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Making Track More Accessible to Fans, Aspiring Pros

Published by
Coach Matt   May 26th 2011, 6:01pm

*Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of RunnerSpace.com as a company.


Recently, Jesse Squire (aka @tracksuperfan) made a case for himself as an unqualified and uninterested applicant for the currently vacant USATF CEO position. You can read part 1, part 2, and part 3. As I began commenting on part 2, I got a little long-winded and realized my response was more of a blog in and of itself than merely a comment on his blog. So, to throw my hat in a ring as a similarly underqualified and uninterested applicant to be an assistant to CEO Jesse, here are some of my thoughts on how to improve track meet schedules and promotion.


Olympic Trials Marathon Playoff

Great idea with the Olympic Trials marathon (part 3). Americans like playoffs (see NBA playoffs lasting two months), so why not make the Olympic Marathon Trials utilize that system a little bit. Have a qualifying standard that will allow approximately the top 50 to qualify automatically, with a time to have been run within two years of the date of the Trials. Also give an automatic berth to the top 3-5 in each year's annual US Marathon Championships. Then, the next 100 spots are open for advancement through the playoff.

Begin in year one of the quadrennium with all entrants paying their entry fees. Have one designated marathon per state that will qualify the top 50 from each race for round two. (Sorry, if you weren't in the top 50 of your race, even if you would've beaten the winner from another race, you don't have a shot at the top three overall at the Trials, anyway.) The set-ups of the course wouldn't matter (hilly, altitude, etc.) because it is based on the placing at each marathon and not the time. Also, each participant has the opportunity to "choose" their next marathon.

There should be an incentive where perhaps the top five from each race get hotel/airfare/entry paid to round two, #6-10 get a hotel and entry fee paid, and #11-50 get entry fee paid. There would then be 10 designated marathons in round two (year two of the quadrennium), from which the 2500 "qualifiers" get to choose to attend. There must be a minimum of 200 "qualifiers" in each race and no more than 300 at any one location. Spots are filled on a first-come first-served basis, and then based on a second-choice, third-choice, etc. option based on date of receipt of application.

From the 10 races, the top 50 would again advance to the third round (third year of the quadrennium). The remaining 500 would then choose between four marathons with a minimum of 100 and no more than 150 "qualifiers" per race. Again, expenses would be paid based on finish position from the previous round. From these four races, the top 25 from each race would qualify for the Olympic Trials Marathon. This would create a total of 64 "Trials Prelim" races, which as was mentioned in Jesse's blog would create greater marketing, funding, etc. But also what a great opportunity for 2500 people to feel like they have a chance to be part of the Olympic process in just this one event! And it is a system that would only require one marathon per year (hardly over-racing to get to the Championship).

A side-benefit of this would also be that athletes would be more able to focus their training on a year-by-year basis rather than having to think about "the next four years" as a daunting task. A four-year plan is often a deterrent for many athletes who may have job/family obligations, whereas a year-by-year approach can seem much for feasible. Fewer deserving athletes would get lost, greater competition would ensue, and perhaps Americans could become consistently relevant again on the world/olympic stage.


Track & Field Advance by Place

Though this could be a little more difficult with track and field (with so many other requirements for collegiate seasons, etc.), there could be a similar system put in place to reward perhaps 2-3 athletes per event with an opportunity to advance into the Olympic Trials (and US Championships) based on a win and not necessarily time. After all, we cannot expect our athletes to succeed in an advance-by-place system if we get them to a meet solely on an advance-by-time system.

Perhaps designate a couple meets (FL/TX Relays for sprints, Stanford/Mt. Sac for distance, and Pre/Adidas/NCAA winners) as places where winners advance automatically to the US Championships. (Or the "semi-pro US series detailed below.) If that person has also already qualified by time/distance, then no replacement is named. It will add a little more interest to average Joe, even if for track officianados the result is anti-climactic (Announcer: "The winner of this 100m will advance automatically to the US Championships!" ... Average Joe: "WOW! This will be cool!" ... Track officianado: "All 8 of these guys have already hit the 'A' standard.")


US Indoor Meet

As somebody who has attended this, may I say that it is largely a bust. Thank you to the few big-timers who were in attendance this year (Rupp, Lagat, Phoebe)... but where were Solinsky, Lomong, Gay, and many others? Finding a way to get better attendance by the pros is beyond me, other than finding a way to make it more financially lucrative. But Jesse's idea of moving the meet to be one week later so as not to conflict with nearly every College Conference meet is spot on.

First, it definitely hurts from the competing viewership standpoint. Secondly, you lose A LOT of quality competition by not making it possible for collegiate athletes who have qualified to compete. Just think of any meet, and how watered-down it would be if you took a quarter of the people who have qualified and scratched them from the meet. Empty lanes and poor competition ensues.

To further the point of Jesse on this being a sanctioned "last-chance" meet, think of how much more exciting it would make the US Championships... now you won't just have a bunch of pros compting for a little extra cash, but you will have some college kids mixing it up trying to steal their thunder. Perhaps even the prize is vacated if a college kid wins and it isn't passed down the line to the "first pro" (hey, saves some money and incites more competition!). Or perhaps the prize money is donated to the winner's school in the form of an academic scholarship. I'm sure athletic departments would love to smooth over any academic hatred with a "free donation" while simultaneously touting their US National Champion.

To the fan, the idea of college vs. pro is terrific! Think of Auburn or Oregon playing against the Detroit Lions and how much fun that would be to watch! (Unless you are a Lions fan.) Additionally, in the distance events, you often get tactical sit-and-kick races. Having it set up as a "last-chance" meet would almost assuredly eliminate that and provide a greater opportunity for fast times, which again is what average Joe likes to see: RECORDS!


Event-Specific Meets

Regarding the marketability of meets, especially for TV but also for getting viewers into the stands... One of the most over-hashed problems with track is "long, boring" meets. I think the meets referenced in Jesse's blog (Oxy distance, sprint meet in FL, and throws in AZ) are hitting on something more people should consider following: EVENT-SPECIFIC MEETS! Or, even better yet (in my mind), imagine how fun it would be to have a "sprints weekend" followed by a "distance weekend" followed by a full track meet like Oregon Invite, Miami Invite, LSU Invite, Texas Relays, etc.

I think the amount of "buzz" created around each weekend could be greatly improved because everybody knows that the sprinters are competing on this weekend, or the distance runners are all gearing up toward this weekend, rather than everybody wondering who is taking what week off and who is competing this weekend, etc. There is no consistency, therefore there is no marketability or interest. We don't necessarily know when College Star A will be competing next, but we know that LeBron is going to be competing every-time his team is on the schedule. (That's why any away game for the Miami Heat is a higher-priced ticket.)

If you set up a college meet system that mirrors what most coaches do anyway (instead of setting up the schedule and making each coach piece together their season plans) you are much more likely to be able to know how to follow your favorite athlete. ... and perhaps even easier to then create some sort of fantasy track team system online, opening up our sport to an entirely new set of  fans.

Along with some of those benefits, I think a schedule of this nature would also help alleviate several other problems college coaches have. First, it would reduce the number of meets required to take a full team to; instead of competing every weekend (as is generally the case) it would only require the equivalent of a full team competing two of every three weeks. Pardon the rough calculation, but it could potentially reduce budgets by a third.

Or, since athletic departments are notoriously terrible at saving that money under their primarily use-it-or-lose-it mindsets, this would allow the small programs the opportunity to travel a little farther with some of their deserving athletes to "chase times." ... And from an "US against the World" perspective, fewer races within the collegiate system could also allow for greater ability to succeed in late-summer races and a greater chance of being able to develop athletes long-term.


Better US Pro/Semi-Pro Meet Series

As far as creating more pro/semi-pro meets, why not look to something like the Tour de France as a way of marketing a meet or series of meets. Perhaps an annual event could be created for a week of road races of varying length of 10-25k with a 5k time trial in the middle. Most of the races would be tactical, and therefore you could 'possibly' get some of the bigger names to come do this as a part of a hard week of training. If all these runs were in the morning, how hard would a 25k really be for somebody eyeing the week-long prize (assuming you'll have one or two athletes make breaks each stage like in bicycling); it may be a 12-mile tactical run followed by a three-mile progressive effort... many athletes could do something like this on a daily basis for a week without any deleterious affects.

To do this for track athletes, set up a system where athletes compete twice in one week with a day or two between at one location so that average Joe gets to see them more than just once. This would also allow the athletes without as much money to travel the opportunity to compete twice at a quality meet with only one airfare (usually the greatest cost). Do this maybe three or four times during the summer, timed where the big-timers could possibly use it as a tune-up for Pre/Adidas/Europe, but where also the just-tryin'-to-make-it pros would be as well. That way, also, if a just-tryin'-to-make-it happens to run well enough to get into a Europe race, he is CURRENTLY in that type of shape, rather than having had run that three months prior at Mt. Sac.

Set up the meet schedule so that athletes could double (100/200, 800/1500, LJ/TJ on opposite days, etc.). Have a prize system set up like the Diamond League where a point system is in place and the overall series winner in an event gets qualified to the US National meet and cash or a contract. If it's a contract, sell each event to a sponsor and the winner of the series in that event then gains a contract with that company. Or, for a cash prize, do a similar thing with selling each event's naming rights and then splitting the cash evenly amongst the event winners. If there then becomes a bidding war over the right to sponsor an event, that just creates more cash for the winners (still split evenly, regardless of whether one event had a higher bid for naming rights).


I would love to hear feedback, and would now like to open the position of Assistant to the Assistant of the Aspiring-CEO, Jesse Squire. I'm now accepting applications of all who are underqualified and uninterested.

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