LRC Editorial: The Case For (Pure) Regionals

By LetsRun.com
May 26, 2010

The final round of the NCAA outdoor track and field championships gets under way on Wednesday in Eugene, Oregon. To compete in Eugene this year, athletes and relay teams had to finish in the top 12 of two NCAA preliminary rounds. The qualification system used this year by the NCAA has been labeled the Pure Regional system by LetsRun.com and it is one we wholeheartedly endorse. In our minds, if the NCAA is going to a regional meet (which we think they should), then this year's system is a step in the right direction.

However, the top coaches from the BCS schools all seemingly are adamantly opposed to the Pure Regional system and the top coaches at Tuesday's press conference repeatedly ripped the Regional system. Well, we're writing this editorial to tell you why they are wrong. We'll go through their most popular arguments as to why they think Pure Regionals are a bad idea before telling you why we think they are a good idea.

Dismissing The Most Popular Arguments Against Regionals

1) The top coaches fear the top athletes won't qualify by some fluke and their national title hopes will be dashed. This seemingly was the #1 fear of most of the coaches prior to Regionals. But the facts proved this not to be the case, as by and large the top athletes that are likely to score at NCAAs did qualify and the coaches admitted as such at the press conference. LetsRun.com has done some research and determined that 85% of the top 10 in each event advanced to Eugene for the men and 84.4% for the women. Of the top 24 in each event, the qualification rate was 67.8% for men and 67.6% for women.

2) It's expensive. Yes, extending the season by two weeks is expensive. But is it any less expensive than having to fly all over the country in the middle of the season to try to get on the national top 24 in the descending order list? Plus BCS schools complaining about expenses? Give us a break.

3) It's geographically discriminatory. This was one of the arguments used by Vin Lananna on Wednesday. Well, in our minds, a Pure Regional system is way less geographically discriminatory than using a pure descending order list. Yes, some years regionals may be held under conditions that favor warm weather schools or cold weather schools, but at least under Pure Regionals, everyone gets one crack under the same conditions. A descending order system of qualification favors certain geographic and rich schools way more than regionals. Stanford is a long way for a distance runner from Maine to try to get to in the regular season, just as it's probably tough for a sprinter from Buffalo to get too many cracks in warm weather.

4) It's bad for fans. We'll be the first to admit that a regional meet isn't likely to generate fan interest. But the time trial affairs that a pure descending order list involves certainly don't generate any more fan interest. Fans certainly aren't clamoring to line up to see distance kids run at Stanford at 11 pm in the middle of March. If you don't believe us, re-watch videos of the Stanford meets and check the number of people in the stands for the 10,000s.

And one might argue that Pure Regionals might actually increase fan interest in a weird way. Under a Pure Regional system, only the the "in form" athletes will be competing at NCAA finals and therefore there will be a better NCAA final - which is the only meet that is likely to generate large fan interest anyway. We here at LetsRun.com have always thought that casual fans should be told by coaches and athletes not to go the qualifying rounds, as it's like paying to go watch a practice or pre-season game. So who really cares if the crowds aren't large at NCAA regionals? The NCAA finals may be better as a result, and it's not like many of these coaches that are complaining about fan interest are doing a lot to create fan-attractive meets in the regular season.

5) It extends the season by two weeks. We don't like extending the season either, but the top athletes will be going to USATF nationals much later in the year anyway, so this actually helps them.

Now that we've dispatched the arguments against regionals, we'll tell you why we think regionals are a good idea.

Why Regionals Work

1) It's the fairest system available. Everyone qualifies head-to-head on the same day or they go home. No wild cards like in last year's hybrid regional system. No qualifying on different days or even different months in totally different conditions, as is the case when you go to a pure descending order list. One of the simplest beauties of track and field is that it's easy to determine the winners and losers of things. No judges are required as they are in gymnastics or figure skating. Thus, a pure regional system appeals to the inherent simplicity and fairness of the sport of track and field.

2) The NCAA Tournament Argument. It's very similar to the NCAA basketball in the sense that the top athletes still qualify but it gives the little guy who can peak when it counts a chance and it gives the little guy some meaning to his season. As we stated above, nearly 85% of the top 10 athletes in each event advanced out of Regionals this year. Thus, the stars aren't getting hurt. But in terms of the whole field, nearly 1/3 of the people in the top 24 didn't make it under Pure Regionals this year. In our minds, this is ideal, as it gives the little guy who knows how to compete and rise to the occasion a chance to make some noise in the big dance. It also gives them something to shoot for in the regular season.

We received a great email along these lines from a D1 track and field athlete that perfectly sums up why we think Regionals should exist. It's way better than what we could write, so we'll paste it here in its entirety:

     hello letsrun,
    I was just reading the editorial on the regional system and the wilson
    24/8 plan and had a comment to make.  Because of the objective nature
    of the little black numbers on he clock or scoreboard in track and
    field I think sometimes we lose sight of other important aspects of
    the sport.  Sometimes its not just about what is the best, most
    objective, fairest, or safest way to decide who runs at nationals.
    What about the joy of competing, the prestige and satisfaction of
    getting to say "I am a regional qualifier", or "I made the first round
    of NCAA's".  It is a very objective sport but I also believe there are
    aspects of the sport that are equally important to getting the best
    athletes to the NCAA final.  If the post season is only about
    nationals you lose some of the joy of competing for many athletes who
    are in fantastic shape and deserve to be rewarded by an extra meet or
    that glimmer of hope that they could make it to nationals even if they
    don't have the best marks.  I also think it would be interesting to
    see athletes opinions about the system, not just coaches.
    just some food for thought.  Maybe it will spark interest for another article.

It's kind of ironic, as this athlete is actually from a BCS school but his argument is very powerful (of course, it was equally ironic that while the big coaches were bashing Regionals on Tuesday, Oregon's Andrew Wheating was telling them how much he thought Regionals had helped him this year). The vast majority of athletes competing in D1 track and field never realistically will be in the top 24 in the country in their event, just as the average NCAA basketball player will never realistically compete in the Final Four. But at least Regionals (or the tournament) gives them a shot at glory.

The top coaches from the BCS conferences seem to think quite simply that Regionals are a waste of time. We disagree. Just as the first two rounds of the NCAA basketball tournament are not a waste of time, Regionals aren't a waste of time either. If you believe Regionals are a waste of time, then do you favor having only a 16 team NCAA b-ball tournament, as we know almost every year only a top 4 seed is going to win? Heck, why not just ban all non-BCS schools from the NCAA tournament considering that a non-BCS school hasn't won the tournament in more than 20 years (since UNLV in 1990)?

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