LOS ANGELES, May 17, 2012 – With all the noise about a college football playoff system coming in 2015 or so, it’s not too early to examine another sport which picks its national champion in a peculiar way: track & field.
Since its start in 1921, the NCAA track & field champion has been selected by scoring each event and than crowning whichever team – among the hundreds that compete – ends up with the most points at the end of three or four days of competition.
This inevitably skews the team race toward the speed events, where a small cadre of sprinters can – in individual events and relays – can essentially win the team title by themselves. In an extreme example, USC won the 1943 team title with four entrants!
So why not create a true team championship – as gymnastics does – and then hold the traditional mass meet later to crown national event champions? It can happen, and quite easily:
• Make the conference championship meets meaningful by advancing winners of the top eight conferences into four quadrangular meets (two entries per event per team) to be held the following weekend. Despite the silly scholarship limits in track – 12.6 for men and 18.0 for women – you need a real team to win a major conference title.
Happily, even the selection of the conferences from which the winners will advance can be done without politics, by using the performance-based U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) rankings, which are compiled weekly.
• In most years, the conferences contributing “automatic qualifiers” to a 16-team playoff system in track will be the ACC, Big 10, Big East, Big XII, Pac-12 and SEC and a couple of others. The USTFCCCA rankings, which are compiled by comparing actual marks across the nation and ranking teams by their combined national standing – a much better method of comparison than the computer and human polls used in football – can then be used to select the eight highest-ranked teams as “at-large” entrants. Everyone gets to play and politics has little to do with it: you’re in or out because of your marks.
For 2012, the 16 teams advancing to the regionals would include:
Men: Conference champions Arkansas (SEC), Notre Dame (Big East), Oregon (Pac-12), Princeton (Heps), Texas-San Antonio (Southland), Texas A&M (Big XII), Virginia Tech (ACC) and Wisconsin (Big 10) plus at-large qualifiers Florida, Florida State, Indiana, LSU, Nebraska, Texas, Texas Tech and USC.
Women: Conference champs Central Florida (Conference USA), Clemson (ACC), Louisville (Big East), LSU (SEC), Ohio State (Big 10), Oregon (Pac-12), Texas (Big XII) and Wichita State (Missouri Valley) plus at-large qualifiers Arizona, Arizona State, Florida, Kansas, Stanford, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Texas Tech.
There can be no doubt that the best “teams” in the country are among these schools.
• Four quadrangular meets for men and women would follow in one-day formats. If held at a single site on the weekend, with the men’s meet on one day and the women’s meet on the other, these meets can be held inside of three hours (excluding the hammer, sorry), making them easy to televise.
The winners of each of the four quadrangulars advance to the national team championship meet, to be held the next weekend: one day for women; one day for men, again in a 3+ hour format.
• This entire process can go on concurrently with a “preliminary round” format for qualification to what would be the “national event championships” if desired. Simply reserve four places in the NCAA event championships semifinals for the top finisher in each regional quadrangular and let additional team-championship competitors in based on their marks and placement in the descending-order lists (as shown on the TFRRS results ranking site now used.
Using this style of “playoff” system to determine the national team champion has several advantages that can help the sport in the long term:
(1) It emphasizes the team aspect of track & field, often derided as an individual sport. Anyone who has been on a high-quality collegiate team knows this is wrong, but there are very few opportunities to demonstrate this.
(2) If successful, a true team-championship playoff system will be a catalyst for increasing the scholarship limits for track to at least one per event: 21, instead of the current limits.
(3) If properly presented – a major issue in this sport – the team “regionals” and “finals” will create up to 30 additional hours of television programming. This could be helpful to the NCAA in view of its new, 10-year, $500-million non-basketball championships television agreement with ESPN.
Additionally, the major conference championship meets – as qualifiers – could also become better possibilities for television; most are currently ignored.
(4) Having the team championship decided in the format outlined does not detract in any way from honors – All-American or NCAA “finalist” – compiled by individual athletes, and just as importantly, for their coaches.
(5) Costs are modest for this program: the only “added” travel is for the national team championship meet, for just eight teams (four men + four women). For the teams in the “regionals,” travel there would replace travel to the current “preliminary round” competition.
(6) The team championship meets could be held at a rotated or constant site. Baseball and softball have profited from having their “College World Series” in permanent sites at Omaha and Oklahoma City, respectively. Perhaps this is the right kind of meet to be stationed in Des Moines or Eugene, or elsewhere, if a community wanted to step up to it. The reality is that one-day quadrangulars are not that difficult to organize and stage well; with some continuity from year to year and adequate hotel and air travel availability, the program could grow in stature with ESPN television support.
Having announced UCLA’s track & field meets during a revived era of dual-scoring events over the past two years, there’s no doubt that fan interest is heightened by an easy-to-follow scoring format. Why not crown a real team champion in track and create new interest in the sport?
If it can happen in college football – and it appears that it will – why not in the sport football players love (second) best?
(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)
LOS ANGELES, Jun. 15, 2011 – The oddest aspect of the NCAA track & field championship competition is that teams do not participate. Instead, a collection of individuals who have qualified on their own merits run, jump and throw over four days and whichever school piles up the most points is given the national championship trophy at the end. In Des Moines this year, you needed a personal computer with a spreadsheet to figure out that the team title was coming down to the 4×400 m relays.
Moreover, having just a handful of great athletes in just a few events can win the whole thing. In one unusual year – 1943 – a “team” comprised of four men from USC won the “national title.” There has got to be a better way; here is one suggestion for the creation of a true national team championship in collegiate track & field that will be easier to follow and focus more attention on teams rather than individuals. As college sports are all about the teams, it’s also a way to increase interest.
