Track And Field: Entertain Or Die Slowly

By: Weldon Johnson, LetsRun.com
December 23, 2011

Weldon Johnson, "Wejo," co-founded LetsRun.com in 2000. Since founding LRC, he went from a 29:49 10k runner to a 28:06 10k runner to a 39:20 10k runner.

I received quite a few thought-provoking emails in response to the article "How The Millrose Games As We Knew It Died." The first one below really made me think, so I have it and my response.

Plus today in another article here, I take a look at the meet that has replaced Millrose in the Garden, the US Open, and how I have a little hope it can succeed because the Garden itself is helping promote it and USATF sounds like it is trying to produce a fan friendly meet.

Email #1: The Millrose Games as you knew it no longer exists. So what? Why should any track athlete or fan care?

    OK. The Millrose Games as you knew it - and as you knew it meant Madison Square Garden as venue - no longer exists. So what? Why should any track athlete or fan care? The capital of the USA was moved from New York to Washington. Which is the better track to run, The Garden or The Armory? When Jesse Owners was sprinting, there were no starting blocks. When they were introduced it could be said the 100 meter dash was not the 100 "as we knew it." Tracks today are not the tracks of 1936.

    It appears to me that you care more about the theater associated with track rather than with the power, discipline and beauty of track itself. Compared to any other indoor track in this area The Armory track brings out the best in these athletes. There are still tickets available. Want to see a great track meet? Buy a ticket.

    JL

JL, your email brings up some good points. And it reminded me of a thread on the forums a few weeks ago that I didn't reply to: "Question for wejo: Why do you care if 'our sport' is a complete joke?" I didn't reply because I didn't have the immediate response of why I cared. I've heard some people say on LetsRun.com that we should all want the sport to remain a joke so we can go to USA Nationals and get cheap good seats, maybe even have an empty seat next to us, and not have to worry about parking. This thought reminds me of the World Champs in Daegu, where LetsRun.com had free seats directly above the finish line. If track was more popular, no way is the media in those seats.

Your question, however, does remind me why I care about the theater of track and field, why every track and field fan should care about it and why I care if our sport becomes a "complete joke." If no one cares how track and field is presented, the sport will die. As I alluded to yesterday at the end of my column, my brother went to his first Millrose Games with his college roommate and eventual Running with the Buffaloes author Chris Lear in 1996. The meet did nothing to entertain fans. Chris and Robert went home got out their computers with their 20mb hard drives, and fired off emails to the t-and-f email list of hard core track fans about how Millrose was in trouble and needed to entertain more people. They were scoffed at by many of the hard-core track and field fans who made up the email list. The elites, including the editor of Track and Field News, basically replied along the lines of "Our sport was fine as it was and this was THE Millrose Games, after all. It didn't need to adapt."

How has that turned out for us?

Big-time sports are entertainment. Our sport can accept that reality and make changes and adapt to that reality or it can continue a slow death. Track and field meets have to compete with the other sporting events in the world that are attempting to entertain their fans. If we don't compete, our fan base will continue to dwindle. That is reality.

Don't get me wrong. I love the beauty of track and field. It is the purest sport in the world. But the beauty of any sport and track and field in particular only attracts hard-core fans. And there aren't enough of them to pay the bills, to support our sport financially. We must compete with the NBA, the NFL, and MLB. They do not rely on the beauty of their sports to get fans into the seats. They entertain them. And to entertain fans, the theater and stage the sport is presented on matters.

If you want the next generation of American stars to not compete because there is no money in the sport, then don't worry about the theater of the sport. We can continue to watch our sport be played out in smaller and smaller arenas with less of an audience watching at home. We'll go from big arenas to small, from national tv to streaming on LetsRun.com (we'd love to start streaming stuff the second NBC quits caring about putting on the big events). The purists will still be able to see their sport, some people will still make a living, but it will be a sport in decline. The quality of athlete attracted to the sport will also decline and so will the sport's beauty.

Or we can care about the theater of the sport and make it more successful. By putting the sport on the grandest stage possible, we can entertain a whole new generation of fans. We can bring them in, entertain them, and at the same time show them the beauty of the world's greatest sport. That is why I care about the theater of the sport and whether track and field is a "complete joke."

