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Wednesday, April 06, 2011

What happened to the dual meet?

Yesterday’s post on Ken Goe’s Oregon track blog was the summary of a chat with Duck head coach Vin Lananna about college dual meets* and why they are like the California condor: once nearly extinct, now merely critically endangered.

*I will use the Track and Field News definition of a dual meet, which is a scored meet between two, three or four teams.

As part of a preview of this week’s Pepsi Invitational, a quad meet with Stanford, Washington and Nebraska, Lananna lamented the demise of the dual. Like many (including yours truly), he says increasing scored competition is in the long-term interest of college track.

Lananna squarely placed the blame for the dual’s disappearance on tight scholarship budgets, 12.6 for men and 18 for women, as he said it makes it difficult to field a full team. “There are 21 events in track and field and 12.6 grants”, he said. “We don’t even have a starting lineup.”

I’m not sure I agree with that assessment as to why the dual meet is a rarity. First of all, women’s teams get nearly 50% more scholarships than men’s teams do, but there are quite a few dual meets where only men participate. If the scholarship issue was really the problem, then women’s teams would participate in duals to a greater degree than men’s teams. But they don’t, and the difference is significant.

Twenty-five to thirty athletes is enough to be reasonably competitive in a scored meet among two or three or four teams. When I was running college track, our men’s team had only nine scholarships but seventy athletes. We weren’t particularly good, but the ability to fill spots in a dual meet wasn’t our problem. If there’s a numbers game to blame, it’s the roster limitations on men’s programs that became commonplace in the 1990s.

Nobody has seventy athletes on a team anymore, but almost everyone in the major conferences has thirty or so. A sizable majority of college track teams have the resources to compete in dual meets, but also a sizable majority of teams choose not to compete in a dual.

Let’s take a closer look at the life cycle of the college dual meet. Along with relay carnivals, for decades they were the backbone of the college season. Their numbers began to decline all the way through the 1980s, were rare in the 1990s, and all but completely disappeared by the turn of the century, before rebounding a bit to where we are today.

Correlation does not show causation. But there is a very strong correlation here with the system of qualifying to the NCAA Championships. Up into the 70s it was an all-comers affair; anyone whose team spent the money to send them could compete. Then we came up with the system of qualifying to the nationals via marks—times, heights, distances. It stayed that way until the invention of the regional system in 2003, which has since been altered but is still very much alive.

I’m pretty sure that qualifying to the NCAA Championships via marks is what nearly killed the dual meet, and a move away from that towards competition-based qualifying has allowed it to come back a bit. Dual meets aren’t the easiest places to run fast times.

You don’t have to be an economist to know that incentives have a large effect on behavior. Qualifying to nationals via marks de-incentivize dual meets, whereas qualifying via regionals doesn’t. If we go back to the old way, we will again see the demise the dual meet. (Lananna, it should be noted, is college track’s most outspoken critic of the regional qualifying system.)

Does college track have to return to dual meets to regain relevance? I’m not sure about that. Last Saturday’s LSU Invitational had six teams, which isn’t a dual. But it was scored, and close and thrilling, and the results of every event mattered. Don’t forget that the relay carnivals, such as Penn and Drake, are very popular too. I think duals should be a part of every serious track program’s schedule, but there’s something to be said for variety as well.

What college track really needs are meets that cater to the needs of spectators. That can mean meets that crown winning teams; whether there are only two or three teams or six or eight or twelve is, in the big picture, not that big a deal. Catering to the needs of spectators definitely means meets that can be fit into three hours or less, or at least putting the highlights of the meet into that kind of time frame. It also means making who wins an event at least as important as what their time is.

Dual meets are widely called for because they accomplish all these things all at once. If you can come up with other ways to make a spectator-friendly college track meet, by all means go for it. But please, no more meets with forty-seven heats of a single event.

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