I do a lot with collegiate dual meets. I do rankings, schedules, records, all kinds of stuff. It’s not necessarily that I think they’re the best form of college track competition–meets like Penn and Drake and conference and national championships are amazing things to see–but I do think the collegiate dual meet is important and underused and needs a town crier. That’s me.

I see more and more people agreeing with me this year. Arkansas head coach Chris Bucknam: “We have to do more dual meets…this is the direction track and field should be going.” UCLA head coach Mike Maynard: “Invitational meets are killing our sport…scored competitions are the best way to showcase our sport to spectators.” And yesterday, Paul Merca wrote the best and most passionate argument for dual meets I’ve yet seen.

The arguments are that dual meets are fan-friendly and accessible to the average sports fan. You can tap into your ready-made pool of fans of each particular college rather than needing to create new track fans. The meets are held in a reasonable time frame, with a score and a winner and a loser, and times and distances and heights are of lesser importance. Instead of individual events being just a bunch of stuff that happens, each event is part of a coherent whole. Basically, the meet tells a story.

I agree with all of these arguments and they are the best reasons for college track and field to give greater emphasis to dual meets. They are built around passion and aesthetics. But I have some other reasons to add to the list, ones that are geared towards the bean counters rather than the artists.

Dual meets are, in a word, efficient. In many ways, they make greater use of what we have at hand.

How so?

Attendance at dual meets typically hasn’t been big since the 70s, but I think we’re looking at it from the wrong perspective. Rather than look at gross numbers, we should look at ratios. (Under this topic I’m getting at the economics definition of “efficient” rather than the colloquial one.)

Last weekend saw two of the great annual successes we have in attracting fans to track meets, the Penn Relays and Drake Relays. Penn had 111,284 fans turn out while Drake had 45,838, and Penn’s final-day attendance of 48,871 will probably be only exceeded this year by London’s “anniversary games” stop on the Diamond League. Next to these, the estimated crowds of 3,000 at Washington vs. Washington State and 2,800 at UCLA vs. USC appear puny.

But participation at Penn is huge. 233 universities and 1070 high schools were represented this year, plus pros and age-groupers. All told, there are probably more than 10,000 athletes competing (I didn’t count). That’s a quite respectable ratio of about 10 or 11 spectators to every athlete (but it’s compared to a three-day attendance total and so it includes some repeat customers). Per college team, it works out to less than 500 spectators per squad.

The WSU-UW dual meet had over 3,000 spectators out to see about 160 athletes on two teams. The ratios for this meet: about 19 spectators per athlete, 1,500 spectators per team. The numbers are similar for the 2,800 who came out to see UCLA at USC on the same day

It could be argued that, on a per-capita basis, these two rivalry dual meets were twice as popular as the Penn Relays. Penn is considered one of the resounding successes of our sport, and rightly so. I’ve never been to anything else quite like it. But more than a thousand spectators for a two-team meet should also be considered a success. There’s only one Penn Relays–it would be folly for anywhere else but the other already-established relay carnivals to even try–but everyone can have dual meets, and they can have several of them.

More Home Meets
Track and field teams typically have the fewest home competitions of any team on campus, with the average squad having just two or three home meets. This isn’t enough to develop a fan base, and the (very expensive) home facilities are vastly underutilized. This problem can be addressed with more dual meets.

The number of Division I track teams is more or less a constant, thus when each meet has many teams then the nation has fewer meets overall. If you reduce the number of teams at each meet, there are more meets. More track meets everywhere means more teams can have more of them at home.

(An added efficiency of more home meets is less travel costs, which can be significant.)

Dual meets take less time and less equipment and require fewer volunteers and paid staff than do larger meets with more teams and athletes. Costs are lower.

These aren’t passionate, pretty arguments. But they are yet more reasons that all but the very best big college track meets aren’t good for college track.

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