Recently during an interview about the upcoming NCAA championships, Oregon coach Vin Lananna stated “I think for the sport of track and field, and for every sport, you need a home,” he said. “I think it would be fantastic for Hayward Field to be the permanent home for the NCAA championships.” While I understand the motivation behind Mr. Lananna’s statement, I don’t think he could be more off in his assessment.
Certainly it would be nice for Oregon to have the NCAA Championships as a “home” meet to go along with the Diamond League Prefontaine Classic. And if he gets his wish he will also get the dual with UCLA as a permanent home meet as well. But the question then becomes, who else gets exposed to top quality track and field if everything is held in Eugene Oregon all the time?
I think it’s great when a community has a meet that it can call it's own. Something it can take pride in, develop a passion for, and create a long standing tradition. Meets like the Prefontaine Classic, Penn Relays, Arcadia Invitational, and Texas Relays are examples of what can happen when a community embraces and identifies with an annual track meet. The results are something magical. As a matter of fact I wish there were more “community” based meets throughout the US. Because there is no better way to strengthen the fan base in this country than to present a great meet to a community. Which is exactly why Lananna is wrong about every sport needing a “home”.
Major professional sports understand just how important it is to use signature “games” to market themselves. That’s why the NFL doesn’t have a permanent home for the Super Bowl. Or why the NBA and Major League Baseball don’t have permanent homes for their All Star Games. Because they understand the value of parading their top athletes around the country and giving as many people as possible the opportunity to see their product up close and personal. It’s also why both the NFL and NBA play preseason games outside of the United States – to broaden exposure and work on the development of a global fan base!
Track and field used to understand this concept as well, as during the “glory days” of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s the majority of our top meets rotated throughout the country. The US National Championships and the NCAA Championships could be found in locations all over the country. Eugene, Sacramento, Knoxville, Los Angeles, Palo Alto, New York, New Orleans, San Jose, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Houston and Tampa are just a few of the locations where these major meets could be found. All hosted superb meets that were extremely well attended – and perhaps not so coincidentally the sport experienced a high level of recognition and attendance throughout meets all over the country.
Then we entered the New Millennium and some brilliant person decided that the sport would be better off if meets stayed in one place for a while. So both the NCAA and US Championships started to be “contracted” to single sites for multiple year runs. And perhaps not so coincidentally we began to see a rapid decline in attendance at meets throughout the country! Now obviously the decline of the sport in this country isn’t quite that simplistic. However, when the model of successful professional sports is to expand the reach of their signature competitions as a key marketing tool, I would think that a bit of imitation might be in order for a sport that has suffered throughout the past decade in this country in the area of attendance, recognition, and image.
It never ceases to amaze me that this sport will run half meets, hybrid races, retired professionals from other sports, and all other manner of gimmickry in an attempt to “attract new fans” to the sport. Yet cringes at the thought of doing something fundamentally sound like run a full meet with your best athletes and move it around annually so that people all over the country get to see you at your best! As my grandmother used to say, I guess that would just be too right.
I’ve said many times, and for many different reasons, that this sport doesn’t need gimmicks to gain a fan base. We just need to focus on getting our top athletes on the track (and field) and get them before the public! In the new sporting economy (something I’ll be talking about after the championship meets) getting a full complement of top level athletes together is extremely difficult. As a matter of fact, the only time this happens with any regularity any more is at our championship meets – NCAA, National Championships, World Championships, and Olympics – at the highest levels. Which is why these meets must be used as a tool to market the sport!
The global success of the Olympics (IMHO) is rooted in the fact that it travels around the world. Ditto for the World Championships. Here in the US we have taken the opposite approach by limiting the reach of the NCAA Championships and US Championships – and I truly believe we are suffering as a result. Those in charge of these meets shouldn’t be looking for permanent homes for these meets, but at a systematic rotation that would bring these meets before a wider range of the public. Rotating from Austin to Berkeley to New York to Eugene to Des Moines to Atlanta to Los Angeles to Boston to Greensboro to Phoenix over a ten year period for example would provide access to the NCAA meet to everyone all over the country. Combine that with a US Championships plan that would cover a different set of ten cities criss-crossing the country and I think we would truly begin to bring real exposure back to this sport.
Because what this sport needs is increased exposure – not limited exclusivity.