The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

What’s Wrong With Track?

May 15th, 2012
12:35 pm PDT

Empty StandsMore often than not, that question comes up whenever I talk to people about the sport. And lately, I’ve seen lots of articles on the sport that are raising the same question. Even professional athletes are starting to ask that question – some commenting recently that they know they’re in a “dying” sport! When athletes start making statements like that you have a problem, because they are the heart of the sport.

Personally,I don’t think there is anything wrong with track – it’s arguably one of the most exciting sports out there. It’s not like you go to a track meet and are forced to watch teams take turn playing catch for hours with the occasional crack of a bat breaking up the monotony. Or follow groups of men (or women) chasing a tiny ball all over a “park” while they try to hit it into a hole with a little stick. Yet those sports get TONS of TV time and their athletes average millions of dollars in their contracts!

We have some of the most awesome athletes on the planet. Athletes flying down the track at breakneck speed with and without barriers. Athletes leaping the length of several cars and vaulting over two story buildings. We have strength, speed, agility. Our athletes literally run faster, jump higher and throw farther than any other athletes on the planet. Races on the track have the ability to literally bring people out of their seats. So, why are our stands empty, and why can I count on my fingers the number of major televised events we have each year – and major US meets on one hand?

The most common excuse I hear is that meets are too long. Yet people sit in the stands, and in front of their TVs for HOURS to watch baseball games, and football games. Often going past midnight on the East Coast with work looming the next day. Same with golf where those attending in person don’t even get to sit, instead having to follow the athletes around for hours on foot! No, time is NOT the the issue, just a convenient excuse.

This past weekend’s Texas high school championships was one long meet – and the fans were riveted to their seats. Here in California fans will arrive hours before our high school championships looking for a good seat – no matter how hot it is. I watched the SEC championships online for several hours on my tablet. People will spend all day at the Olympic Trials and the Olympic Games. Why? Because of the quality of the competition!

You see, if you talk to anyone that’s been to a really good track meet, they found it exciting, fun, and full of memories – and never thought about leaving early. The problem isn’t track. It isn’t the length of track meets. The problem has nothing to do with the sport as a sport, because when done right it’s as entertaining as any sport out there. The problem is the sport at the professional level has lost sight of what makes the sport great – competition!

The meets I listed above were from three different levels – high school, college, professional – and all are equally exciting! The times and distances are different, but in each case the results aren’t as important as the depth of competition. Because that’s what you see before your eyes become riveted on the stadium clock – the competition. It’s the competition that creates the “oooo”, “aaaaahhh”, and “whoop whoop” moments – and makes people pop out of their seats. It’s the competition that creates the memories. When people email me asking if I have a copy of this race or that race it’s because of the competition! And unfortunately nearly everything this sport does at the elite level is anti competition.

The false start rule is anti competition. It’s about getting rid of people for all the wrong reasons, not about fairness in competition. The whole “pay structure” of the sport is anti competition. It’s about paying one or two athletes per meet a king’s random while not retaining enough money to provide them, or the rest of the meet’s events with suitable competition! Which is why championships draw huge crowds, but no one goes to the other meets – the stands are always sparsely populated. It’s not rocket science people, championships guarantee outstanding competition, other meets are hit and miss – mostly miss. People will go and spend all day at a GOOD track meet. They won’t go to see poor competition. Even if you cut the meet in half and make it half a meet with poor competition – because it’s NOT about the time. And poor means sub par – as in don’t give me the guys sitting at 15th and 30th on the yearly list when I know much better is available. Don’t give me ads and commercials with WR holders and gold medal winners then expect me to go watch the ones that maybe got out of the quarterfinals. Fans consider that wasting their time and a rip off.

