One thing I saw all weekend while following the USATF Championships was that the spectator turnout was awful. Look at all those empty seats on the backstretch! What an embarrassment!
When Friday’s brief thunderstorm with lightning caused the stadium to be evacuated, one wag tweeted Crowd evacuated into a VW van parked outside of Jethro’s.
Are these criticisms warranted? Was the turnout as bad as the critics claimed?
Two things to consider are the layout and structure of Drake Stadium and the weather. Drake is about 25% larger than Eugene’s Hayward Field and with all seats exposed to the midday sun. That sun was excruciating from Thursday through Saturday, and the fans that were there tended to cluster on the home side where some shade was available in the afternoons and evenings. Looking empty on TV (especially in comparison to Hayward Field) and actually being empty are two different things.
What about the numbers? What do they say? Better than you’d think.
There’s no way you could compare this weekend’s meet to an Olympic Trials. Daily attendance of 20,000 or more is the norm for the Trials (regardless of host city) and that’s because “Olympic” means something. Better is to compare to a non-Olympic year championships, and even then the year in the cycle has importance. So let’s compare 2013 to 2009 and 2005. (I would add 2001 and 1997 but I haven’t been able to find attendance data for those years.)
Des Moines attendance was not as good as Eugene’s, but it didn’t lag as badly as was generally perceived. The biggest difference was early in the weekend and the gap closed with each succeeding day. And on the whole, the turnout in Des Moines was better than that in Carson ’05.
The painful truth is that fan turnout for the national championships has not topped 11,000 in a single day since 1995 (and even then it was an anomaly), and topping 10,000 rarely happens outside of Eugene. Here is the data for recent non-Olympic Trials championships.
(Data from Track and Field News e-newsletter. No day-by-day or total attendance data available for 1997-2001.)
Creating the environment
Eugene has had a strong connection to track and field for maybe a century or so, but it really ramped up under legendary coach Bill Bowerman. He was a very good coach but his greatest stroke of genius was bridging the gap between “town and gown” to get the residents of Eugene involved in and interested in the track meets at Hayward Field. Few other US cities have ever had that kind of strong support for track and field, maybe none, and certainly none do now.
There is one thing, however, that everyone forgets when they talk about this history. They forget that the 1990s were not a good time for track and field in Eugene. Sure, maybe it was still a better time for track in Eugene than anywhere else, but it was definitely not like it is now. Attendance was down from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Interest wasn’t as keen as it is now. Few pros trained in the Pacific northwest. The Duck teams were good but not perennial Pac-12 champions and national title contenders.
All that changed when Vin Lananna was brought into town. The Duck teams are powerhouses again. You can’t go out for a jog without running into top professionals. There is year-round full-time promotion of track and field. And Hayward Field fills up, even for a freeze-yer-gizzard kickoff meet like the Oregon Preview. He knew that all of these things had to be addressed in order for Eugene to live up to its name as Track Town, USA.
If the idea of full-time year-round staff dedicated to track and field surprises you, it shouldn’t. Any individual pro sport based around a tour should expect the same from its host cities. An annual stop on the LPGA tour is held a half-mile from my house, and it has a full-time year-round staff dedicated to its organization and promotion. (It doesn’t have Nike money behind it like Track Town USA does, but it has Marathon Oil and Owens-Illinois money.) That staff, known as Toledo Classic, Inc., has also aided Toledo’s world-famous Inverness Club, host of six majors, in its planning and hosting of tournaments such as the NCAA Championships and US Senior Open. Toledo has become a nice place for a golf fan, and it hasn’t been by accident. It’s been made to happen by people who understand how professional sports work.
Des Moines has made no secret of the fact that it intensely desires to win a bid to host the Olympic Trials in 2020. They’d hoped to get it for 2016 but weren’t quite up to the task, at least not yet.
Does attendance at non-Olympic year championships have anything to do with winning an Olympic Trials bid? I’m hardly an expert, but I don’t think it does.
For one, it’s never difficult to sell tickets for an Olympic Trials. The only times the attendance at a Trials hasn’t bumped up against seating capacity were in 1984 and 1996, when they were held in gigantic Olympic stadiums. If anything, Drake Stadium is a bit small.
The other reason I don’t think it matters is what I read recently in a document produced by Mt. San Antonio College, the annual host of the Mt. SAC Relays. They are also interested in hosting the 2020 Olympic Trials. That document outlined some of the things that USATF considers when evaluating bids for the Olympic Trials:”big meet experience”, logistics, weather and facility. Attendance was notably absent. Of course, it’s possible that really is one of USATF’s criteria and Mt. SAC didn’t list it. While I haven’t dug too deeply, I haven’t been able to find any list of criteria from the organization itself.
The fact of the matter is that facilities and infrastructure are more important to USATF than a fan base. The two strikes against Drake Stadium are the long throws being held outside the stadium, and the lack of a proper warm-up facility. Track and field needs human infrastructure like Eugene’s to flourish and grow, but Des Moines really needs brick and mortar infrastructure.