Track is killing itself- Dual meets, Team Scoring, and Bye-Bye non-collegian racing



They’ve got it backwards.

Yesterday, the news broke that the NCAA is consideringlegislation 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 4x400.

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 4x400.  The casual fan has no idea. The team score doesn’t matter until the end. It may make the 4x400 more exciting at the end in a close meet, but the 4x400 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.

1 comment:

  1. 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?

    ReplyDelete

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Related Posts with Thumbnails