They’ve got it backwards.
Yesterday, the news broke that the NCAA is considering legislation that would end post-collegiate athletes competing in college meets.
Two weeks ago, our CC regional rep, who does a fantastic job, sent along the new legislation for us to look over. After confirming with him that indeed this would eliminate non-college athletes from competing in college meets (Think Stanford, TX Relays, Florida Relays, or almost any meet really), I sent the info to the TFAA to get the word out because as someone who coaches 5 post-collegiate athletes in addition to my college coaching duties, this would effectively kill sub-elite racing, destroy the field events, and hamper all but maybe the top 10 in the U.S. in their events.
Why is there a move towards this direction?
Put simply, it’s an attempt to grab “fans.” To make track more popular.
As best as I can tell, it’s part of a trend that is coming from within some
track coaches and also the NCAA. There is a trend towards trying to make track
like “other sports.” That trend includes emphasizing scoring every single meet.
It makes sense to the non-track orientated person that every sport is scored.
So why shouldn’t track be the same?
The same trend has created a push for dual meets, which is
perhaps a yearning for back in the day when dual meets reigned supreme. Us
young folk are regaled with stories of Oregon vs. UCLA or whatever other
historic team you want to talk about. We hear about the glory days and about
how people showed up to watch track.
To get to the heart of the matter we need to explore these
two premises before finishing off with the rule changes.

Team Scoring:
In an effort to make track more interesting, there has been
a strong push to score all meets. As I mentioned above, it’s partly due to the
fact of this “every sport should have a score” notion.
What we’re missing though is that isn’t what makes our sport
exciting. Racing does. We have built in winners and losers within each
event.  The process of racing and the
drama and competition that ensues is what makes our sport exciting.  It’s what we have to sell.
Consider this. From about 2001 when I first started watching
NCAA track championships on TV, there would be a HEAVY bias towards following
the team score. They’d try and create this drama about how the team score
mattered. What happened is that they’d take the 2-3 teams that we’re in
contention and highlight the events that team had individuals in….and they’d
skip the rest.
It makes for horrible, infuriating track television for all
track fans. Throughout the years, you have races completely skipped that were
amazing  individual matchups, and you had
individual performances completely neglected because so and so from school X
scored 2 points in 7th place to boost their team…
Essentially what happened was that the things that make
track exciting, competition, racing, were neglected. And people got pissed. You didn’t satisfy the hard core fans who wanted to see the races. The “casual” fan never bought in (or else ratings would have improved…).
I hate to break it to you, but track is a different
sport.  When coming to a meet or watching
one on TV, people don’t tune in to see how the team is doing.  People tune in to see specific races or
athletes.
I’m sorry to be blunt, but when a HS Cross-Country athlete
stumbles across the NCAA championships, he’s looking for the distance events,
then really doesn’t care much about anything else unless it’s a very big name.
The same goes for a throws athlete/fan, or a sprint athlete/fan.
It’s the harsh reality of our sport. It’s like having a baseball, basketball,
and hockey game all on the same channel at the same time and rotating between
them every 5 minutes. VERY FEW people are there for all three. They might not
mind the other 1 or 2, but they are usually more passionate about one. That’s
what happens in our sport.
I really appreciate the sprints, throws, and jumps. I’ve
learned to love watching the technique, strength, and power of the various
events, but my passion will always be running. I enjoy watching the 200m or the
long jump, but I get fired up watching a good mile.That’s the reality of our sport.  It’s
several individual sports wrapped in one. Team scoring doesn’t make it an
exciting team sport. All it does is potentially make the last race more
exciting for those directly involved at a championship meet. At a regular meet,
no one pays attention enough to know who the heck is winning. Try scoring
Stanford and see who cares.

