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

Putting Fans in the Stands

Jan 29th, 2010
9:56 am PST
Track & Field - 65th Modesto Relays

Tonight’s Millrose Games has added a unique event to it’s schedule – the Super 60. Now before you get too excited the Super 60 does not have Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay, or Asafa Powell. Matter of fact it doesn’t have Doc Patton, Daniel Bailey or current yearly leader Ivory Williams.

No, the “Super 60″ is a competition between Master’s sprinter Willie Gault a former Tennessee sprinter and NFL wide receiver, competing against a handful of other 30/40 year old sprinters with no name recognition in the sport. This has sparked a lot of discussion on message boards on the internet as this certainly has little to no appeal to the true fans of the sport who see this “gimmick” as a sell out of the sport.

But what really caught my eye, and compelled me to comment on the issue, was the quoting of USA Track and Field CEO, Doug Logan on the subject. His quote:

“”This is the year 2010. This is a sport that to a large degree has been passed by — by other sports who have had the intelligence of understanding the demographic of what they’re trying to sell that to,” Logan told The Associated Press on Tuesday after USATF announced the special race.

“It does nothing to destroy authenticity. It does nothing to denigrate the true competition. It is truly trying to inject something that is entertaining and yet congruent with the sport,” he said.

David Tyree, Willie Gault and Tim Dwight are scheduled to run the “Super 60″ during the storied indoor track meet’s 103rd edition Jan. 29. Organizers plan to add other football players to the field.

“This is a real distance. They’re real athletes. We’re not doing Bill Veeck put a midget in front of a pitcher,” Logan said of the St. Louis Browns owner’s famous 1951 stunt. “One of these days we might, but this isn’t it.”"

Now the one thing that I agree with Mr. Logan on is that the sport has been passed by by other sports that have done a much better job of selling themselves to the public. I disagree, however, that this sort of “marketing” is some New Millennium methodology that will bring the sport the attention that it needs.

Everyone keeps looking for some marketing genius to come up with the perfect plan to get track and field on track (especially in this country). When in reality the fundamental flaw of this sport is its inability to get a substantial number of its star athletes on the track at any one venue outside of a national championship or global major! To paraphrase a line from a famous movie, “if you get them on the track they will come”!

Case in point is a meet like the Modesto Relays – to become the California Relays this year. Modesto is a small town in the heart of California. An area of the state dominated by agriculture. Yet Modesto for decades hosted one of the world’s biggest and best competitions. No bright lights, no gimmicks, no huge coliseum. But long time meet director and starter Tom Moore had long standing relationships with the athletes, and they loved to come to town and compete for Tom.

Back in the 60′s, 70′s, 80′s and into the early 90′s hard working families in rural California would spend their hard earned money going not only to the Modesto Relays, but travelling from Modesto to Fresno to Berkeley to Stanford and even as far as Los Angeles to watch track and field during the heart of the domestic season. Why? Because they got to see the best in world class competition – they got to see the stars of the sport! Jim Ryun, Jim Hines, Bob Hayes, Ralph Boston, Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis, Evelyn Ashford, Tommie Smith, Bob Beamon, Henry Marsh, Valerie Brisco. The list of competitors that passed through these venues would create a Who’s Who of the sport.

Ironically the Modesto Relays, and many of the other meets mentioned, thrived during the heart of the recession of the 80′s. You see, economics weren’t an issue when you got your money’s worth. And trust me getting to see Carl Lewis, Edwin Moses, Johnny Gray and the stars that came to Tom’s meet up close and personal was worth MORE than the price of admission!

I say it was ironic that the sport thrived during the heart of the recession because it’s decline began during a period of economic prosperity – the 90′s. Because that is when the stars of the sport stopped competing domestically. That’s when Carl Lewis and the Santa Monica track club started boycotting the national championships because they weren’t getting paid. That’s when US athletes stayed away from US meets because they could make more money competing in Europe. Fewer and fewer stars frequented domestic competitions and so fewer and fewer fans went to meets. And it is THAT – the lack of star quality athletes at our meets – that has lead to the decline of the sport.

Gimmicks are not the answer to getting fans in the seats – getting stars to the stadium is! You see, while everyone touted the “Boulevard 150″ last year in Europe, people didn’t go see the race simply because it was run down a boulevard. They came because they got to see double WR holder Usain Bolt. Run Bolt against Tyson Gay down MY street and we can get standing room only attendance!

The key to a “revival” of track and field doesn’t lie in slick marketing campaigns, gimmick races, or getting ex-professional football players (or even current ones) to run against each other or our stars. They key is getting back to what track and field should really be about on the professional level – the best of the best competing against each other with regularity.

Golf will suffer because its best is not on the links – Tiger Woods. When the Lakers show up but Kobe is injured attendance is less. It’s no secret that people want to see the best when they attend professional sporting events. The biggest difference between track and field and most other professional sports is that their stars are ALWAYS on display and ours pick and choose and duck each other and hold out for the biggest offer before stepping on the track!

If we want fans in the seats we have to get stars on the track. No one cares if 49 year old Willie Gault is racing anyone. And while there are those that say we can get fans in the seats if we can get NFL player Chris Johnson to race Usain Bolt, you’ll get even more if you get Tyson Gay to race Usain Bolt! We simply need to do track and field and do it the best way we can. If we do THAT they will come.

4 Responses to “Putting Fans in the Stands”

  1. Samyr Laine says:

    I couldn't agree with you more. That said, considering that our athletes are no long truly amateur athletes and would love to be compensated on a consistent basis as such, how do we go about getting our stars to consistently show up to meets again. Once we accept the fact that having our high profile athletes at meets will fill the seats, the question becomes how do we go about doing that since, truth be told…there is indeed more money to be made in Europe.

  2. Anonymous says:

    You were the guy who picked Gay to beat Bolt in Beijing in 2 events so I try to remember that when I read stuff like this.

    This will get track on sportscenter tonight. Whatever 'great' plan you have won't.

  3. Sieg Lindstrom says:

    I'm not sure how long meet promoters have been hauling out football dashes as a sideshow. I remember Al Franken featuring Herschel Walker, then a star at Georgia, in a special dash at the Sunkist meet in the early '80s. That race elicited some interest, as Walker was entering his prime–as opposed to long past it–and one was curious how his speed would measure up on the track.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Racing is never a gimmick weather it's youth, HS college or open athletes. Track & Field has always been for everyone.The slow, and fast each had a heat to run in.
    I was at Millrose it was fun thats what it is all about. Coming home from work going to MSG and enjoying yourself.Lighten up.
    Bob Orazem

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