PS - I just spoke to Chris Lear. He had a good point, that in addition to entertainment, the sport needs matchups. He said something along the lines of, "This is NYC, the entertainment capital of the world. The sport needs matchups, not the minor leagues." We both agreed the lack of head-to-head matchups has really hurt the sport of track and field. Someone should think creatively. Get the US Open on live ESPN (instead of tape delay), tell Usain Bolt you'll give him a percentage of the gate, have him race Asafa Powell. It seems like more and more, races just announce one star in each event instead of a compelling matchup. The US Open is taking one step to entertain fans with a tighter schedule and hopefully will bring them in with MSG's marketing. But will it spice up the presentation and have compelling head to head battles to get fans to come back? If not, we'll soon be left with only the Armory for meets. The Armory is not the problem and I'm fairly certain they can put on an entertaining meet but just on a much smaller scale. As I said in today's other article on the USOpen, "The Armory is just the symptom. Boring track meets with unexciting matchups is the disease."

Email #2: A co-author of books with Bill Dellinger and Bill Bowerman says: How about a pro Millrose and a separate amateur Millrose?

    A good article on the move of the Millrose Games, but while it is a loss for wide exposure of the sport, there are some unaddressed issues of importance.

    1. No serious indoor international (or national) competitions are held on tiny 11-lap-to-the-mile tracks today. I had fun running on those tracks back in my day, but in today's world it is equivalent to having a meet in a cow pasture.

    2. What we need are some national/international class venues that hold an elite-level 200m track, but also seat a large crowd. And we don't have those in the U.S. because large cities (such as NYC) only build facilities for football, baseball & basketball. The good indoor tracks are built mostly by universities, and their meets aren't going to attract 20,000 spectators.

    3. Simply put, we need to be realistic about what it takes to produce an influential TV meet - and in a little cracker box with dangerous turns reeks of the 1950s. Spills and chills are not what sell the public on track - we are confusing the event with NASCAR - or perhaps a destruction derby.

    Yeah, I'd like to see a series of high-level meets across the US in the winter. But how many of those do we see even across the whole of Europe, which also has a serious summer season when we have nothing major going on? The world has really changed, and we're still running indoor meets like it's the 1890's [no typo].

    And, yes, it is hard to mix elite, college and high school athletes today. Unlike the past, elite means professional. We don't see double headers with a HS or college baseball game and a major league game. High school teams are not mixing their events with the NFL. Mixing groups can be entertaining, but I feel it takes away a lot of the attention from the younger or lower-level athletes, as the major focus of the spectators is on the elites. When outdoor nationals added in the junior nationals, they were not blended together by alternating junior and senior events.

    I say have a Pro Millrose Games and an amateur one--separately. Give both groups their day in the sun.

    William H. Freeman

I told William I wanted to use his email and asked if I could use his name and asked for a brief bio. Wow: PhD Oregon 1972, wrote "Peak When It Counts," co-wrote "Bill Bowerman's High Performance Track & Field," co-wrote "Competitive Runner's Training Book" with Bill Dellinger, has an intro to PE textbook in 7th ed., coached 2 dozen USOT qualifiers, 800m thru marathon.

In my email response to William, I didn't catch the significance of his second to last sentence. A pro and amateur Millrose as separate meets is a perfect idea. Have the amateur one at the Armory and the Pro one at the USOpen. That seems like a perfect win-win. The Armory still gets the Millrose name and pro track gets the biggest stage possible. I should ask if this was ever brought up as an option.

Until now, the Armory has never hosted a big pro track meet. If hosting one there is such a good idea, you think they would have done it before now on their own. Instead, I feel this is an instance of the Armory using the Millrose name to benefit the Armory first and foremost. Nothing wrong with that and they have to look after themselves, but William's proposal is a better one.

As for the 200m tracks, I said to William, "I think the loss of Millrose says more about the state and popularity of our sport than anything else. I'm not convinced a 200m track would make things different unless we tried to simultaneously entertain fans. We have plenty of 400m tracks with room for 20,000 fans and aren't putting any fans in the seats. We need to make things more fan-friendly at the same time."

And a 6-hour meet (the old Millrose) is not fan-friendly. As USATF Communications Director Jill Geer told me, "Rather than having a meet with a very specific message, it became a very long meet that was trying to be all things to all people."

