which Oregon’s Cooper Teare, Portland’s Evert Silva and company regularly engage.

There’s footage of running, of course — and fast running, at that. But Crawford’s true goal with these videos isn’t to dazzle viewers with the mile splits that his buddies can drop. Instead, his primary intent is to shed light on the humanity of each individual runner in the pack, and in doing so, challenge the narrative that runners are weird — that they’re genetically mutated masochists who love to deprive themselves of unhealthy foods and oxygen.

“People see these Oregon guys doing what they’re doing and they’re like, ‘Wait, there actually are normal people doing this,’” Crawford says. “It’s not just guys who want to wake up at 7 am, make their vegan breakfast, use Normatec for three hours, go on their second run and then maybe watch TV. That’s so mundane and robotic. Under the surface, a lot of these guys just live normal lives.”

These normal lives are on full display in New Generation Track and Field videos. Footage of collegiate runners cliff jumping, talking trash in the midst of Spikeball tournaments and discussing their favorite musical artists pervades Crawford’s content, serving as proof that these runners are, indeed, relatively normal folks with just a tinge of insanity — rather than the inverse.

The vast majority of the clips used in Crawford’s videos take place during the summer of 2020, when several members of the Oregon cross country team lived and trained in Colorado. At the time, Crawford managed social media profiles and shot videos for Oregon’s athletic department. Between that and his time as a writer and photographer for FloSports in high school, he’d built a rapport with several runners on the team. And so, in May, he left for Boulder with a camera and a vision.

“I’ve always done photo and video stuff, so I was like, ‘Why don’t I just make videos of this and put it on YouTube? It’ll be fun and maybe it’ll grow.’”

And grow it did. On June 7th, Crawford released “Oregon Long Run,” his most-viewed upload to date. Featuring banter among several Ducks and — you guessed it! — footage from a high-mileage workout, Crawford’s camerawork captured carefree summer energy that drew in hordes of viewers. At the time of publication, “Oregon Long Run” has 270 thousand views.

“That video changed everything,” Crawford said. “I definitely started looking at things differently after that. I was like, ‘Ok, now there’s an audience, and people want to see this.’ And then we were filming almost every run after that.”

It was a long-awaited break for Crawford, who had already been involved with track and cross country journalism for years. In high school, dozens of prodigious members of the running community embraced him and his work. That said, he had yet to establish a following beyond this rabid niche audience that consumed his content.

But “Oregon Long Run” made Crawford a household name — not only in the national running community but in the YouTube community at large.

“I wouldn’t say it was life-changing, because I’m still getting up in the morning and going to school and doing most of the same things,” Crawford remarked. “But it changed my perspective so much because I’ve always wanted to try and change the sport, and then it was like, ‘Ok, I finally have something under my belt to show for it.’”

From that point on, the Oregon senior had a devoted fanbase. While The Athlete Special — a YouTube channel following the exploits of Spencer Brown, who is now a runner for the professional track team Brooks Beasts — was the first channel with an exclusive focus on NCAA running to find mainstream success, New Generation Track and Field (or Ben Crawford, as it was known at the time) quickly scored popular appeal of its own and rose to the top of the genre.

Crawford’s subsequent uploads consistently garnered at least 40 thousand views, and it was not unusual for them to earn triple that count or more. No doubt inspired by those numbers, several prominent figures on the distance running scene including 4-time NCAA champion-turned-pro Morgan McDonald started YouTube channels of their own.

Some might be bitter about others looking to repurpose their formula for YouTube success, but Crawford has an altruistic perspective as someone who wants the sport he loves to grow and evolve.

“It’s cool seeing all these other new running YouTube channels springing up after this summer, and I think for a lot of people they saw the success I had and they’re like, ‘Oh I can do that too,’ which is awesome because that’s what pushes the sport forward.”

In spite of his sudden success and relative fame, Crawford was far from satisfied with his contributions to the running world. But suddenly, the rug was pulled out from under him.