And speaking of time, televising a meet shouldn’t be that difficult time wise. Simply plan for a televised “window” of events – those events that you feel the public would find exciting – and show them LIVE. Yes, I said live, because as any sports fan knows once you have the results it sort of takes away from the “game” itself. Besides, not only are the results available live, but videos are usually available shortly afterwards on YouTube and other sites. So show your most exciting events live – as they happen. Then make the rest of the meet available online! To “tape delay” track meets for weeks simply insults our intelligence – as does a half day or day delay of Olympic and World Championship events!

Of course if ALL of your events are exciting creating a television window becomes a moot point. Whatever you televise will be of high caliber and exciting. That’s why Doha was such a big deal – great competition in a non championship meet. Track fans nearly lost their minds – because that’s become the rarity instead of the norm! You see, only in professional track and field can you have two stars the caliber of Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay and in four and a half seasons they’ve met only three times in the 100 and ZERO in the deuce – they haven’t run against each other in a deuce since 2007! Look at what’s happened to the NBA All Star Game Slam Dunk Contest – it’s DIED without the stars of the NBA taking part, and is in danger of being dropped! Can you imagine what would have happened to the NBA if Magic and Bird didn’t play against each other for half a decade? Or if Kobe and Lebron didn’t go head to head from ’07 to now? Of course you can’t, in large part because no other sport would allow it to happen!

But track and field does. Even as the sport sits at the edge of the grave with one foot on a banana peel, the powers that be are convinced that spotlighting and marketing a handful of athletes will not only prevent the impending death, but foster growth. Never mind that it’s that philosophy that has put us in such a comatose state. This sport believes that focusing on a handful of stars and running them against inferior fields will fill stands. You want irony, take a look at Doha and the men’s 100 where Justin Gatlin and Asafa Powell were in one of the most anticipated and exciting races of the meet. When they were the two stars of the event – gold medalist v WR holder – no amount of money could get them together on the track! That’s the same philosophy that’s kept Bolt & Gay apart for most of the last half decade. Funny that we saw them almost weekly in the deuce in 2006 & 2007 – before both blew up into stars of the sport. Once they blew up is when we really needed to have them going at it – spotlighting the real strength of track and field, intense, superior competition! Unfortunately success in this sport means a reduced competitive schedule and requests for hugely increased appearance fees – which means fewer meets can afford you anyway!

So on the one hand professional track and field puts all the emphasis on a small cadre of stars, then on the other hand fails to deliver them to the track in competitive situations! That would be the equivalent of baseball holding out it’s top pitchers and home run hitters until the playoffs – and then only playing them in the final series deciding game! You see how long baseball or any other sport would last with THAT strategy. That is what is wrong with our sport.

We don’t need to cut meets in half. We don’t need to have carnivals, bands, or other forms of
entertainment to get people to the stadium. We simply need to have our top athletes competing with regularity in our meets. We need to focus on matchups and competition and less on individuals and records – because frankly if you get the right people competing records will come. People can call me old, stuck in the past, a traditionalist, or whatever, but this sport needs to get back to what made it great. Why small towns like Modesto, Fresno, and yes Eugene, became world wide names. And why traditions like street bbq’s on the way to the stadium in Fresno became popular – hint, because you had to park at least a mile away from the stadium if you didn’t get there a couple hours EARLY!

All that happened because those meets, and most meets, had fields like Doha. Because once upon a time fields like Doha were STANDARD and everyone knew a track meet was going to be an exciting experience! That’s why once upon a time you planned your whole DAY around a track meet – you packed a cooler full of food and drinks and decided what place you were going to for dinner afterwards! That’s why people used to car pool from one end of California and back – for the weekend!

You see there’s NOTHING wrong with track – it’s the professional presentation of the sport, or lack thereof. To quote Bill Cosby from an episode of “The Cosby Show”, it’s like serving a steak dinner on a garbage can lid – it’s all about the presentation. Because even a filet minion dinner looks unappetizing served on a garbage lid! And any sport that serves itself up with everyone knowing that it’s not seeing it’s best presentation – its top athletes – is doomed for failure. I give you professional track and field. Track doesn’t need changing, those that are running it do. Or at least a change in philosophy.

