Thursday, July 17, 2008

Track is Ready to Grow Into Bigger U.S. Sport

Give a man a fish, and he will eat for a day. Give a track fan an out of this world track experience, and he’ll be starved for more—more action, more entertainment, and more star-studded competition on the track.

Fans wanted more from the sport, and there is a great deal to celebrate after the U.S. Olympic Trials. The atmosphere in Eugene was magical, mystical. There were some sick performances and incredible athletes over the eight-day meet.

The emergence of Eugene as the leading track venue and city couldn’t be better timing. Eugene certainly lived up to the billing of “Tracktown USA” while hosting the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials. The sport just helped to dig itself out of a big hole titled ‘irrelevancy’ and back to its rightful place at the center stage of the Olympic Games

The American consumer craves a spectacle. The sport is notorious for hosting track meets in medal bleachers that are less than half full. Not this time around.

The military jets that flew over the stadium during the National Anthem on the first day of competition really set the tone for a high caliber affair.

The $8 million renovation to Hayward Field looked the part as a professional venue for a professional sport and played host to some 167,123 spectators over the ten days of competition. The stadium even included corporate viewing areas.

Fans wanted an elaborate event, and the Eugene ’08 organizers delivered the Eugene Festival that included live music, booths, food, and the competition on jumbo screens for those without tickets.

Where does the sport go from here?

Not wanting to sound the least bit cynical, how does the sport get on live television? Eugene is no where close to hosting fan meets in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago?

It is not enough to have a bastion of the sport that resides in Eugene. A lot of people left Atlanta in 1996 after the Olympics thinking the sport had turned a corner, only to realize at the beginning of 1997 that the sport actually was scheduled to have less meets that year, rather than more.

Vin Lananna, University of Oregon's director of track and field, is not leaving anything to chance or USA Track and Field. “I think the leadership of USA Track & Field and the USOC need to get serious about looking at the sport as a professional sport, and one that is a spectator friendly event. Create schedules that make it exciting,” said Lananna at a press conference last Sunday.

The sport must relentlessly sell itself to grow from a marginalized sport to where every meet is on live television. Lananna said he envisions an annual summer circuit of three West Coast meets starting next year. His preferred rotation: Eugene-Portland-Eugene.

U.S. Olympic track coach Bubba Thorton said, “Many Americans think of track and field as a summer sport, yet there are not any professional competitions in the United States. There are other competitions in the spring, or meets that include all-age competition, but there isn’t any pro competition.”

Some of the nation's best track and field athletes might return to Hayward Field this month for an Olympic tune-up, kicking off what could become a summer circuit of meets in subsequent years, officials said Sunday.

Vin Lananna, University of Oregon's director of track and field, said he is working on bringing a national-caliber meet back to Hayward on July 27. "It won't be a great, big monstrosity, but we'll have a couple events," Lananna said. "We'll try it out. But when we do it (in 2009), we're going to blow it out."

Bill Roe, USA Track & Field's president and acting chief executive, said he supported the summer circuit concept. If Vin's interest was to have one here, we would definitely put one here," Roe said of Hayward. "I don't see it as being any detriment to having nationals here. I see it as more opportunities we have to put our athletes in front of these fans. Obviously, our athletes respond in front of these fans."

There seems to be some forward momentum from the 2008 Olympic Trials. Cynicism says to wait and see how things progress with the sport because we have heard this before. It is evident after the 2008 Olympic Trials the casual sports fan is secretly cheering for the sport to return to its rightful place at the top of the

By Jay Hicks.

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