In late September, Crawford was fired from his role as manager of the Oregon track program’s videos and social media accounts. And, as if being fired wasn’t enough, he was barred from filming the team altogether. The Oregon senior’s employers were displeased with his summer video series because, as Crawford explains, he was not taking the proper channels before filming athletes.

“I was down bad when I couldn’t film videos with the boys anymore,” Crawford said. “I was bummed, and I was like, ‘What’s going to happen?’”

Crawford, who is devoutly religious, sought answers through his faith.

“I was like, ‘God, I have this idea for a brand, what do I need to do to start this?’”

Then, in December, an idea dawned on him.

“I went to film the Sound Running meet, and I was literally sitting on the airplane on the way back, just looking out the window listening to some J. Cole, and I was like, ‘Man, I had a good time and everything, but I want to change this, I want this to be a track and field world,’” Crawford recalled. “And then the next day I’m sitting on the couch at my house, and I’m just like, ‘What if I made a magazine? That’d be cool.’”

And thus the New Generation Track and Field magazine was conceived. Crawford sees it as an outlet that can make a difference in a time when sports journalism is becoming less concerned with originality and increasingly preoccupied with racking up views using clickbait titles.

As with his videos, Crawford’s central focus with the magazine is on authenticity and relatability: displaying the personalities of track athletes who drop wicked fast times but are at heart not too different from the average Joe. Beyond that, he wants to offer a physical media alternative in a digital world.

“I grew up reading the paper because it was just at my house, my parents are both kind of older, and that’s real stuff,” Crawford said. “It’s not some quick-fix article to get clicks, it’s not some bare-bones story of ‘This is what his parents did, this is how he was raised, now he’s doing this and he wants to do this.’ Great, dude, that’s sick, I could’ve figured that out by looking at his Instagram. We need to bring back real stories and continue to try to build the brand of these athletes and let people know who they are.”

Crawford is aware that his idea for a magazine may be perceived as ludicrous — he’s received several YouTube comments telling him as much.

“I’ll get comments on my YouTube videos like ‘Really bro, a magazine? Dying industry and track already has a small fanbase? You’re an idiot.’”

But in the face of these critics and through the grind of assembling a team of writers and publishing an independent magazine, he preaches patience.

“Even now it’s still a journey. I’m like, ‘Man, is this really going to work?’ But I know in the back of my mind I’ve just gotta be patient and give it time, it’s going to prosper. I’m a very religious person, and I definitely feel like I’m chosen for this in a way.”

In these words, it’s easy to hear echoes of a leader in a different domain: Kanye West.

“I’m a huge Kanye fan,” said Crawford. “I probably get most of my inspiration from him, just to do stuff differently and not be afraid to forge my own path.”

The parallels between West and Crawford don’t stop at their self-assuredness and emphasis on faith.

The Louis Vuitton Don made a name for himself outside the spotlight, producing hit tracks for Jay-Z, Talib Kweli and others before establishing himself as a rapper. Similarly, Crawford got his start behind the camera, enabling others to shine by handling less glamorous work behind the scenes.

Perhaps the most glaring commonality between them is that they’re both trendsetters. West’s seminal fourth album, “808s & Heartbreak,” was one of the most influential releases of all time, as it inspired the next generation of rappers to open up and be vulnerable through their music. In an analogous manner, Crawford incited a wave of running-centric YouTube content, which more closely resembles a tsunami with each passing week.

But don’t get it twisted: Crawford is radically different from the man who calls himself “Yeezus.” Just a few short months from his graduation, the Oregon senior won’t be a college dropout. Further, he doesn’t share Ye’s proclivity for controversy, which has been on full display since 2005, the year “Late Registration” dropped.

Crawford took some of the sting out of what was a cruel summer for most by uploading videos that offered insight into the life of a college track athlete, videos that resonated with runners and couch potatoes alike. In the winter, he overcame the heartbreak of no longer being allowed to film Oregon’s team and kept his fantasy of creating a track and field world on the path to fruition by launching New Generation Track and Field. So watch the throne: In this new age of track and field media, Crawford is king.

Ethan Moutes is a deputy sports editor and a columnist. Contact him at [email protected].