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Thursday, August 19, 2010

Guest Post: Why Zurich is Awesome

Friend of the blog and Swiss thrower Martin Bingisser went to the Weltklasse Zurich meet today and offered up the following guest post.  Additionally over at his own blog he wrote up a piece on the Big Shot competition in Zurich's main train station and the trend to move some throws into more intimate atmospheres.

So read up and think (and set aside your jealousy over his being there and you not).  Be sure to bookmark his blog too.

As a collegiate athlete at the University of Washington, Hayward Field was our second home. Any time we wanted to face a little competition, we hopped in the bus and took the five hour drive south to Eugene. Over the years I've competed there more than a dozen times and also had the pleasure of providing media coverage for the 2004 Prefontaine Classic. Of allof the places I've competed in the world, Eugene is unique and has an environment that I had ne seen matched outside of a major championship...until now.

Last night I attended Weltklasse Zürich at Letzigrund Stadium. I've been to Switzerland at least eight times since 2003, but each time my visit has been in the early summer or late summer, thus always missing what I consider the highlight of the year. The meet itself has a history reaching back 82 years, but it really made a name for itself in the 1950s when it started to produce some world records. In 1960, it produced the first ever 10.0 second run in the 100m dash. Since then, it has produced 25 world records.

Now that I have witnessed the top American track and field meet* at the Prefontaine Classic and the top European track and field meet at Weltklasse Zürich, I think I can sum up what makes the two different. While both are outstanding competitions in their own right, the difference is a matter of scale. Zurich was so much bigger.

The stadium is bigger. Imagine an enclosed stadium double the size of Hayward Field packed with knowledgable and intense fans. Welcome to the new Letzigrund Stadium. The old stadium had a wonderful aura. The stands were so close to the track that fans could touch the athletes. The 2008 remodel moved the stands back a little and some (including my boss of all people) say that it has taken away some of the atmosphere at the meet. Even so, the environment was just as intense.

The anticipation is bigger. The meet itself has been advertised on trams, trains, and billboards since the spring. I even saw an ad for it on my ATM screen as I was waiting for it to spit out my cash last week (UBS is the main sponsor for the meet). The shot put competition on Wednesday really got people talking about the meet and many of my coworkers, who are not track fans and could not likely name one runner other than Usain Bolt, were watching the meet at home. 

The brand is bigger. In Eugene, it is easy to spread the word. But Zurich is a large international business center with more than a million people in the area. Still, the meet has become a staple of the sporting scene and a household brand among everyone in not only Zürich, but all of Switzerland. When I tell anyone I am an athlete, their first question is whether I have come to compete at the meet. Unfortunately, the hammer is not part of the diamond league, but that is a topic for another post.

The money is bigger. The budget for Weltklasse Zurich dwarfs that of most U.S. meets. When you get people watching a meet from around the globe, the sponsors will follow, allowing the financial support to make the meet truly world class. While the Prefontaine Classic relies heavily on Nike, Weltklasse Zurich the support of numerous international companies from banks to luxury watches to betting companies (you can place bets on the races from the meet). In addition, ticket revenue is much higher since there are more than twice as many spectators and even the cheapest standing room seats are more expensive than the highest priced ticket for this year's Prefontaine Classic. It cost nearly $25 just to buy a seat at the pre-meet shot put competition. And all the seats were sold out at both events. Television revenue also is higher, with the meet being broadcast in primetime across Europe and an expected 130 million viewers worldwide.

The performances are bigger. The reason why Zurich has been so succesful is not just because they attract the top stars. It is also the timing of the meet. In a championship year, Zurich is normally the first major competition after the World Championships or Olympics. The athletes show up in peak condition and their performances reflect that.

But with as big as the Zurich meet was, the Prefontaine Classic still holds the edge in one area: local history. Sure, the meeting itself has a rich history in Zurich, but there is not a strong history of athletics in Zurich. Switzerland is a small country and has only produced a handful of world medalists in its history. There were no hometown contenders on Thursday and most events didn't even feature a countryman. Outside of the field events, success on the track was even sparse for other European countries, with Americans and Africans crossing the line first in most races. It says a lot about Switzerland that they can sell out a stadium without the local connections, but if American can grow their meets it can bring the local history which adds an exciting level to the competition that Zurich will never have. The Berlin World Championships last year were amazing in part because of the success of the German team and the crowd going crazy accordingly. Listening to the fans react to Robert Harting's come from behind win in the discus put goosebumps on my skin all the way from my desk at work in Seattle.

America also runs into some obstacles when hosting a large meet. Due to the current track schedule, top meets in America must happen early in the season. It is also more expensive to get international athletes to come from across the pond. It costs less for Zurich since most of the athletes competing were already in Europe for other meets on the circuit. America needs to create a circuit again, so that the costs of brining in foreign athletes can be shared by several competitions and thus make it worthwhile for both the athletes and the meets to have top talent. Its a shame that stars like Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski came to America for just one meet this year and then returned home likely before the jet lag even set in. Other throwers come to America for training camps, but don't compete in any meets. By creating some new meets and banding together America can not only grow its current meets, but also create some new competition opportunities and exposure for the sport.

A big advantage we have is that any American meet could potentially be exposed to some even bigger markets. It may be tough to really get a large presence in Los Angeles or New York, but even the Seattle metro area is three times as large as Zurich. Meets tend to think so much about TV that they forget about the fan experience. But in the end, they don't even get the TV experience right either. What ends up happening is that the stands look empty on TV and, combined with boring coverage, that makes the sport seem like its on its death bed. That's not even mentioning the lack of drama or head-to-head battles at most of the top meets. Our sport is not dying, but does need some big changes to get back in the spotlight in America.

*The Penn Relays also has an arguable claim to the top track meet in America, but Prefontaine is definitely the top track and field meet. Penn has stars in the relays, but their field events are lacking the throws are not even contested in the stadium. While it is an enjoyable experience, it belongs in a slightly different category.

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