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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

America's Track Towns

Last week I hijacked a thread at the Track and Field News discussion boards in order to get people's thoughts on what locality in their state could best hold the title of "track town".

The criteria was fairly simple: "The city/town where track (or maybe XC or road running) actually matters. The sports press pays some attention to it and attendance is halfway decent." Where the state championships are held, where there are college track programs of some competitiveness, and where the best high school athletes tend to come from are of little to no importance.

Based on that, here are the track towns named so far...

Ohio: Dayton
Texas: Austin
New York: New York City
Pennsylvania: Philadelphia
Michigan: Grand Rapids
Tennessee: Knoxville
Colorado: Boulder
Massachusetts: Boston
Louisiana: Baton Rouge

(Other cities discussed really didn't follow the criteria set out, and will be ignored for the purposes of this discussion.)

One state where the "track town" is obvious yet was totally ignored is Indiana. Terre Haute rightfully calls itself "Cross Country Town USA", as it hosts multiple big-ticket meets every year. As a result, the local press treats cross country as a sport worth their time and effort. That it does not take place on a quarter-mile loop of Mondo isn't important.

I can only guess for some other states. Maybe Orono for Maine, maybe Albuquerque for New Mexico. Definitely Des Moines for Iowa. But while thinking about this, I also stumbled on a troubling trend (although hardly a surprising one).

First off, California's "track town" is hard to pin down. From the dawn of track in the Golden State until maybe 20 years ago, the answer was always Los Angeles. Think about the meets it hosted: two Olympic Games, the Compton Invitational, the Coliseum Relays, the Pepsi Invitational, USC versus UCLA. There was even a major indoor meet in Los Angeles--a place where it doesn't make any sense to run indoors. People came out in droves to watch track meets, and sportswriters wrote reams about it. But the Los Angeles area hasn't had more than 10,000 people come to a track meet since 2005, and that almost certainly involved a lot of "papering the house". I would guess there have not been 10,000+ ticket sales for an LA-area meet since about 1990. And in 1991, LA set an ignominious record: worst attendance ever for the US Olympic Festival's track and field competition.

LA's chief rival for the Cali "track town" status used to be the Bay Area. Stanford Stadium and Edwards Stadium used to be sold out to see the USA take on the Soviets in track meets. Edwards Stadium was a perennial host of the NCAA track championships. The Modesto Relays were a huge hit, and when they began to wane the Burce Jenner Classic took over and was an equally big hit. The Jenner meet is now gone, and Modesto's meet has moved to Sacramento (and may have had less than 1,000 attendees this year). Attendance at last spring's Pac-10 Championships, held at Berkeley, barely passed 2,000 on each day. The state hasn't hosted an NCAA Championship since a few weeks after RFK was assassinated.  It now hosts no major annual competition save the Mt. SAC Relays, which is still based mostly on high schools and colleges.

Besides the fact that California's "track town" title has more or less been abdicated, look at the states where there is a strong "track town" candidate and the ones where there isn't. Most of the former lost enough population in the last decade that they will lose a seat in Congress, and most of the latter will gain. Texas is the lone exception to this trend.  The parts of the country where track matters are fading away, and the places that are growing are oblivious to our sport.

If you have a nominee for your state's track town, leave a comment. I'd love to hear your take. Remember, it's not necessarily where the athletes are good or where the meets are held, but where people care about track (or road running or cross country).


Fuz said...

Link to Track and Field Discussion boards is brooken

Scott Bush said...

For Illinois, it's really hard to say. Elmhurst is an obvious choice, since York H.S. is there, but they don't host any big meets and there are no good road races or cross country meets. The state XC meet is in Peoria, which could be considered Illinois' XC town, and they have a big road race in the summer, but they don't have any track events and the running community is poor. The running capital of the state is either Chicago, which is overrated as a running city because of the marathon, or Naperville. Naperville would be my choice as North Central College is there, a couple very good high school XC teams are there, North Central hosts some important T&F meets, the Distance GALA is right down the street and a few of the biggest road races in the state are held there.