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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Weekend Update

There's news, and then there's analysis of the news. The internet and its blogs and non-traditional reporting has allowed the latter to thrive. Here are four great examples from the last week.

1) Kenenisa Bekele gets beaten in Edinburgh XC
And not by a little bit, either--he was fourth, some 150 meters behind the winners. It's safe to say he hasn't been beaten like this in years. What, exactly, does it mean? He partly blamed missed training while in Edinburgh due to snow and ice, but it's not possible to put any shine on this turd. He ran poorly, and beat no one of note.

I do world rankings in each event using a points system, and recently got the system up and running for the 2010 season. It has Bekele at #2 for the 3k-5k category, and I thought "Huh, that's weird. It'll correct itself soon enough." Maybe it was right, and my assumption that he's invincible was wrong.

2) World 10k champ Linet Masai inexplicably forced out of Abu Dhabi half marathon by AK
The Zayed International half marathon is a huge payday, by far the biggest for a non-marathon race. Masai, one of the world's best runners, probably would have finished second and walked away with $100,000. But on the eve of the race she was not granted the release necessary by Athletics Kenya, with no explanation, and didn't get to run. Let's Run speculates as to why, and it sounds just about right. It's the same kind of stuff that made Steve Prefontaine apoplectic, but with sexism thrown in to boot.

3) College track IS concerned with pleasing fans
By the way things go at nearly all college meets, you'd figure this was the last thing college coaches are worried about. In a discussion at the Track & Field News forums about the recently-released NCAA technical manual and exactly how the idiotic new regionals system works, westcoasttiger had this to say:
At the USATFCCA convention group leader (and the force behind this crappy new qualifying albatross) Sam Seemes speaks to the entire coaching group about how the collegiate nationals in xc, indoor and outdoor are struggling to put butts in the stands compared to various other sports. This system is certainly taking things the opposite direction. The ONLY way to bring more fans to the stands is to bring legitimate drama to the meets via real competition and most importantly creating a true TEAM aspect to the sport. Seemes spoke of how lacrosse, water polo, gymnastics, tennis, softball and soccer were kicking track's butt in attendance and revenue. Well the draw for those sports is each has a true team focus even tennis and gymnastics which are not inherently team sports.
He then goes on to give some pretty good ideas about how to fix the problem, citing collegiate swimming's setup as one to emulate. The real point, of which I was not aware, is that other so-called "minor" sports are concerned with getting (paying!) butts in the seats and track is not...or at least the concern is one where, as usual, track people see themselves as individuals first and foremost, and "herding cats" is not a strong enough metaphor.

Another issue not spoken of, but which must be on some coaches' minds, is the increase in regional cable sports TV outlets such as the Big Ten Network. Track lags far behind these other "minor" sports in getting itself on the air, and for the same reasons as cited above. Doubtless this is why powerhouse programs like Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M are now scheduling dual meets, which are the only regular-season competitions suitable for TV coverage.

4) USATF isn't fan-friendly either
Duh. But T&FN's editor Garry Hill points out how. Analyzing the recently-released USATF Indoor Championships meet schedule, he sees an average time gap between running events of over ten minutes--and that's in the Sunday "prime-time" live TV portion of the program. The common critiques of baseball and soccer is that basically nothing happens during most of the competition, but this meet schedule really does pack 18 minutes of action into an hour and 45 minutes.

Two things jump out at me while reading this. The first is that no one cares about keeping the meet moving along. It's not just scheduling things so far apart, it's the entire idea of how to schedule a meet. If you want to tightly schedule a meet, you run the risk of clipping off warmup time for athletes in the next event, but not if you think creatively. Since the straightaway races of 60 meters and 60 hurdles and the multi-lap races of 400 and up use different surfaces, you simply alternate between them. Example: 1500 goes first, during which the hurdlers do their final warmups, then the hurdles, during which the 400 runners do their final warmups, and so on. Outdoors it gets a bit more complex, but there's still no reason the 1500 runners can't warm up during the 100, since they use opposite ends of the track.

Secondly, this is the kind of critical analysis that must get a wide airing if the sport is to correct itself. Track and field is often described as "insular", and a "wide airing" is a relative term here, but I'd guess for the most part the USATF bigwigs take it as important if it's in the pages of T&FN and not if it isn't. In the piece on Linet Masai, Johnson describes how USATF has gone probably too far in terms of satisfying athlete concerns over the good of the sport as a whole. A prominent editorial in T&FN about this poor scheduling, explaining while being good for the athletes in the short-term it makes for ever-decreasing fan interest, and how the livelihoods of professional athletes are wholly dependent on said fan interest, might have a chance to make a difference. Griping on a message board, no matter how justified, won't make a difference.

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