Good News: There Will Be A 2021 Indoor Track Season But It Will Look Much Different Than Normal

By Jonathan Gault
January 7, 2021

We are into January, which means it is time for indoor track. Well, what’s left of it.

Already, the Millrose Games in New York, the crown jewel of the US indoor season, have been cancelled for the first time in the event’s 114-year history. As for the USATF Indoor Championships, can report that the meet is tentatively scheduled for February 19-20 in Albuquerque (though you’d never know that from looking at the USATF website), but whether that meet will actually be held is another question. (update: USATF on 1/8 announced USATF Indoors would not take place). It remains unclear whether Boston University and the University of Washington — the biggest hubs for distance runners on the East and West Coasts, respectively, will host any meets at all. BU has published a 2020-21 schedule but has cancelled its first four meets and counting. Washington’s website does not list a 2020-21 track schedule, though Washington coach Maurica Powell says they are presenting a proposal to King County next week. BU coach Paul Spangler did not respond to an interview request for this story.

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But we’ve done some research and found that other institutions are going to be hosting meets — so there is going to be a 2021 indoor track season. It’s just going to look a lot different due to the global pandemic (spectator attendance, for one, will be greatly reduced or, in many cases, eliminated). Here’s what to expect.

Major conferences to proceed with indoor track, but college meets will be way more exclusive

Let’s start with the colleges. While several conferences based in the Northeast — the NEC, MAAC, and Big East — have cancelled their indoor championships, and the Ivy League has cancelled its entire indoor season, most major conferences are preparing for an indoor campaign. Those meets will be significantly more exclusive than usual, however. Big 10 schools have been cleared to host regular-season meets, but can only invite other Big 10 schools. The SEC has instituted a cap of seven teams per regular-season competition, though that can be expanded slightly if schools don’t bring full squads.

In particular, Arkansas, and its newly-renovated facility, should be a hub of activity. Beginning January 16, Arkansas will host meets on five consecutive weekends, followed by SECs on February 25-27 and NCAAs on March 12-13. Razorbacks women’s coach Lance Harter says SEC schools will have priority access to Arkansas home meets, but they’ve tried to be accommodating to other conferences — Oklahoma State, Oregon, USC, and Stanford will all be competing in Fayetteville at least once. One group will be absent from those meets, however: post-collegiate athletes.

“I don’t know of a single college meet that’s allowing unattached people into the event,” says agent Paul Doyle.

Out west is a different story. The Pac-12 and West Coast Conferences don’t sponsor indoor track; their schools compete in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation. There are also fewer indoor tracks out west, and the ones that do exist are spread farther apart. Albuquerque’s track is currently being assembled at the Convention Center and won’t be able to host meets until February 6 at the earliest. If Washington does host meets, they are expected to be very small. Colorado and Air Force could host meets, but NAU and Idaho State’s indoor facilities are being used for Big Sky football and are unavailable.

There will be a significant cross country season for West/Mountain Region schools, however, centered in Las Vegas. UNLV is hosting two major cross cross country meets, on February 1 and 19, at Craig Ranch Regional Park in North Las Vegas. Both will feature top-quality competition; as of now, Stanford, Notre Dame, NAU, Iowa State, Washington, Colorado, and BYU are among the schools expected to compete. The WCC (February 24) and Mountain West (March 5) are also planning on hosting their conference meets on the same course.

UNLV coach Yvonne Wade says they’re still figuring out the logistics of how many races will be contested at each meet, but says UNLV wants to provide schools with a safe opportunity to compete and prepare for the NCAA Championships.

“[The course will be] 6k for women, 8k for men,” Wade says. “They’re perfect 2k loops. Craig Ranch Regional park used to be a golf course, so it’s a pretty nice, flat loop…With everything going on, a lot of states aren’t allowed to put things on with their limitations. Las Vegas is a little bit more open to host meets so we definitely want to host something in a safe manner.”

One other major change: if the NCAA championships do go ahead as scheduled, the performances required to qualify won’t be nearly as fast as in recent years, especially in the distance events. Some schools won’t be running indoors, or will focus on cross country and won’t send their best distance runners to NCAAs. And for those that do, racing opportunities will be diminished.

“Access to really fast tracks is gonna be limited,” says Oklahoma State coach Dave Smith. “Even the places where you have a really fast track, let’s say Arkansas, for example, they have a really fast track, they have really good athletes. But especially the longer in distance you go, the more you need that critical mass of bodies with the same ability. It becomes more likely to run fast the more people you have with that ability. It wouldn’t shock me if 14:00 got into the NCAAs this year.”

Qualifying for NCAAs is unlikely to be a level playing field: not every school will have the same access to indoor competitions (though this was also the case, to a lesser extent, before COVID as well). But most coaches prefer that to no NCAA championships at all.

