The oldest track & field blog on the internet

Friday, January 02, 2009

Exciting Track Meets

If you're like me, you look at the subject line above and say "Yep, they sure are". Scott Bush at US Distance Running asks how they can be made more so. I ask, how can you improve on perfection?

I realize I'm being facetious here, but only to make a point. A close and competitive race is inherently compelling. There is something in us that wants to figure out who will get to the finish line first, and when we cannot tell with certainty the tension builds until being released when one of them breasts the tape. There is no need to toy with this.

What we do need to change is how often such good races are put together, how they are delivered and communicated to the viewers, and how each individual race fits into a larger context. This is how you use individual pieces of competition to create a sport.

In terms of creating good races, it all boils down to one issue: distance races must be between athletes, and not between an athlete and the clock. In James McNeish's Lovelock, a fictionalized biography of the 1930s Kiwi miler, the title character derides what he calls "cuckoo-clock racing" and warns it could destroy amateur sport. On the Grand Prix and road racing circuit, paid rabbits string the field out from the start and artificially limit the number of runners still in contention late in the race, but this is far from the worst offender. Regular-season college track meets are generally unwatchable because the races are nothing more but time-trials geared towards qualifying for championship meets.

In terms of how track meets and other races are delivered and communicated to the viewers, we all know that virtually all of our national TV announcers should be hauled into Monument Circle and beaten to death in front of a cheering Let's Run mob. I jest. Sort of. Not really. But before we get a crew of equally incompetent maroons to take their places, we need to think about what makes a good sports announcer? And the answer is, someone who transmits the experience of being right there, while adding to it by giving us relevant information that we'd like to know but didn't. Radio baseball men, like Vin Scully and Ernie Harwell, were the absolute best at this. And a good meet, like the Olympic Trials, doesn't need anything but the experience of being there.

I have heard some absolutely fantastic announcers, but not in any media. The three best announcers in English-speaking North America do stadium announcing. They are Scott Davis (former Mt SAC Relays director) and Garry Hill (editor of Track & Field News), with Frank Zarnowski (decathlon guru extraordinaire) coming in for multi-events. Their talents are in such demand that TV could never pay them enough. But it's not like there aren't any other people in America that could develop the same skills--namely, playing ringmaster to the three- (or four- or five-) ring circus at a major meet. It is remarkably like the traffic-cop job of a golf tournament's main TV announcer, but done from a single vantage point with one or two people doing all of it. I've done it for high school meets, and it's mentally tiring yet a real thrill. I love it--and I'm sending in a demo tape to my local cable sports channel.

Besides the announcing thing, the other problem of track on TV is that the producers act like the last thing we want to see is a track & field meet. They will cut some races in order to give us more talking heads, and field events get treated like they don't matter at all. The old preview-race-recap-commercial routine just has to go. Fill in the dead time between races with field event updates or in-depth replays of races that took place before airtime began.

Lastly, how do we fit smaller pieces together to make a larger sport? College championship meets, be they conference or national, do this quite well because each race counts towards a team total. Dual meets are even better because they do it within a reasonably watchable time frame. The Olympic Trials are great this way because each race is part of creating an Olympic team and builds towards those Olympics. But what about road races or the Grand Prix circuit? At one time, the GP circuit had event and overall standings that led to a big payday at the season finale. Unfortunately, that system has gone by the wayside and the importance of each individual meet has dropped a bit. The Golden League is a whole-season gig but doesn't quite have the oomph necessary. Road races only have the World Marathon Majors and that hasn't been the excitement they were hoping for. I came up with an idea a while back; whatever is done, it needs to make the season build to a climactic meet or short series of meets.

A saviour of sorts could be found in the strangest of places. NFL fantasy leagues and NCAA tourney pools make fans out of people who normally don't care at all. In fact, you find yourself screaming at the TV screen. USATF's Pick n' Win game is OK but so simplistic as to be almost boring. The IAAF's fantasy game requires real thought and is a lot more fun. But both lack the essential part of the two prototypes I mentioned, namely competing against your friends and/or co-workers. Any money you might win is purely secondary to telling them to kiss your winning ass. Track fantasy games have "buddy leagues" as an option, and to make it enjoyable they should be the norm. It would be fairly cheap to throw some swag to randomly selected "buddy league" champs and go a long way to encouraging fantasy league participation.

Bottom line? It's not complicated. There are no secrets. We just need people in charge who care about making track & field enjoyable to watch.

No comments: