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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Issues Facing College Track, Part 2

Part 1 of my series introduced the idea that college track suffers because its regular season has no inherent meaning. We have six or seven weeks of this before anything that matters (the conference championships in May), by which time the interest of the media and the public have long been lost.

I also introduced the idea of a mix of automatic and at-large qualifiers to the NCAA Championships based in part on regular-season competitive record. This is not a new idea; in fact, it’s exactly how we choose teams which qualify to the nationals for cross country. I find it very ironic that XC, possibly the least fan-friendly sport in the NCAA, has a more compelling season than the stadium-oriented sport of outdoor track.

While this proposal would make individual races throughout the month of April more meaningful and therefore more interesting, it does not address the issue of college track meets as a whole. Whereas compelling sporting competitions are narratives, and each small occurrence has its part in a larger picture, college track meets are generally just a bunch of stuff that happens. There isn't any larger picture.

Read the web press releases put out by grad assistant SIDs on Mondays. The headlines say things like “Wildcats Run Well Over Weekend” and “Bulldogs Get Qualifiers”. Did they win? Did they lose? These are the fundamental questions of sports. College track and field is, with very few exceptions, completely indifferent to these questions. This is because we almost never keep score at meets, so there aren’t any winners or losers. We de-emphasize the team aspect of the sport, and so no one pays attention.

Take this weekend as an example. I live 40 minutes from Michigan’s Ferry Field, which will host the Len Paddock Invitational on Saturday. I have no intention of going. I have never wanted to go. There is nothing of any meaning to see. And I live and breathe track and field. If I’m not interested, no one is interested. This is a Big Ten school and a major one at that; the Wolverines are used to commanding the full attention of the state in almost every sport, but with track they blithely accept anonymity. This is how it is for at least nine out of ten D-I track meets. Unless something changes, track will be permanently relegated to third-class status at the 99% of colleges which aren’t perennially in the running for an NCAA championship.

So what would get some attention? What would drive interest? Well, let’s look at where there already is some media interest in track: high schools. Your local newspaper probably does have decent coverage of high school track, or at least decent in comparison to how they cover college track. Now you might say “Of course they cover high schools a whole lot more because it’s local sports.” Really? How’s the balance of college football coverage versus high school football? College basketball versus high school basketball? High schools might still get more coverage, but not by much. This is the balance we should be seeking with college track, a balance where the Wolverine track team gets nearly as much coverage in Michigan newspapers as the local high school teams do.

High schools always keep team scores, and there's always a winner. Check the headlines on high school track and you'll see they always say who won. Team scores build a story; each individual event is important in a larger context. The team aspect is what makes young men and women go beyond their limits; I remember running myself to the edge of blacking out just to try to tie up a meet. That the team is more important than the individual is the essential element of almost every sport. We willfully cast that aside and it, more than anything else, has been our downfall.

If we don’t give the media headlines like “Michigan Wins Paddock Invite” or “Michigan Second at Owens Classic”, they won’t pay attention. (They might not pay attention anyway, but that’s the status quo, which is unacceptable.) As for my interest, if the crosstown Eastern Michigan Eagles were running at Michigan’s Paddock Invite with the possibility of actually beating the Wolverines, I would absolutely be there to see it. That’s a sporting contest. Without team scoring, though, this Saturday’s meet will be little more than a glorified practice session.

To sum up: the team aspect of college track is paramount to its success. That can only be done at relay carnivals, which are nice but ultimately only a once or twice a year diversion, or at meets that keep team scores. So we must find a way to not only force meets to be scored, but to force coaches to think those scores are important. I’ll float a few ideas on this in Part 3.


Mike said...
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Mike said...

Part of the problem is the structure of the meets as well. College meets are designed so everyone on the team can run. While this is great for all the walk-ons, it is bad for the spectators.

I think every meet should have a varsity section and then a jv section afterwards. In the varsity section there is only one heat for each event. No more having 5 sections of the 400. Have a varsity section, with team scoring, that lasts 2 hours, and then have the rest of the meet later where everyone can run.