“It’s always somebody’s disadvantage,” Harter says. “It is, hopefully, only a once-in-a-lifetime scenario that we’re gonna have to deal with. But I think you’ve gotta learn to be accommodating and resourceful.”

Pros should have a number of competition opportunities, but USAs remains up in the air

With the restrictions in place in college meets, pros and their agents will have to be more diligent about finding competition opportunities this winter. But they’re there if you know where to look. Dave Milner will be hosting two meets, dubbed Magic City Elite, at the CrossPlex in Birmingham, Ala., on January 24 and 31. That’s followed by the Camel City Invitational in Winston-Salem, N.C., on February 6.

Camel City won’t have as many big names as years past (Phil Bond photo)

Camel City has been forced away from its usual, community-focused event. While the lucrative prize money ($6,000 for first, $4,000 for second, $2,000 for third) remains in place, there will be no spectators, no athlete meet-and-greets, and no post-race dinner featuring athletes and sponsors. There will also be no pacers (though there will be intermediate primes, similar to the Fifth Avenue Mile, to get the pace going), and the elite fields will be limited to athletes within driving distance (this includes the Reebok Boston Track Club, the District Track Club, and several local colleges such as NC State). Meet director Craig Longhurst says he’s received extra interest from agents following the cancellation of Millrose, but has had to turn many of them down — including some pretty big names.

“What I didn’t want to do is purchase all these flights or even have the athletes purchase flights and if our governor, a week out, says Hey, we’re shutting all sports down — and I know that’s a long shot — I just didn’t want to have anything like that happen and then people are on the hook for flights they can’t use,” Longhurst says.

The New Balance Indoor Grand Prix has been pushed back from February 6 to February 13 — the day Millrose would have been held — and appears to be going ahead. Exactly why it was pushed back and how it will differ from normal is unclear; LetsRun reached out to meet director Mark Wetmore, who has not yet responded.

The biggest competition opportunity for pros figures to be the American Track League, a four-meet series run by Paul Doyle that will be held on four consecutive Sundays beginning January 24. The meets, all of which will be held at the University of Arkansas, will be shown live on ESPN and Doyle is hoping to announce a title sponsor soon.

Just as in 2020 with the Big Friendly series and the Marathon Project, the lack of traditional racing opportunities has forced those in the sport to get creative in order to secure opportunities for American athletes.

“A lot of the European meet directors right now are reluctant to even take American-based athletes because they’re afraid [an American might not be able to compete],” Doyle says. “They’d rather just take the Europeans and know that they’re gonna have somebody there rather than have a last-minute cancellation because of a COVID situation…

“We’re definitely doing this to fill the void and support the athletes. Especially the way the outdoor season went last year with very little competition opportunities, I think the bulk of athletes are really wanting to do an indoor season this year.”

The American Track League meets are restricted to 125 athletes; Doyle’s plan is to hold 10 events per meet (likely eight track, two field), which will give them some leeway to add an event outside of the broadcast window if necessary.

“We’ve had a lot of interest from a lot of star athletes,” says Doyle.

There’s still some work to be done before New Mexico hosts any meets in 2021 (courtesy Joe Franklin)

So far, he says, Olympic medallists Clayton MurphyRyan Crouser, and Sandi Morris have all committed, as has high jumper Vashti Cunningham. In addition to ESPN, Doyle says ATL is in the process of negotiating rights for a global broadcast, noting that the broadcast window (early afternoon US ET) works perfectly for Europe.

“We’re hoping that a lot of the Olympic sponsors step up and help out,” Doyle says. “I don’t think there’s very much happening right now in Olympic sports as far as events, and certainly not televised events, so I think these sponsors that were trying to get a lot of exposure through the sport his past summer and going into 2021 really could benefit from this opportunity.”

MB: New ESPN Indoor Track Series

The ATL is set to wrap up on February 14, the week before the USATF Indoor Championships, but it’s anybody’s guess as to whether that meet will actually happen (LetsRun reached out to a USATF spokesperson on Monday to inquire about USA Indoors but had not received a response as of publication). Among the issues that must be sorted out: how will athletes qualify for the meet, and will USATF explore an alternate venue if Albuquerque is unavailable? Currently, New Mexico state guidelines prohibit gatherings of more than five people in Bernalillo County. And while some states have granted exemptions for college and pro sporting events, New Mexico has been reluctant: the UNM football team played home games in Las Vegas last fall, while the UNM men’s basketball team has been playing home games in Lubbock.

Even in a non-COVID year, many athletes tend to skip USA Indoors (especially in a year without a World Indoor Championships; this year’s World Indoor meet, scheduled for Nanjing, China, has already been cancelled). But if USAs is cancelled in 2021, it will represent one more lost opportunity in a sport that has already dealt with plenty of them over the last 12 months.

Related: A New Outdoor Track Meet Will Be Held In Austin, Texas on February 26-27 That Will Target Olympic and Olympic Trials Qualifying Marks