The Madison Square Garden Track Tradition Continues With The US Open

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.

Yesterday I wrote a piece "How The Millrose Games As We Knew It Died" on how TMFKAMG (The Meet Formerly Known as the Millrose Games; I'm glad to see at the time of writing 51% of LRCers believe that is how we should refer to it) ended its 98-year reign at Madison Square Garden.

In the course of writing the article, I talked to USA Track and Field (USATF) Director of Communications Jill Geer. We talked not only about how Millrose ended up leaving the Garden, but how USATF decided to continue the 98-year tradition of track in the Garden by sponsoring next month's US Open at MSG (Jamaican superstars Asafa Powell and Veronica Campbell-Brown are running the sprints, Bernard Lagat will be back on the Garden boards in the mile, and as of yesterday world high jump champion Jesse Williams will be high jumping with Reese Hoffa throwing the shot).

On the end of Millrose as we knew it, Jill agreed with director of the Armory, Dr. Norb Sander, that it came down to "differing visions for the meet." According to Geer, the Armory (which was given the rights to the Millrose name in 2010) was "very interested in the high school and college races," while USATF was more interested in the "professional side."  During the last "year and a half to two years," the Armory began to express that the Armory might be the best place for the meet.

The meet had been a money loser for years, with USATF absorbing the losses to continue to promote the sport on the biggest stage possible in the media capital of the World. Geer said, "USATF has always viewed a meet in the Garden as an investment. It has never been a money maker for us. But having a meet at the world's greatest sports and entertainment venue in the country's media and business capital, has always made sense for us."

USATF wanted to tighten the schedule of the meet to have a 2-3 hour meet that was "fan friendly and also TV friendly."  However, the Armory had a different vision for the meet (according to Geer - "an all day event at the Armory"), the rights to the name, and its own track less than 200 blocks away, so its not too hard to see how the meet got moved.

USATF Continues The MSG Tradition With The US Open
USATF did not wave the white flag once the Armory decided to take Millrose to the Armory. Instead, USATF set out on its own to continue for the 99th straight year with track at Madison Square Garden. USATF created the US Open and the goal is to put on the tightly schedule professionally focused meet that USATF envisioned with a few select high school races. USATF is working with Mark Wetmore's Global Athletics to help in securing athletes, and surprisingly to us, has according to Geer gotten a lot of support from Madison Square Garden in promoting the event.

Geer says the people at the Garden understand the history of track and field at the Garden (Millrose was the longest continual event at the Garden according to this site) and want to see the new meet succeed, so they are putting some of their promotional muscle behind the meet. A decision was made to drop ticket prices significantly (tickets are $15-$75 - just for reference, the cheapest ticket for a NY Rangers hockey game is $70 and they go from $70-$1,000). The Garden is sending out promotional materials to all of its ticket holders and then making pushes with some of its other marketing channels. And since the Garden is one of the movers in sports entertainment in NY, it has a lot of resources available that were not available in the past. For example, the meet is being promoted on the big NASDAQ screen in Times Square and even on milk cartons according to Geer.

Prior to talking to Geer, I wasn't sure a pro meet not named Millrose could succeed at the Garden. If Millrose's star was fading in the Garden, how was a new meet without the Millrose name and tradition going to succeed? It still may not and the Armory pulling the plug on Millrose at MSG definitely hurts the chances for the sport to succeed in the Garden, but after talking to Geer I have not totally abandoned hope. The new meet has some marketing muscle behind it and hopefully is making some of the changes that our sport needs to do to make meets more fan friendly. In talking to Geer, I realized there are 4 types of fans at Millrose, hard core track and field fans, fans of the Millrose tradition and name, fans of the various high school teams, and people looking for entertainment for their family. In theory, hard core track fans will still come to watch pro track at the Garden. The questions are: Can the new meet attract more casual fans than Millrose? And how many fans in the past only came to the old meet because it was called Millrose or because of the high school races? I guess we'll find out on January 28. Judging this meet on its first year may not be fair to it, and I bet we'll see year #100 in the Garden no matter what, but USATF will  need to throw a fan-friendly meet at the Garden this year to try and build interest for next year.

Marketing can only bring people in the door. For too long our sport has done very little to bring people back.   A 3 hour boring track meet won't do more than a 6 hour boring one to bring fans back. The sport has been relying on its past and history for too long and unless that changes with entertaining meets with exciting match-ups, our sport will only be left with the Armory. The Armory is just the symptom. Boring track meets with unexciting matchups is the disease.  More on that here.

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Part of the thinking with a more compact meet is to attract the casual sports fans looking for entertainment. Last year's meet went from 4pm-10pm according to this schedule. We at LRC always figured this was done to try to get as many kids in the meet as possible so their parents would have to buy tickets. In doing that however, a casual sports fan might look at the schedule and decide not to come, not realizing they probably should only show up about 6:30-10.

*If you'd like to go to US Open, tickets are $15-$75 and are available here. It's not every day you'll be able to get prime seats in the Garden for that price.
*If you'd like to go to TMFKAMG, tickets are $25-$145 and are available here.

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I got some good emails on yesterday's Millrose article. To read some of the emails and his response and why it matters if our sport "is a complete joke," click here.
More Millrose:
LRC Emails Why It Matters If Our Sport Is Not A Complete Joke
*"How The Millrose Games As We Knew It Died"

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 [email protected]




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