Heck, our first meet was scored this year, and I couldn’t
tell you at all who won, got last, or anything in between and neither could
anyone on our squad, and they are invested in it.
Score championships to add extra drama, but remember what sells our sport.
The Dual Meet:
Dual meets don’t work for 90% of the NCAA. Do you know when
they do work?
When you’re talking about a meet like Oregon versus
Arkansas, where both teams can field a pretty well rounded full track team.
Then you get actual competition in each event. And while all of the distance
races are likely tactical, and the times will likely be slower, it can at least
be entertaining.
You know when they don’t work? For pretty much every other
track team.  The reality is that,
especially on the men’s side, the vast majority of schools can’t host a full
team. With 12.6 and 18 scholarships total to spread across many more events,
almost every team in the country has their weak spot.  You can almost blame the demise of dual meets
on the NCAA scholarship limits.
What we’re left with at most dual or even tri meets is certain schools
dominating certain events. The races are bland and boring. The kids don’t
really care, because unless it’s a big time rivalry, it’s not that exciting for
a kid to go race a tactical slow meet against other teammates.
You might argue that makes it exciting because some schools
are better at certain events than others so it adds strategy. Until you
consider that you are watching two teams race, and that it really isn’t
exciting seeing one school time trial against themselves. It makes the
individual races bland. In the end, the individual races are what count. The
team score is a bonus.
So this push for dual meets seems a bit nostalgic to me. Do
they work in very specific instances? Yes. But the reality is for the vast
majority of teams, they don’t. They’re boring and dull. Why? Because when you
stick 6 guys on a track in a 3k and the abilities vary by a bit, it just
results in crappy racing.
And in the end, racing and competing is all we have to sell.
So what?
It’s not about the team score. It’s about the races. Coaches
think that the team score makes it exciting because they know what it’s like to
have a team battling for first at conference or at nationals. They know how the
excitement builds and how fun it is to go to the wire and pull off the win in
the 4×400.
What they are forgetting is that, no one else really feels
that unless you are involved in that. Let’s be honest, in order to see if our
actual team is in the race, it requires someone over the 2-3 days of that meet
updating the projections and calculated score throughout. Only the coaches or
hardcore math nerds know what the heck is going on until we get down close to
the 4×400.  The casual fan has no idea.
The team score doesn’t matter until the end. It may make the 4×400 more
exciting at the end in a close meet, but the 4×400 is already one of the most
exciting events, so does it really help that much?
The reality is that what makes track exciting is investment. The team battle is
exciting for coaches because they are invested in that. Most “fans” aren’t. No
one cares if you won a team dual meet really, most likely not even your own
individual athletes on that team. What makes track exciting is selling the
races as matchups. We might portray it as a team sport, and it might have a
slight team concept, but the reality is when 3 guys can go to NCAAs and
potentially win an NCAA team championship, is it really a team championship?
What track needs to focus on is matchups, races, and
storylines. Racing is exciting. Competition is exciting. Trying to do math to
figure out who is in the projected lead, is not. What we need to do is focus on
getting people invested into races.
To end with, I’ll ask this question. If you go to a HS state
meet, does anyone really talk about the team champion? My experience is besides
the athletes on that team, nope. What people come away talking about are the
matchups and the races that went down. Sometimes the team battle adds some
intrigue, but it’s filler. HS runners from around the state (at least in TX)
come watch the state meet because they want to see how the best in different
regions stack up. They want to see how so and so from their hometown matches up
against another cities best. There’s a connection. They go for the individual
races.
Which brings us to the issue. If we ban non-college athletes
from college meets, we’re hurting the sport. It’s not going to make college
meets more exciting because for the majority of the meets, no one cares about
the team score anyways. All college athletes do is add the one component that
makes track exciting: competition. And the vast majority of the time, it adds
to the competition. In the distance races especially (and field as well I
think) we would see a large drop in performance times at various meets as the
college athletes no longer have people to go after and chase. They no longer
have non-college rabbits to help them out. They no longer have the connection
to the post collegiate world.  World
silver medalist Murielle Ahoure competed at our indoor meet and it gave me a
chance to point out a pro competing. My volunteer assistant, Jackie Areson
competed at our collegiate meets, which gave our guys and girls a chance to see
times at local meets they never would have.
Above all else though, it just doesn’t make sense. There is
no club system in the U.S. You would be killing sub-elite post-collegiate
racing.  You would kill racing
opportunities for all the elite athletes who already struggle to get into “pro”
races, yet still run US qualifying marks. And above all, you’d kill anyones
chance at continuing this sport once done with school.  Why stick around if you can’t compete?
Last year, I rabbitted a college race to a 3:45 1,500m. For
1,100m I clicked of 60sec 400 pace to help a group of local college kids to get
their qualifying mark without having to fly out to Stanford. At that same meet,
my assistant coach raced the steeplechase unattached, ended up winning, and
pushing some college athletes at a small meet to some pretty solid times. In
the same meet, some good local 800 and 5k runners who were post collegiate showed
up and pushed the times down to some pretty respectable marks. It turned a
small local college meet into a pretty exciting meet for all those
involved.  Not to mention my college
athletes got to see what their coaches could still do. The point is, none of
that could happen under the new rules. And that’s just sad.
If fans are what we need, then we don’t need to sell a convoluted mess of a scoring system, where no one really knows what’s going on unless they are keeping cheat sheet notes and projections. What we need to sell is racing, match ups, and competition. Perhaps we need to stop selling to the wrong market and actually sell to our targeted audience. As I said, the reality is that with “casual” fans there are very few entire track team fans. There are fans of events and athletes. Give the people what they want. Have a distance hour, sprint hour, and so forth. Jam it packed with events people want to see at that time. Target the right audience. The problem is I want to see the 5k, while some jumps coach sees it as a 15min break. We’ve got to fix that. 

 

So I’ll urge those college coaches to contact your
conference rep and make it known that you oppose these rules changes.

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Track is killing itself- Dual meets, Team Scoring, and Bye-Bye non-collegian racing
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One thought on “Track is killing itself- Dual meets, Team Scoring, and Bye-Bye non-collegian racing

  • April 11, 2014 at 10:20 pm
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    I generally read your blog for the science part, which doesn't really apply to this article. As someone who doesn't know anything about the rules of track, I'm a little confused by the idea that non-collegiate athletes do currently participate in NCAA competitions. Is it just rabbiting and it the person is not actually competing?

    Reply

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