On Friday night, USATF held its distance-only High Performance Meet at LA’s Occidental College. It was webcast live at both Flotrack.org and Runnerspace.com, and the turnout looked pretty good. The webcasts were well done, with post-race interviews that lasted just long enough eat up the wait for the next race. The meet moved along, taking about three and a half hours. The races were good, and the scheduling was tight and smart.
On Saturday, Arizona hosted the Tucson Elite Classic, a field-event only competition. In past years it was a throws meet, but this year they added high jump and long jump. It didn’t get the webcast treatment (field events are a bit trickier to do well on a tight budget) and I don’t know whether the presentation was fan-friendly or if there were many fans to be friendly to, but the results were very good.
On Twitter, SI’s Tim Layden noted that a sprint/hurdle-only meet would also likely be successful, and wondered if breaking up track meets into this kind of single area is the solution. I replied and mentioned Europe’s many jumps-only “Springermeetings” and throws-only meets such as Germany’s Fränkisch-Crumbach (which Martin Bingisser calls The Greatest Little Meeting in the World).
I don’t think it’s the solution so much as a solution. The difficulties track and field faces are diverse, just as the sport itself is diverse. In fact, “diverse” is the one word that I think best describes track and field. The different events require a wide range of physical and mental attributes, and what little fan base we have is broadly diverse. I’d guess that the crowds of over 10,000 per day at next month’s state championship meet may be among the most diverse large gatherings you’re going to find in Ohio. So solutions to the problem of track’s invisibility in the media and public consciousness will naturally be widely varied as well.
Just a few days earlier, Track and Field News reposted a 2002 column by editor Garry Hill discussing the keys to a successful track meet.
So why is it that a select handful of meets [state high school championships, the big relay carnivals, USC-UCLA] are so successful? Why can they in one day draw more—in some cases many times more—fans than the NCAA or USATF Championships can in a 3- or 4-day run, even though the talent level is so much higher at the two nationals, and so much more is at stake?
The answer is a simple one: because the most successful track meets are more than just track meets. They’re social events. People go to them for the camaraderie they engender as much as they do for the competition.
When you see that in print, and think about the fact that people go to baseball and football games for pretty much the same reason, your reaction should be “well, of course”. The competition at those other things is real and it matters, but they’re gatherings too.
It’s important to remember that most track meets aren’t the state championship or the Penn Relays or a long-standing rivalry. How do you create a sense of a social event?
One way is to make sure there’s something else to do besides just sit in the stands. It need not be big. It can be as simple as a concession stand (which an awful lot of college facilities don’t have). We don’t need to put in a carousel like some major league ballparks have–that’s overkill available only to the biggest money sports–but when you move around, you run into people not sitting right by you.
Another thing you need to make it social is to not make it too difficult to follow what’s going on. We don’t do that particularly well in track and field. Sometimes, but not always. Friday’s distance meet at Oxy did this extremely well, albeit basically by accident. The purpose of that meet was very simple: to get Olympic qualifying marks. The races were real races, and the athletes were trying to win, but the need for qualifying marks added that extra something. Because there were only four distances and multiple heats for most of them, it was very easy to know the ‘A’ mark. In a standard track meet, there would be a whole heck of a lot more of them and it would change for every race, so you’d really have to pay attention. That’s not conducive to socializing.
In terms of television coverage, the same rule applies. I’ve said many times that if you can’t know what’s going on while watching it in a noisy sports bar, it’s a bad broadcast. Other sports have boiled down the essential information into a single graphic in the corner of the screen. World feeds of IAAF Diamond League and World Series events have done the same, and we need to emulate them for coverage of domestic competition.
One real advantage to a small meet that only caters to certain events is the finances. Eastern Europe has two different indoor high jump tours held in their equivalent of our high school gyms, where turnout is generally about a thousand, give or take a bit. That (plus sponsorship) can cover the cost of bringing in a dozen high jumpers a lot easier than it can for a hundred athletes spread out over a dozen events.
I don’t think all U.S. meets need to be small affairs holding only a few events. But I definitely think we need more of them. Done right, there’s no reason the USA couldn’t do meets like the Fränkisch-Crumbach Hammermeeting or Donetsk’s Pole Vault Stars. There’s no reason we couldn’t create our own meets like those, but ones that are quintessentially American.