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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Team Track?

In this month's Track & Field News, Sieg Lindstrom has an article about Doug Logan's plans to start up a domestic team track circuit that would compete throughout the year indoors, outdoors and on the roads. The plan is anywhere from six to eight geographically-based teams in a league that would start in two or three years at the earliest.

My initial reaction was that this was the dumbest thing I've ever heard. The sport will not go this direction, because post-scholastic competition hasn't been team-oriented for a century. The best athletes will still compete in individual competition in Europe during the summer no matter what we come up with. This idea is much like World Team Tennis, which sports fans under 40 have probably never heard of, and those over 40 probably think it disappeared about the same time as disco. If it did disappear, no one wold notice.

But on second thought, this sounds like a good idea, as long as it's done right. Logan is the same guy who was heavily involved in the development of Major League Soccer, which has always faced the same issues: the best players will always be on European clubs, because that's where the real money is (and the real competition essential for high-level development). Ditto with track. Like WTT, I don't think most overseas soccer fans would notice if MLS went away. But it's done wonders in the USA.

First off, it allowed the second-tier American talent to get significant playing time in a reasonably decent league, which in turn made the USA a perennial World Cup qualifier (if not particularly competitive when they get there). The effect has been far, far greater though.

There's Fox Soccer Channel in the USA. ESPN now does live coverage of World Cup qualifying, Confederations Cup, UEFA Champions League, and the European Cup, and foreign club action is a SportsCenter staple. Soccer is now considered a major professional sport in the USA, although its appeal is still limited to the nut instead of the casual fan. Fifteen years ago this situation would have been thought near impossible, despite the momentary bump caused by the '94 World Cup. It took a long time, but domestic B-level competition was probably the single biggest driving force.

One of the failings of the US sytem of track & field is a lack of support for post-collegiate athletes who aren't good enough to make a living on the pro circuit. I had a college teammate who was an NCAA All-American, 8th at the Olympic Trials and 50th in the world, but earned more from his grad-school assistantship than he did from his Nike sponsorship and just couldn't keep it up after he got his master's degree. Given a few more years, I think he could have become an Olympian.

This kind of situation is very common in field events, where there's much less money available to be earned and athletes generally don't hit peak form for years after college. It's no coincidence that field events were our weakest area at the last Olympics. Logan's pro track league could give such "semi-pros" enough security to stay in the sport.

And then, of course, there's the possibility that a league like this could make professional track & field a major American spectator sport. I wouldn't expect it anytime soon, but just think of getting waht soccer got...a Fox Track & Field channel, European meet highlights on SportsCenter, and live coverage of every Diamond League meet and IAAF World Series event.

Again, the league must be based on the idea of giving B-level talent domestic competition instead of having to go to Europe to run their B-level meets. But in most events, American B-level talent is still pretty damn good. If one of the teams was based in Detroit/Ann Arbor, I'd get season tickets.

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