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

USATF’s Self Fulfilling Prophecy

Jun 28th, 2017
5:33 pm PST

Track SectionSacramento was just the host of the US Championships. One of the few times in the past decade that Eugene Oregon wasn’t the host of US Nationals. Though it just finished being the host of the NCAA Championships. And frankly MOST Championships and meets of consequence (ie Prefontaine Classic) since the turn of the century have been run in Eugene.

Is this because, as Eugene and the media talking heads proclaim, Eugene is the track capital of the United States? No. Not yet anyway. It’s an out of the way burg in a corner of the North West plagued by wet rainy weather and asthmatic conditions that often make competition difficult. As a matter of fact, I can’t remember a recent championship /Trials meet that didn’t have rainfall.

No, there are potentially better places to hold a track meet. This IS the United States. A huge area of land. There are MANY outstanding places to hold Championships. No offense to Eugene, who has learned how to host a meet, but even better locations frankly. But what Eugene DOES have that no one else does, is that it has become the "favored son" of Nike – and Nike has become the bankroll of track and field in the United States. And like the wealthy father that shows favor to one child over the others, so does Nike put its money into Eugene!

In the pre-professional world of track and field, when NO ONE had a sugar daddy, the US had a plethora of world class meets. In Los Angeles, Modesto, Berkeley, San Diego, San Jose, and that’s just the state of California – which was truly the home of track and field not too long ago. But when the sport became truly professional (at least as professional as it’s gotten, because it’s really not there yet), and the cost of holding a meet had to incorporate hefty appearance fees in addition to the "infrastructure" of the meet, fundraising (ie corporate sponsorships) became critical!

The unintended consequence of professionalism has then been the death spiral of meets from coast to coast. The biggest meets in the US, indeed on the planet, are not always in the best locations, but the locations that are able to secure the most funding. That takes us back to Eugene, who had the good fortune of being the birth place of Nike. And as Nike has grown up, it’s taken good care of its birth place. The Pre Classic is one of the best funded meets on the planet. That’s why it’s become a staple of the Diamond League, annually considered the best meet on the planet, and our only representative on the global circuit. It’s why Eugene was able to outbid Sacramento for the Trials even after Sacramento put on record setting affairs in 2000 & 2004. It’s why Eugene has pretty much become the home of the NCAA Championships. And why stadiums across the country have slowly been losing the ability to host meets! As no longer playing hosts to track and field meets they’ve taken the tracks out to expand seating for football.

Yes, it’s wonderful that Eugene gets big money to renovate the stadium, pay exorbitant appearance fees, and put together sweet deals to host the Trials and other national championship meets. But as long as it’s the only place that Daddy Nike is placing it’s money, it’s the only place capable of truly putting on a quality meet – a self fulfilling prophesy. Don’t get me wrong, I want Eugene to continue as a quality venue, running quality meets. I also, however, want to see other venues rise to that level. We’re the United States. We have the best team on the planet. Perhaps the best individual meet on the planet. We should also lead in number of quality meets! Our athletes should be able to run at home and make money! They should have three, four, half a dozen meets right here where they can earn a good portion of their annual income. They shouldn’t be forced to go abroad to make money. Conversely Europeans, Africans and others should be looking at booking passage to the states to run and earn money – and American audiences should be able to go to various locations throughout the country to see the world’s best compete up close and personal. THAT is how you build recognition of the sport in this country!

And therein lies the real challenge of USATF, to broaden the appeal of the sport in the US by bringing quality competition back to the United States. You see, there is legitimacy to the phrase, "if you build it they will come". In this case, if you present world class athletes they will come! World class competition begats world class audiences. Which in turn begats popularity in your sport. I will even provide a few suggestions to start.

My first is Edwards Stadium at UC Berkeley. The stadium was built for track and field. There isn’t a bad seat in the place as there is a "moat" (gap) between the track and the stadium such that a clear view of every lane on the track is visible even from the lowest seats in the stadium. The weather is near perfect year round as it’s literally across the bridge (bay) from San Francisco. That provides easy access to Berkeley with San Francisco’s airport (also Oakland’s) and of course access to one of the world’s most well known cities it’s dining, culture, hotels/housing, transportation, etc. There are trails and areas in and around Berkeley, Oakland, and outside San Francisco for those who enjoy running and hiking. If there is truly a "perfect" location to hold a meet in the US this is it! National championships, NCAA’s, Olympic Trials, a Diamond League level meet, any of these could be held here easily.

Staying in California there’s Walnut, home of the Mt SAC Relays. The faculty, already hosting a quality meet, is in the process of being renovated as we speak. It’s in the Los Angeles metro area and has access to LAX and Ontario airports. Of course it’s got access to a world class city and the acoutriments – though personally I’m more partial to the quality of San Francisco. It’s not as "perfect" as Berkeley, but frankly no where is – including Eugene.

Sacramento, of course, should be on the list. It’s got along history of hosting big meets having hosted several national championships, and the NCAA Championships. A nice airport that’s only 15/20 minutes from anywhere you need to get locally. Typically great weather (this year’s high heat was an anomaly). Great running culture and trails. Good variety of food, featuring many "farm to fork" eateries. And good access to both San Francisco and Lake Tahoe – both within 90 minutes. A great place to host a meet.

The key to utilizing any of these venues, or any of the other dozens across the country, is finances. In order to host a world class meet you need world class money – ask Eugene. Everyone doesn’t have a sugar daddy. Though if Nike truly wants to help track and field in this country it should spread it’s dollars beyond Eugene. Because frankly, right now it’s aiding in the decline of track in the US, not building it up. Nike aside however (and that IS a conversation that should be had between Nike and USATF) I would like to see USATF sit down with all the shoe companies and discuss having one, or more, adopt a location with the intent to build an ongoing meet, with the potential to host a national championship, Trials or even potentially a World Championships! Adidas and Reebok funding a meet in Berkeley. Under Armour and Asics a meet in Sacramento.

THAT should be the end game in this country. Not a Eugene that hosts everything, but a series of locations/venues hosting multiple meets. It’s where we were some 25/30 years ago. And where we should continue to be as the world’s leading track and field power. Do that and track and field becomes a popular sport in this country again. Because these are the types of competitions, featuring the world’s best athletes, that being fans to the stadium. Giving American athletes the opportunity to run Hugh class meets here at home as part of their earning their annual income. In turn giving young people the heroes they need to see up close and personal, that give them the motivation to strive to be track and field athletes. This can and should be done. It should be high, if not number one, in USATF’s list of thing to do!

One Response to “USATF’s Self Fulfilling Prophecy”

  1. Waynebo says:

    Good insights as always! I’m very glad to see you back to posting. Looking forward to reading all summer.

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