19 Responses to “What’s Wrong With Track?”

  1. Waynebo says:

    *APPLAUSE*

    The new CEO of USATF really really needs to read this! Track down his e-mail and send him a link… please! I would love to hear his views on this topic.

    This is so painfully obvious that I can’t believe the execs of the sport don’t know this. Perhaps the problem is that there are too many “business people” and not enough “track people” in decision-making positions in the sport. Anyone who loves the sport can see that Bolt & Gay not running against each other is a problem. We need the equivalent of a salary cap. Fee limits or some sort of categories or pay scale to ensure that meet promotors can afford to get multiple A-Level athletes at every meet.

    • CHill says:

      I use Bolt and Gay because it’s so painfully obvious .. But we lack solid, regular matchups in just about everything other than the hurdles .. I do think there are too many business people .. People trying to apply their marketing degrees where a bit of common sense might be applicable …

      We do need to improve how we market the sport but it should start with the product we put before the public .. And that needs to start with how we’re structured because we’re structured poorly ..

      • Waynebo says:

        I agree that it’s a problem in many events, but the top male sprinters will always be the problem because the men’s 100m is the “spotlight” event and a Usain Bolt will always draw a much higher fee than a David Rudisha or even Allyson Felix.

        Do U think the new USATF CEO will make a difference? (I’m sure u did a post on it but I guess I missed that one)

        • CHill says:

          I have written a post, but have not published it yet … I’ve looked at it a few times, because I want to be fair to this man … I may go ahead and publish it before the week it out … As for the top sprinter commanding more money, that is true, however, that doesn’t mean that attracting a top 100 man has to reduce the rest of a meet (see my response to Eaton) ..

  2. Eaton says:

    I do agree completely with everything you say, however as much as it’s a sport to us the fans it’s an athlete’s job. How do you reconcile the athletes maximizing their earning potential while us the fans want to see a great match-up and the meet organizer want to make a profit.

    • CHill says:

      The sport must be restructured … Pay wise this sport is just too loosely organized … The athletes sit at the bottom, while everyone else makes the bulk of the money .. And then what money the athletes get must be shared among agents, coaches, physios, etc … I know there aren’t teams and owners like there are in many other sports, but somehow there needs to be a better sense of “revenue sharing” that would guarantee a larger payout overall to the athletes … Then you could develop a pay structure that would ensure that the Bolt’s, Rudisha’s, Isinbeyeva’s of the sport get what they are “worth” while putting more money in everyone else’s pocket … Simultaneously, pay should somehow be related to “competition” as much as “performance” … So that to achieve certain levels of pay would require participation in a certain number of competitions as well as against a certain number/percentage of ranked athletes .. I have ideas in my mind that I am flushing out, but it is possible … The question is are those at the top running the sport and meets willing to give up the money to accomplish a structural change ??

      • Mike M says:

        It seems like golf or tennis would be good sports to pattern the restructure of track and field on. Those sports are both individual sports as well, yet they manage to have centralized organizations that produce a lot of head to head competition, yet also seem to provide the athletes will a lot of money.

        • Eaton says:

          The big difference with Track & Field and the other sports is, they are all chasing one goal. Golf may start with 128 players on Thursday but come Sunday evening there is only one winner, tennis is similar. Now take our sport and the Diamond League in particular, there are 28 disciplines and each discipline have a winner.
          How do we generate enough money to compensate each winner? Without a complete restructuring of the whole system, endorsement, appearance fee and prize money there is no need for the elite athletes to go up against each other.
          Also understand unlike any other sport Track athletes are pushing their bodies to the limit every time they step on the track or at least that’s what we expect from them.

