>I haven’t been posting lately because I’m working hard on another project, a track website that should be ready for launch within a few weeks. Part of the research I’ve been doing for it includes a visit to the website for every D-I college track team and poking around. And I can see big differences between programs in how they approach the sport—and most of them are very, very bad. I would go so far as to lay a very large part of the blame for track’s downfall as a spectator sport at the feet of college coaches.
It’s important to acknowledge that, with the exception of baseball and hockey, colleges are the minor leagues of sports. I don’t mean this in the sense of athlete development (although they do assume this role), but in the sense that it’s the widespread and local means for average fans to see a reasonably high level of competition. For football, basketball, soccer, gymnastics, wrestling, swimming, and of course track & field, colleges are where you get to see good competition live & in-person if the professionals aren’t nearby and affordable. But with a very small number of notable exceptions, college track operates on the assumption that no one goes to meets for entertainment. It’s one thing to make sacrifices that cheapen a sport in search of spectators (think pro wrestling), but it’s another thing to ignore spectators altogether. And if you treat spectators like you don’t care if they come, they’ll oblige you.
The problem is that almost all college track coaches assume their sole job is to build a winning program. This is not true. Their job has three parts: build a winning program, build a spectator base, and build a donor base. This is the job description for a head coach in any sport. In reality, the first part of the job is only important in terms of helping to accomplish the other two. It’s an extreme minority of coaches who understand this fact. I can think of only one in the Big Ten, and less than a dozen others around the country.
In my research for my new website, I’ve found five basic things college coaches should do in order to develop a fan and donor base.
Use your outdoor track.
I’d estimate that at least 75% of outdoor track facilities are used for three or fewer home dates. That makes them the least-used facilities on campus. Let’s set aside any effect this has on relationships with the athletic director, who must periodically spend well into the six figures to resurface what is little more than a practice facility, and look at the effect on spectators. You can’t build a fan base if they never get to see you.
There several different facets to this issue as well. Vin Lananna knows that to create fans of your track team, it is necessary to create fans of track in general. When he was at Stanford, their Angell Field hosted a stop on the Grand Prix circuit and Stanford submitted a strong (but ultimately unsuccessful) bid to host the IAAF World Championships at Stanford Stadium. Since he left, they’ve gone back to the standard schedule of two or three college meets and that’s it. Now that he’s at Oregon, Hayward Field will be used for competition on twenty-six days this year. The Ducks always used the place, but even more now than what it was.
In large swaths of the country, being outdoors for several hours in March or April is not entertainment but punishment. Combine this with the mid-May end of the regular season and you’re looking at an awfully short window of opportunity to host a college meet. So don’t think so narrowly, and go outside the college season. The coach at an ordinary mid-major school simply can’t host a GP-style meet, but there are other opportunities: high school meets, all-comers meets, masters, Junior Olympics, and so forth. Anything to regularly get members of the community into stands at your track. Maine hosts some summer masters meets; Ohio State and Texas host massive state high school championships; Appalachian State’s track is the starting line of the famous Grandfather Mountain marathon.
It should be noted that many places which don’t use their outdoor tracks much do host a lot of indoor meets. That leads me to my next point.
Emphasize outdoor track over indoor track.
In college track, we’ve gotten to the point where indoor and outdoor are essentially treated equally. This is not as it should be. Track & field as a sport is centered around major international championships such as the Olympics along with the professional circuit. The sport’s two biggest stars, Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay, don’t run indoors. Sports fans know these things. So for your program to be taken seriously, it must be oriented towards outdoor stadium competition. Anything else is ultimately not in the long-term best interests of your program.
Make your event interesting to see.
Massive crowds at all-day meets aren’t unheard of, but they only happen at the Penn, Drake, Kansas and Texas Relays, where it’s often a social event as much as an athletic one. Even Kansas was having trouble getting people into the stands, and in response they developed the “Gold Zone”, a two-hour window of the highlighted top-level competition.
There are other ways to set up meets. Duals are great, because they don’t take all day and the emphasis on team competition. They also can be used to develop a rivalry, something sorely lacking in track & field. Pat Henry set up an interesting indoor schedule at Texas A&M this year; a dual meet, an 8-team scored invitational, and a 9-team meet that pitted three conferences scoring a tri-meet against each other. He always had something different for people to see.
Robert Gary at Ohio State has done great things this way. Both of his home meets are on the Big Ten network, and one of them, The Dual against Michigan, usually gets Brutus Buckeye and the Ohio State cheerleaders out to the stadium.
Develop community ties.
The genius of Bill Bowerman was not in his coaching. Make no mistake, he was very good, but so were others. Bud Winter was a great coach too, but San Jose has nothing to see for it today. Bowerman’s genius was in the way he drew the entire community into his track program. He managed to cross the gap between the campus and the lumber mills; he got people to enjoy working at and attending meets; he continually drew in the next generation with his summer age-group competition; he created the first adult fitness-running community in the country. As a result of these things, he guaranteed that Oregon track will forever be a strong program for the same reasons that Ohio State football and North Carolina basketball will be: the community demands nothing less.
Fortunately, the modern track coach need not start from scratch like Bowerman did. Every town of any size has a chapter of the Road Runners Club of America. Reach out to them and you’ve got a ready-made club of people who understand what your sport is all about. It’s puzzling to me that so few track programs do this. A small portion of the scoreboard at Michigan’s indoor track polebarn says “Ann Arbor Track Club supports Michigan Track” (despite its name, the AATC is a road-runners group). You’re not going to find that kind of relationship many places. High school teams and youth track clubs are other places a coach can mine for community relationships.
Give donors something in return.
Actively recruiting donors is something most track programs don’t do at all. Anyone who does it even halfway decently, though, has greatly increased his job security. And just having a button on your website that says “donate here” isn’t going to get it done.
Track fans such as myself hear tales of football boosters gone wild and they assume they don’t have the kind of money a college sport wants. This needs to be disproven. Ohio State’s Olympian Club, a donor program specifically for its men’s track & cross country teams, makes clear that even two-digit donations are appreciated. Furthermore, coach Robert Gary understands something that NPR and PBS do not: people want more for their membership than a tote bag and a letter of appreciation. They want to feel a part of something. The Olympian Club regularly has members-only functions, such as a pre-meet tailgate party, and members get special seating at the Jesse Owens Classic.
There are other ways besides a formal track booster club. Some track teams put on fund-raiser 5k races, but only Furman understands how to make it truly a part of the program. Theirs is in-season, ties in with a track meet, and includes a banquet (which allows support from those who don’t run the race).
Coaches need to draw in the community (and their dollars) by making them want to see the team and want to be a part of the action. These are taken as an unquestioned part of football and basketball. Track & field should see itself as just as capable, albeit on a smaller scale.