The attendance for last Friday’s Millrose Games has finally been made available, and it is bad. Very bad. “Crisis” is a word that has been used to describe the state of domestic track for decades, so it has lost some of its meaning. But if you care about track and field as a spectator sport in the USA, this is the worst sign yet.
While once an annual sellout, the Millrose Games has done so only twice since 1990. And it’s dropped off precipitously over the last few years. Take a look.
The very end of the chart, last Friday night, saw an attendance of 9,611. This is by far the worst attendance at the Millrose Games since the third incarnation of Madison Square Garden was opened in 1925.
Some historical context: we are on the fourth incarnation of Madison Square Garden, which was opened in 1968 and seats approximately 18,000 for track. The third opened in 1925 and seated about 16,000 for track. The second MSG was the site of the Millrose Games from 1916 to 1925 and supposedly had a capacity of 8000. For its first six years, the meet was held in a local armory and moved to MSG when its following outgrew the facility.
Dave Johnson, Penn history prof and director of the Penn Relays, tells us that the worst Millrose Games attendance at MSG III was 13,000 in 1945. The pre-1925 MSG II, despite its small size, jammed in more than 10,000 spectators on several occasions.
Quantitatively, this is the worst Millrose attendance since 1925. But qualitatively, looking at attendance as compared to population and availability of seating, this is flat-out the worst since the meet became anything more than a club activity. Weather can take the blame for part of that, but not all.
The previous “modern” record for low attendance was set last year, at 11,510. That broke the record of 11,543 set the year before that. The record before that was from 2003, which saw an unannounced turnout of approximately 12,000, and that broke the 2002 record of 12,245. In fact, since World War II ended, Millrose had never seen fewer than 15,000 in attendance until 2000, which it has reached just once since then (in 2001).
Why does attendance at Millrose matter? For a lot of reasons. First of all, it’s one of our best opportunities to get people into the stands. There were an awful lot of years in the 1960s, 70s and 80s where Millrose had a better turnout than the NCAA or AAU/TAC outdoor championships, and it’s still true when those meets aren’t held in Eugene or Des Moines.
Secondly, it’s one of our few immediately recognizable names. I would say only the Penn Relays has better name recognition among track meets. It’s about the only track meet you are likely to see on a TV screen at a sports bar.
Thirdly, it’s our best opportunity to make an impression in the media capital of the world (yes, there’s a Diamond League meet in New York, but its location and lack of history lowers the media interest). To an awful lot of important people, if it doesn’t happen in New York (and specifically Manhattan) then it doesn’t happen at all.
Why is the attendance down? Overall track interest is down, of course. And the city had been hit with a huge storm a few days earlier. Suprisingly, the area’s large Jamaican-American community did not come out to see their athletes run in the sprints. It’s also possible that longtime meet director Howard Schmertz’s passing severed some productive community ties.
But I think the biggest culprit is that for quite a long time the meet hasn’t been worth going to. This has probably been masked by interest in Bernard Lagat’s pursuit of the career record for Wanamaker Mile victories, which he tied two years ago and broke last year. Those were still the second- and third-worst attended meets ever, which gives you an idea of the problem. New meet director Tom Jordan brought us a better meet this year, but how many people know it?
Of course, in America we know that you can sell a bag of shit and at a big markup if you’ve got the right marketing. The Armory Foundation might not have the money to do it, but it’s got to be done somehow in order to reverse the trend. Track and field in the eastern US and maybe the whole country is riding on it.