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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

On Field Events and Wise Use of Resources

I remember hearing a while back that some Hollywood types were seriously pursuing making a movie out of Micheal Lewis' Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.  Apparently the plan has been shelved.  Too bad, as it might have doubled the number of watchable movies about statistical analysis (21 being the other one).

The central point of Moneyball, though, isn't using newfangled statistics to get ahead of the competition.  It's a very old idea: when you have limited resources, you don't waste them.  When you can get good things cheap, make the best of them.

Track and field in general, and in the United States in particular, needs to really examine this issue.  While last week's USATF Championships saw many stars skip the meet because there wasn't enough payoff, every single one of the top field-eventers were there.  The two biggest stories of the weekend were Chaunte Lowe's amazing single-day high jump/long jump double and Kara Patterson's American Record javelin throw.

The new Diamond League setup and its mandated slate of events has really expanded competitive opportunities in the field events.  And, unlike sprinters or distance runners, those athletes never duck each other.  Rest assured that even if there's only a small paycheck to be earned, throwers and jumpers will be there.

Look at this weekend's Prefontaine Classic.  You've got an international field of men's discus throwers that we just aren't used to seeing around these parts.  You've got all the top men's shot putters save Andrei Mikhnevich and Maris Urtans.  You've got Dwight Phillips and Fabrice LaPierre, the top two long jumpers in the world (according to my rankings). The women's pole vault is absolutely loaded, topped by Jen Suhr and Fabiana Murer, the second- and fourth-highest vaulters of all time.  The top three women's hammer throwers are all there.  And in the women's javelin throw, you've got Barbora Spotakova versus Mariya Abakumova, whose 2008 Olympic battle Spotakova considered payback for the Soviets crushing the Prague Spring.  The field events should be by far the best part of the meet, even better than the loaded fields in the men's mile and 5k.

The field events are where you get great competition at a low price.  Sprinters and distance runners get outsized attention and therefor outsized appearance fees.  Discus throwers, on the other hand, come mighty cheap.

It is imperative, then, that professional-level meets make sure that the spectators in the stadium and the television viewers at home see what's going on with the field events.  Based on what I saw in-stadium way back at the 2001 Worlds, and from what I see on BBC webcasts, this is done very well overseas.  But here in America, we are our usual wasteful selves.

I read a lot of complaints about the adidas Grand Prix in New York, citing difficulties following the field events due to a substandard scoreboard and poor announcing.  What I do know for sure is that if you watched it on TV, you would have thought there were only two field events contested: the women's pole vault and long jump.  There were in fact eight field events, and they were tremendous.  The expense of bringing in names like Steve Hooker, Malte Mohr, Renaud Lavillenie, Teddy Tamgho, Christian Olsson, Phillips Idowu, Andreas Thorkildsen, Tero Pitkamaki, Valerie Vili, Natallia Mikhnevich and Sandra Perkovic was completely wasted.

I'm willing to bet that Nike's outlay to bring in those jumpers and throwers will be pretty much flushed down the toilet due to bad TV work.  At least the 12,000+ people in the stands will be treated well, though--and, considering that, is it any wonder they keep on coming back?

The Diamond League has led to one more change this year: broadcasters who had previously shown only the Golden League meets now pick up all fourteen meets in the series.  So, for the first time, CBC will be broadcasting the Prefontaine Classic at the same time that NBC is.  Those of us lucky enough to be able to watch both might want to compare and contrast.

Bottom line: we don't have money to waste in track & field.  Field events will always give you more bang for the buck.

1 comment:

JeffGorski said...

Hit the nail on the head. A marginally competent announcer can set up the "drama" of a throws competition and explain what the throw means in the rounds of competition, thus educating the casual TV fan. Much more entertaining to see 68m women's javelin throws or men's discus throws than slo-mo replay of the W 5k. USATF does an equally poor job of promoting the field events, especially throws, in any of their pre-meet public relations/press releases. One they did do for the Pre meet in Eugene used Spotakova's WR distance as Patterson's new AR. The head of media at USATF can't get the right result for the new AR? Our sport is in great hands (typed w/ heavy sarcasm).