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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Future of the Golden League

While cleaning house today, I came across some notes I furiously scribbled down a few weeks ago regarding the IAAF's Golden League and World Athletics Tour.

This year, the Golden League was disjointed and hard to follow while the World Tour as a whole was an abject failure. Maybe the TV ratings were decent and so forth, but as far as a coherent structure for track and field it simply did not work.

What led me to this conclusion? I was at my in-laws' house, and NASCAR's Chase for the Cup series was on the TV. A few weeks before that, the PGA's FedEx Cup playoffs were on. Both have been highly successful efforts by their respective professional organizations.

By comparison, track's flagship series this year was disjointed. Two meets in early June, another two a whole month later, then another six weeks before the final two meets. The World Athletics Final was a real downer as the biggest stars, such as Bolt, skipped it. In terms of giving structure to the season, there was none.

By contrast, NASCAR and the PGA have taken the playoff mentality of team sports and successfully applied it to individual sports. Before trying to figure out how the IAAF could do the same, we need to carefully look at what it is that's being done.

NASCAR and the PGA have figured out what game shows have known for decades. Your standard 30-minute game show boils down to three stages: first round, second round, and lightning round. Jeodpardy! is the classic example, but pretty much everything on GSN follows this format. Points are accumulated all the rounds, but the second round counts much more than the first and the lightning round most of all. Why? So that everyone is still in the competition until the very end, because even big leads are not insurmountable. If the leader can't lose, why keep watching?

Likewise, the FedEx Cup Playoffs and the Chase to the Nextel Cup reduce or eliminate any points lead built up during the regular season. The same happens in any team sports playoffs; the teams with the best regular-season records have to start all over again and win the playoffs to get a championship. The Patriots had no built-in advantage over the Giants in last year's Superbowl, even though they clearly had earned one, and the "best" team of 2007 didn't win the championship because they weren't the best on that one day. I'm not complaining; I hated the Patriots, and in fact the possibility of them losing made it that much more interesting to watch. If late-season competition is to be compelling, championship contention must be heavily (or completely) weighted towards that period.

If the IAAF wants a compelling end to the season, then, there must be some type of short-term chase to a championship. Of course, we had a great one this year called the Olympics. But to extend interest beyond those two weeks and into the professional circuit, we need something different than what we've got.

We also need to recall how things used to be. The forerunner of the World Athletics Final was the Grand Prix Final, and the IAAF got its best athletes to show up by giving out a big jackpot to a champion of champions, the single male and female athletes who had the greatest seasons (as determined by a points total). Once that went out the window, it got a lot harder to get universal participation. And in an Olympic year the need to be at peak form for the Games trumps all else.

So here's my idea in a nutshell. Meets before the Olympics or Worlds score points just like they do now, but the series expands to add some other events like the World Indoor, US Championships, the European Team Championships, and so on. Also, maybe bonus points for good marks. The Worlds/Olympics also add in very big points. Immediately after the WC/OG, the top five or six in each event qualify to a short series of meets held over about two weeks, capped by the World Athletics Final. Call it The Home Stretch or some such catchy thing. And not only have event championships, but an overall title as well. (Note: if bonus points for good marks are awarded, it is possible that the overall title could come down to two athletes in the same event. Head-to-head competition is the essence of sports!)

The other thing that must be kept in mind is that different years are, well, different. The schedule should be adjusted to account for the supreme importance of the Olympics, and the rapid downward spiral of public attention afterwards. World Championships years should likewise be treated differently than either Olympic or World Cup years.

This proposal would ash-can the Golden League as we know it. I wouldn't miss it. By the end of the year, the remaining contenders are attempting to not lose, which in sports is generally considered not interesting.

1 comment:

The Host said...

Interesting thoughts, the Golden League is definitely not cutting it. I think the key for track though (at least here in the U.S) is that it is married to the concept of individual competition, and the biggest events are far away from our major US cities. I think we need to try something new, and go with a team scoring model instead, so casual fans that live in communities have something easier (the hometown team) to identify with than the status quo (individual athletes half way around the world). Should be interesting to see where the growth comes from here, and if the Golden League issues were more of just an Olympic year logistical problem with the calendar or something else.