The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Problems with College Track

Much of Runnerville's Toni & Matt Show and its Runnerville Weekly is spent on Reavis' screeds against USATF's lack of skill in organizing and promoting the sport. USATF deserves the criticism, but the elite/professional end of the sport is far from the weakest link.

I regularly surf TV listings trying to scrounge up every tiny bit of track coverage on the tube. I look through CSTV, ESPNU, the Big Ten Network, and three different regions of Fox College Sports. There's just nothing there except a few conference meets, and none of them are live. College wrestling is supposed to be all but dead, but it's all over the Big Ten Network. I never thought gymnastics was a big thing in college either, but that's on all the time too.

Why? Simple. Dual meets. Dual meets are interesting and made for TV. None of the wrestling and gymnastics competitions on TV feature more than two teams. But the number of dual track meets this year between Division I programs can be counted on your fingers.

Instead, we're stuck with unbelievably boring all-day affairs. It's a 2-hour drive to Notre Dame for me, yet I wouldn't dream of going to the Meyo Invitational because it's just not worth my time. The reason we get these anti-spectator invitationals is the same reason we don't have dual meets. There's no incentive to do things any other way.

Getting an athlete to the NCAA meet is the number one way for most middle-of-the-road programs to garner some attention. Qualifying is based on marks and marks alone. So unless you've got a chance to run a fast time, there's no reason to run. Even worse, running fast is more important than winning. Collegiate milers would rather run 3:58 and lose than run 4:01 and win--and any sport set up this way is going to be boring, boring, boring.

But weren't the regional meets supposed to change all this? Unfortunately, the "at-large" system didn't end up changing a thing. After the automatic qualifiers get in, a few more are selected based on their single best mark of the season. This is not competition, it is not sport, it is bullshit. At the very first Mideast Regional, Lolo Jones did a face-plant in the 100H final, but ended up All-American at the NCAA meet. In what other sport can you bomb out in the post-season and still get to the championship?

Putting together a team that's good at dual meets doesn't get you anything, but basing your team around just a few athletes does. A team can be a "top 25" program with as little as a dozen points at the NCAA meet. So it's better to be a "big meet" (i.e., really good at two or three events) team than a "small meet" team (kinda good across the board).

It is entirely possible to change the incentive structure. For example, the NCAA team championship could be a separate meet from the NCAA individual championship meet. The top team at each regional that won its conference goes on to a four-team meet (two athletes per event, finals only) held the week between the regionals and NCAA finals. Under this setup, last year's men's championship meet would have been Florida State, Oregon, Oklahoma and Louisville in that order. If some traditionalists cry foul, I'd point out there are two NCAA championships, and the indoor champion would still be determined in the "big meet" style.

Also, the nationals qualifying system would have to change. The NCAA has floated various strange trial balloons on a nationals restructuring. Its obvious goal is to get the national meet
into a shorter window by allowing only 16 athletes per event, but still keeping the number of athletes who run at the national meet high. The solution is obvious: call the regionals the first round of the NCAA championship! (They do this in basketball.) Then qualify just 16 athletes to the national meet, and if at-large selections are made it must be done by a committee rather than a list.

With these two changes in place, there would be no reason to avoid dual meets. In fact, they would be attractive. When marks no longer matter, dual meets are a low-risk way of sharpening athletes' competitive skills. Get yourself on TV and the athletes (and donors) are quite a bit more interested in your program. Less invitationals mean more meets overall and therefore more home meets. Getting in the national rankings is not a function of the NCAA Championships but how you actually compete against teams in scored meets--and dual meets are easier to win than conference or regional meets.

Would this ever happen? Not in a million years. But one can dream, no?


Jeremy said...

Regionals as Round 1 of Nationals = brilliant.

Kyle said...

Interesting point about the dual meets. I've never thought of that one but you may be right. In my opinion though college Track and Field has suffered due to Title 9 as well as the extreme emergence of the multi-billion dollar industries of college Football and the NFL. Not only do many of our great high school sprinters want to play professional football, they likely couldn't get a "full ride" scholarship even if they did choose track. Therefore we aren't getting the same caliber of athletes that we used to.

Regarding USATF's role in promoting professional Track and Field you are spot on. They do an extremely poor job in marketing and promoting the sport.

The Track & Field Superfan said...

Please don't get started on the Title IX thing.

My former team no longer exists. The AD blamed Title IX but the data shows otherwise.

Suffice it to say that track is a somewhat expensive sport as compared to, say, tennis or golf, and has absolutely NO plusses from an AD's point of view. No win/loss record, few home meets, never on TV.

Johnny said...

So true. It used to be guys would double up to score points for their team. They might not be able to run a 14:10 in the 5,000 after running the 3,000 or the Mile, but that 14:30 might get a third or fourth, good for 6 or 4 points for the good of the team.

Sometimes, getting a good soild run and scoring some points is a healthy alternative to always trying to blaze. And, there would probably be less burnout as a result.

Johnny said...


What school did you attend? Bowling Green? I went there for a semester, walked on and ran in two CC meets with the BG colors. Used to go into Mark's Pizza Pub and there was the picture of Dave Wottle winning the 1972 Olympic Gold Medal. Sadly, Bowling Green will no longer produce a Dave Wottle because they no longer offer men's track and field.

I think West Virginia dropped both CC and T&F. How sad is that?

"The only sport worse than track is field." Beano Cook.

We disagree, but it is a funny quote.

Bryan said...

I liked this post. A couple of the ideas make a lot of sense, though I'm not entirely sure that dual meets alone are the answer to the TV problem.

I went to UCLA, which is one of the few schools that consistently tries to put together a well-rounded program that can compete at the NCAA meet. We haven't been that successful recently, but we're sticking with that approach, which I'm happy about.

The problem with dual meets is that really, I'm not sure how many there are that a fan would be interested in watching. Even I don't know if I'd tune in to watch any old dual meet on TV.

Anyway, I like the blog and I plan to check back in. Nice to see we've got someone out here solving the sports problems!

BTW, I found your site through a lens I created on Ryan Hall