  3. Mike M says:

    What if the IAAF instituted a policy requiring athletes to compete in a certain minimum amount of events to be “iaaf eligibile” (like a PGA tour card). And only “iaaf eligible” athletes would be able to compete in diamond league meets and perhaps even in the World Championships (obviously the Olympics would not be part of this plan). To provide more flexibility, the required amount of meets that athletes would have to participate in could have a 2 year window. There could also be an exception for injury, but with a two year window it would have to be a serious injury to get the exception. If atheletes aren’t good enough to get into diamond league meets, there would be a second and third rung of official meets that count towards the requirement that athletes could compete in. While this proposal might not directly get athletes competiting head to head more, by requiring everyone to compete a certain amount of times it would increase the likelihood of head to head matches.

    • CHill says:

      My thoughts are in that general direction .. But I think that we can force the issue of head to heads .. Not by saying who you must compete against, but through implementation of a point system that would also be used to reach “iaaf eligible” that would be based on the level of competition in the meets one competes in .. Slightly complicated, but what I have in mind would ensure that more than one athlete ranked in the top 4/5 would compete in most meets – with the regular/random occurrence that those athletes would be top 2 to 3 match ups …

      • Mike M says:

        I think one way the PGA encourages head to head as well is by placing the money in prize money instead of appearance fees. If some of the bigger meets could hold out a large prize(say $250,000, or whatever it would normally pay all of the runners in appearance fees combined) for the winner of the 100 meters, it seems like it would help provide head to head matchups.

        • CHill says:

          It’s an idea .. I can tell you that Russia tried a meet like that called the Moscow Challenge back in ’03 .. The prize money in the 100 was $500,000 (winner take all) .. The race was won by Justin Gatlin in 10.05 against a field that included: Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Kim Collins, Bernard Williams, Frank Fredericks, John Capel and JJ Johnson … For comparison the top list that year was:

          9.93 – Patrick Johnson
          9.94 – Mo Greene
          9.95 – Deji Aliu
          9.97 – John Capel
          9.97 – Justin Gatlin
          9.97 – Uchenna Emedolu
          9.99 – Kim Collins
          9.99 – Mickey Grimes
          10.00 – Frank Fredericks
          10.00 – Darvis Patton
          10.01 – Darrel Brown
          10.02 – Asafa Powell

          So the money itself wasn’t enough to draw a majority of the top of the list .. The meet was run in late September however and was after the big meets like Zurich and company … Which had a lot to do with it …

  4. Nick says:

    CHill,
    tremendous blog, tremendous knowledge of the sport. And a controversial topic. No, T&F doesn’t have the money/exposure of other sports: Jim Ryun said it’s because the AAU/TAC was busy controlling/sanctioning athletes while Pete Rozelle et al were aggresively promoting their sports to the masses.

    On my blog under ‘Rants’, there are a couple of news article links that suggest T&F should 1) create more artificial drama 2) cater to the media more. I lost my mind; NO KARDASHIANS ON MY TRACK!

    False Start rule: Hate it. Someone jumps, give them a time penalty and let them run.

    Love your blog, Conway. Love the history, and will love your take on London.

    • Mike M says:

      Regarding the idea of a time penalty for a false start…what about a monetary penalty? If you false start, you lose a significant percentage of any prize money and/or appearance fees, but you still get to race. (This would obviously only work at the professional level, not college).

      • CHill says:

        My question is why do they have to be punished ?? I thought the idea was to ensure a fair start for the field ?? Would you fine a distance runner for falling if the race had to be restarted ?? I simply day go back to the original rule – each person gets one false starry and gets tossed on the second one … If time is SUCH an issue, then just run the race, don’t call anyone back, and disqualify anyone that had a reaction time quicker than .10 … Quick clean and easy .. Everyone runs, and you find out who was disqualified when the results are given …

    • CHill says:

      Thanks Nick .. I just checked yours out and will have to start following … I liked your take on things as well ..

      • Nick says:

        CHill,
        I imagine you’ll be at the Pre and Trials? Would love to talk shop. I like the back stories of our sport, see blog under Track/US Nationals. Talking with people like Joe Douglas was a huge treat.

        Take care,
        Nick

  5. Fortyacres and a mule says:

    A very timely debate.Loved it.

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