The changing world of track & field

I haven’t posted as much this week, and have abandoned the “Superfan Daily” schtick for a few days (it will be back tomorrow). I’ve been busy, and tired, and working on updating a few things. For example, I’ve added a page documenting domestic track meet attendance data and I’m working on updating the schedule pages.

And then there was a post earlier this week that got a bit more attention than I anticipated. Whether or not there has been any real animus between USATF and the Armory Foundation regarding the Millrose Games’ move out of Madison Square Garden, the two groups definitely have differing visions regarding that meet.

A blog post at the Runner’s Tribe by Kiwi blogger Daniel Wallis gets to the heart of the disagreement. Titled Lets Get Intimate – The Future of Track and Field?, Wallis contends that small and intimate is the future for the majority of track and field meetings.

These days if we want the mob atmosphere of a stadium we will watch the Super 14 rugby, Aussie rules or the NFL.

Track has the potential to take advantage of and become a niche, even ‘bohemian’ market. Small, intimate meets have significant allure and can cater to an audience more likely to be sympathetic to the history and unique attraction of track and field. Eugene, Oregon really is home to true lovers of track and field, and they are a far cry from the incoherently chanting, tobacco-chewing hill people that occupy Denver Broncos games. This is the mob that fills 75,000 people stadiums on a regular basis – it is also not what track and field should be trying so desperately to attract.

Rather, track meets must be small, sophisticated, and intimate. Imagine fixed-gear bikes in the parking lot, beer gardens, taking bets in a Moleskine – all while sitting on a grassed bank around the track.

“Small and intimate” is how you’d have to describe the new Millrose at the Armory. That may or may not have been the case at the Garden. I think USATF and others who decried the move out of the Garden were clinging to a past that is long gone, and Wallis would probably agree. USATF’s position is that they’re not going to give up on track at MSG so easily, and I can appreciate that viewpoint as well.

While Wallis’ most noteworthy points are about how a small ITM held on a grass track (as a necessity due to earthquake damage at Christchurch’s stadium) was a better experience for athletes and fans alike, his main thrust is that “as each city is unique, each track meet must be unique and specific to a particular audience if the sport is to survive.

I think this is exactly it. Think about track and field as a whole. If there is one word that best describes our sport, it is diversity. We bring together more different kinds of people from more different places than any other sport in the world, even more than soccer. No other sport puts athletes on the same team who weigh more than 300 pounds and less than 100 pounds (and, in things like the VISA Championship Series, they are in direct competition with each other).

Track meets can only thrive on diversity. No meet director should try to make his or her meet just like someone else’s. Monaco’s Herculis and Zurich’s Weltklasse are very cool. But so is Donetsk’s Pole Vault Stars and the Czech High Jump Grand Prix series. A tiny meet in a remote Finnish town can be great, too.

The point is that modest success is still success. I will never say that track and field is incapable of being popular. But what I will say is that we must exploit our niche.

Could track again fill Madison Square Garden some day? I don’t know. I do know that if you’re going to try, we have to nurse it back to health again. To me, that means many smaller and successful meets, rather than one big giant event.

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One Response to The changing world of track & field

  1. runbei says:

    Excellent. Reminded me of an SI article by Bil Gilbert (correct spelling) on Dec. 25, 1972, “Gleanings From a Troubled Time.” It’s a classic, and it ends with a paean to small, local track meets.