Monday, November 29, 2010

The Abbreviated Track Meet

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - AUGUST 28:  Blanka Vlasic of Croatia prepares to jump in the Womens High Jump during the IAAF Golden League Weltklasse Zurich meeting at the Stadion Letzigrund on August 28, 2009 in Zurich, Switzerland.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)

This week, the Diamond League released it’s schedule of events for 2011. Once again featuring a series of “half” meets. A regular occurrence in the sport of track and field – and one that has become a pet peeve of mine.

A recent Track and Field News editorial on the inaugural season of the Diamond League discusses the editor’s reasoning as to why he feels it is difficult to contest full meets in today’s sport.

While there is merit to the rational that is put forth – a shortage of dollars with which to pay top level athletes in every discipline prohibits loading up every event with stars – I don’t believe that justifies the thought of simply eliminating some events based on “survival of the fittest”. Which in the language of the above editorial means that those events that “put butts in the seats” stay and the others are discarded.

Events put butts in the seats because of star level athletes, and the sport has no control over where those athletes will develop. The intermediate hurdles were a dead event until Edwin Moses came along. The 200 meters was stagnant for a decade until Gay, Spearmon and Carter ran 19.6’s in ‘06 and then Bolt broke the record in ‘08. And the popularity of the 800 has risen and fallen depending on the star quality of the athletes contesting it. High level of interest during the various careers of Seb Coe, Wilson Kipketer and now David Rudisha. Much less when Peter Elliott, Vebjorn Rodal, Andre Bucher and Djabir Said Guerni were on top.

Had those events not been contested during the “down” periods, we would never have had the opportunity to enjoy the rise of the aforementioned athletes. That’s part of the life cycle of this sport – just as every sport goes in cycles. Whether it be baseball, basketball, football, swimming or gymnastics, we see the rise and fall and rise again of various teams, individuals and events. And to say that we will only contest those events that “put butts in the seats” today is shortsighted in that it means that we then put no effort into the development of the other events.

If someone had decided that the high hurdles were more important than the intermediates the sport would have lost the careers of Edwin Moses, Harald Schmid, Andre Phillips and Kevin Young. And 2010 would have been without Bershawn Jackson’s outstanding season. Or if someone had decided that since we have the 100 & 400 there is no need for the 200, the sport would have lost the outstanding careers of Tommie Smith, Pietro Mennea, and minimized the careers of Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson among many other careers, both male and female.

So simply eliminating events would serve more to expedite the death of the sport, in my humble opinion, by systematically reducing the talent base of the sport. And that’s not the way to build your brand.

Even without the belief that the sport should contest those events that “put butts in the seats”, the other common reason that many people want to curt track meets in half is to satisfy television and in some cases what some feel is an audience that has a short attention span. Meets are too long, they say, to hold fan interest. Even though sports fans sit through hours of other sports like baseball, basketball, soccer, and football.

My belief is this, fans of any sport will stay and watch, or watch on television, as long as the competition is compelling and they can watch top level athletes compete. Fans watch hours of golf glued to the TV when someone like Tiger Woods is at the top of his game – and golf has minimal action. The Los Angeles Lakers vs. the Sacramento Kings will sell out an arena as long as Kobe is playing. Just as Michael Jordan vs. whoever was a sellout performance. The key to viewership in track, as with any sport, is simply a matter of getting your best athletes to perform.

So how do we address the abbreviated meet. Simple. As for the attitude of “survival of the fittest”, let’s just pay based on level of performance (which we already do to a degree). In the case of a full track meet, pay the athletes in the events that are “putting butts in the stands” top dollar -  but still offer the other events. It does two things for the athletes. One it gives them an avenue to perform, improve and showcase their skills. Two it provides the incentive that if they can raise their games and performances so that their event increase in demand, they will reap the benefits with increased pay. Creating a “pay scale” based on athletic performance and event popularity would not be that difficult to create. And what meet wouldn’t benefit by having Bolt v Gay in the “showcase” 200 (with perhaps Spearmon, and Edward for good measure), and Carter, Dix, Thompson, Bailey in a “secondary” 100 (guaranteed to go at least mid 9.9x if not high 9.8x)? I’m sure you could find enough “secondary” athletes to fill just about any event on the track or field – because most athletes enjoy competing and need competition to stay sharp.

As for television, why can’t we simply create a “window” for television and the fan that doesn’t want a full meet? Run “not to be televised” events before and after those that are planned for TV. Then in the middle you can run your “prime/showcase” events. TV has it’s events to televise, and the fan with the “short attention span” knows when to show up and can leave once the “hot” events are over. The rest of the the sport’s real fans will be treated to a full day of track and field bliss. A win-win for everyone concerned.

Of course you could improve the experience for everyone by setting up good food services, some live entertainment, and some interactive activities. Which might help entice the casual fan to stay longer and become more acquainted with some of the lesser events and athletes. The important thing as far as today’s topic is concerned , however, is that there is no need to chop the meet in half and bastardize the sport.

The truth is we need as many “full” meets as possible. Ironically the biggest and most exciting meets in the sport are those that feature everything – the Olympics, World Championships, various National Championships, the NCAA’s etc. The problem isn’t that track meets are too long. The problem lies in getting the athletes to compete. Frankly that’s become THE area that needs the most focus in this sport. We fix that and everything else will follow, including increased popularity, attendance and revenue.

1 comment:

  1. Case in point: the hammer is often ignored by the casual, or even avid US track fan primarily because it has few elite US throwers and is often relegated to a field "outside the camp", so to speak.

    The 2010 Prefontaine meet did include the women's hammer and I must say, it was one of the most compelling competitions of the day (among many world-bests that day), producing several world-best throws in a very tight battle. If I recall, the final order of finish came down to the last throw.

    I became a fan of the hammer that day!