Email #3: From a guy who went to pro meets at the Toronto Maple Leafs Arena

      Wejo,

      I enjoyed your piece regarding the Millrose Games this morning. It made me think about attending the big indoor meets in the 70's and 80's. They were truly great events. I believe I attended the Millrose games twice, probably in 1975 and 1980 if I remember correctly. I also road-tripped with my college teammates to watch the Toronto Star Maple Leaf Games several times and while I was in law school I attended the Cleveland Knights of Columbus Games. each of those three years. These meets all attracted incredible runners and were great events to attend.

      I am not sure why they tailed off and have almost disappeared. I have to admit that attending a great track meet at the Reggie Lewis Center is not the same as having 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden. I hope that indoor track makes a comeback.

    I recently read a book that discussed the first Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. I recommend the book to you. It is a biography of "Abel Kiviat," the silver medalist in the 1500 in Stockholm. The author is Alan S. Katchen. It is really as much a social history as a biography, as it described the role that the track clubs in the early 20th century played in the lives of the recent immigrants. It is an academic work and well footnoted. As you might guess, the inaugural meet at MSG was mired in controversy. Kiviat was to race the 3000 which was the featured event that year. He was suspended by the Metropolitan AAU a few days before the meet because they thought they he and Hannes Kohelmainen had not given a true effort in a recent race. After getting lawyers involved and taking testimony, the AAU relented and let them compete.

    I am optimistic that at some point big track meets will become popular again. The participation numbers are still great. In a lot of ways I think the young people do not know that professional competitions exist outside of the Olympics. I blame that mainly on the way television has developed over the last 40 years. Those of us who grew up before ESPN watched the Wide World of Sports which exposed young people to all sorts of things from international track and field to cliff diving in Acapulco. Now a days no one watches anything except football and basketball. ESPN rather than broadcasting a variety of sports prefers to air people talking about football and basketball all day long interspersed with Sportscenter which truly can only be watched with the sound off.

    One of my must see shows as a young teenager was AAU track and field with Ralph Boston and Adrian Metcalf. I wonder if the tapes of those shows exist.

    One of the other problems track and field has it that its show case event that everyone does know about is the Olympics. The Olympics has become so expensive and difficult to attend that it is just not accessible to most. The change has been drastic. I think I bought a ticket to watch the Montreal 10,000 final for about $15.00 just outside the Olympic stadium and got to see Viren beat Lopes and a world record in the javelin in the same session.

    Another reason to be optimistic is that your web-site which I have been reading for about as long as it has been around, provides such great information that keeps us all interested and hopefully is creating new dedicated fans for the future.

    Anyway, have a good holiday season and best wishes to all at Letsrun.

    Rob Liebers

The most important fan for a track meet is the fan at home on TV. If Millrose sells out, it will have less than 20,000 fans. Something streamed online generally gets way less than that. Something on NBC generally gets around a million viewers. To get fans on TV, we need to present the sport on the biggest stage possible. If you're watching something in a big arena, you're going to assume its more important than something in a rec center.

Email #4: Emailer scratches Millrose off his bucket list

    Weldon, great piece on Millrose. Going to the meet was on my bucket list; but no longer.  Also, I feel your pain; I have gone from a sub 34 min 10 runner to 38 on my good days...and sometimes breaking 40 is a chore.  Have a great X-mas.  v/r  Russ

That is Major Russ Stewart of the US Army, one of the LRC Puma 55. And I just put two and two together and realized he wrote an article for us about training while stationed in Iraq.

And if you really want to scratch Millrose off your list, consider replacing it with the US Open. USATF claims to be putting on a 2-3 hour fan friendly meet in a major arena. Hopefully it can be a success or you'll have to go to Millrose in the little Armory (don't get me wrong, the Armory is a great place for high school and college track) to watch an indoor pro track meet in New York City.

*If you'd like to go to US Open, tickets are $15-$75 and are available here.
*If you'd like to go to TMFKAMG, tickets are $25-$145 and are available here.

*Original Article: "How The Millrose Games As We Knew It Died"
*Update: A Look At USATF Trying To Continue To Improve The Madison Square Garden Track Tradition With The US Open

Editor's Note: Weldon Johnson, "Wejo," co-founded LetsRun.com in 2000. Since founding LRC, he went from a 29:49 10k runner to a 28:06 10k runner to a 39:20 10k runner. He can be reached at weldonjohnson@letsrun.com.




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