There’s not a whole lot of news this time of year in track, but one thing that took up a bit of the pre-Christmas space was a discussion about the Millrose Games, led by LetsRun.com. You know the reason why this discussion is happening; pro-level indoor track in the USA has totally collapsed and the Millrose Games will no longer be held in Madison Square Garden (but USATF has created a new meet at MSG to take its place, so this may be a purely semantic debate).
I think it’s always useful to look at the present with data and other information from the past. So I’m in the process of collecting comprehensive data about attendance at domestic track meets over the last 50 years. (It’s time-consuming, but easier than you might think, as my closet full of Track and Field News goes back thirty years, and local libraries get me back another ten.)
Looking through the data (and the accompanying writeups), I can see when and how the US indoor circuit began to collapse, and more or less why, but just as interesting is that the domestic outdoor circuit was in pretty bad shape by the mid-80s if not earlier. Perceptive souls knew there were problems a long, long time ago.
These days, about the only two bright spots in track meet attendance are Eugene, Oregon, and the Penn Relays. Pretty much any home meet at Hayward Field brings in at least 5,000 fans and the Pre Classic and various championships are sellouts or darn near it. Penn’s attendance is huge, annually bringing in about 100,000 over the meet’s three days.
It’s commonly assumed that it has always been thus, that track has always been popular in Eugene and that Penn has always been a juggernaut. And you’d be wrong. In fact, these are only recent developments.
Page 165 of the Oregon track and field media guide lists home meet attendance totals at Hayward Field going back to 1984. (The Prefontaine Classic, being a pro meet, is not listed.) By the current standards at UO, it was pretty shabby through the 80s and 90s. Even the Pre Classic didn’t exceed 10,000 spectators until the mid-90s. Attendance at college meets only began to pick up in 2006, which is when Vin Lananna came to campus. Given his reputation as a bit of a magician in terms of promoting track, it’s no wonder that there’s greater excitement about track in Eugene now than at any time since Bill Bowerman’s heyday, maybe even more.
The Penn Relays are a different story, and on a different scale, but the same theme. While attendance has dropped everywhere else in the US since the 60s and 70s (save Eugene), Penn’s best crowds have almost all come in the last decade. 40,000 or more have come to the Saturday finale for 17 of the last 18 years, with the average being over 47,000. Surprisingly, between 1961 and 1990, the meet never had attendance over 40,000–the supposed “glory days” of track in this country. Not once. Average Saturday attendance during that period was just over 33,000.
Even more dramatic has been the growth of attendance on the meet’s first two days. Thursday has brought in more than 20,000 fans for each of the last eleven years. But it never cracked 10,000 until 1990, and was as little as 2,816 in the Olympic year of 1980. Friday attendance has similarly exploded, exceeding 30,000 for twelve years in a row. But back in the 60s and 70s, it was a struggle to get past 10,000.
What happened at Penn to so drastically increase its popularity? I have no idea. But a little 1996 TFN sidebar I stumbled across gave me a clue. Then-Relays Director Tim Baker’s frustration with University meddling (or so he perceived) led to his abrupt resignation in the months prior to the ’96 meet. Assistant director Dave Johnson moved up to the lead job, where he still is, and under his watch the average Penn Relays attendance has increased by nearly 50 percent, even while track’s popularity has plummeted nearly everywhere else. Johnson has presided over an amazing success story, and one that few people notice.
What’s my point? When it comes to getting people to go to and enjoy track meets, failure is not inevitable and success is not impossible. It takes vision plus a hell of a lot of hard work, but it can be done. Getting the right people in the right jobs and getting out of their way may be the most important part of the equation.