The format is borrowed in part from the highly-successful NCAA basketball tournament and in part from gymnastics, also quite successful and which has both an individual and a team element, analogous to track & field.
Instead of sending 1,200 men and women into a four-day mass of events to find a team champion, qualify 16 actual teams into four National Team Semifinals with quadrangular scoring, with the four winning schools advancing to the national championship meet a week later to fight it out for the national team championship.
Simple, easy to understand, easy to televise and requires no change in the current spring schedule. Here’s my scenario:
(1) With the emphasis on true teams, use the currently-irrelevant conference meets as qualifiers into the National Team Semifinals for the winning teams only. It takes a pretty full team to win a conference meet, so that’s a reasonably good test. Qualify the winners from the top eight conferences: Atlantic Coast, Big 10, Big XII, Conference USA, IC4A/men and ECAC/women, Mountain West, Pac-10 and SEC, and then pick eight at-large teams. One way to do this which takes overall team strength into account is the computerized U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) rankings.
(2) Hold National Team Semifinals on the following weekend, with four meets held, at each of the top-four-ranked schools. Three other teams would be assigned to each meet, with the top seed (based on the USTFCCCA rankings) facing no. 8, 12 and 16; the no. 2 seed facing nos. 7, 11 and 15; the no. 3 seed facing nos. 6, 10 and 14 and the no. 4 seed competing against no. 5, 9 and 13. In 2011, these meets would have looked like this (USTFCCCA rankings in parentheses):
• (1) Texas A&M hosting (8) Virginia Tech, (12) Arizona, (85) Duke (ACC champ);
• (2) Florida hosting (7) Arkansas, (11) Stanford, (43) Houston (Conference USA champ);
• (3) Florida State hosting (6) USC, (10) BYU, (31) Iowa (Big 10 champ);
• (4) LSU hosting (5) Texas Tech, (9) Texas, (13) Oregon.
• (1) Oregon hosting (8) Texas, (12) Nebraska, (51) Duke (ECAC champ);
• (2) Texas A&M, hosting (7) USC, (11) Arizona State, (31) BYU (Mountain West champ);
• (3) LSU hosting (6) Clemson, (10) Baylor, (24) Central Florida (Conference USA champ);
• (4) Arkansas hosting (5) Oklahoma, (9) Arizona, (22) Ohio State (Big 10 champ).
(3) Scoring would be 5-3-2-1 for individual events and 5-3-2 for relays; the NCAA rules prefer a silly, eight-place scoring system for quadrangular meets, making the event almost impossible for spectators to follow. Simpler is better.
The winners of each semifinal meet would advance to the National Team Championship meet, to be held the same weekend as the current NCAA Preliminary Round meet, but at a different site. We’ll get back to how our team-championship athletes get into the National Individual Championships in a moment.
(4) The National Team Championship meets would be held on a Saturday-Sunday, with the women’s meet on the first day and the men’s meet on the second day so that full attention can be given to each competition. The winner of each quadrangular (5-3-2-1 scoring) would be National Champion.
(5) What about the National Individual Championships? No problem: qualify 10 from each Preliminary Round meet instead of 12 and leave four spots in each semifinal round (4 of the 24) for the top-four finishers in each event in the National Team Championship. Voila!
The schedule works well, too. Using 2011 dates, the proposed meet calendar would have been:
• May 13-14: Conference Championships;
• May 20-21: National Team Semifinals;
• May 26-28: Individual Championship Preliminary Rounds;
• May 28-29: National Team Championships;
• June 8-11: National Individual Championships.
Essentially, the top 16 teams in each division would have one extra meet – as a team – than the current system. And everyone gets to rest before the National Individual Championship meet, where the focus would be strictly on the individual match-ups, and All-American recognition schemes would not have to be altered in any way. Since the athletes in the team chase would not participate in the Preliminary Round qualifiers, participation would be expanded (important to the NCAA) by about 100 men and 100 women (200 total) as those lower on the descending-order list would get invitations.
Such a system would return the team focus to track & field and, in every NCAA competition, it’s the team vs. team match-up which drives interest, coverage and attendance. In addition, by creating more attention on true team competition, such a format could also help to create interest – over time – for an increase in scholarships, especially for men (now stuck at a pathetic 12.6 for a 21-event program).
I believe this kind of system can be easily implemented and will work. Then again, I’m not getting my hopes up; I remember this scene between Groucho Marx as Captain Jeffrey Spaulding and Louis Sorin as Roscoe Chandler in the 1930 classic Animal Crackers:
SPAULDING: The nickel today is not what it was fifteen years ago. Do you know what this country needs today?
SPAULDING: A seven-cent nickel. Yes siree, we’ve been using the five-cent nickel in this country since 1492. Now that’s pretty near 100 years, daylight saving. Now why not give the seven-cent nickel a chance? If that works out, next year we can have an eight-cent nickel. Think what that would mean? You could go to a newsstand, buy a three-cent newspaper, and get the same nickel back again. One nickel carefully used would last a family a lifetime.
CHANDLER: Captain Spaulding, I think that is a wonderful idea.
SPAULDING: You do, eh?
SPAUDLING: Well, then there can’t be much to it. Forget about it.
• A thrilling team race, although tough to follow, that ended with Texas A&M somehow pulling out their third straight wins in both the men’s and women’s competitions, the first time that double three-peats have ever been accomplished by the same school.
• The emergence of a brilliant new star in Zimbabwe’s Ngoni Makusha (Florida State), who set a collegiate record of 9.89 in the 100 meters in wet conditions and won the long jump at 27-6 3/4 (8.40 m), the second-best jump in the world this year. He’s only the fourth to complete the 100/LJ double, joining DeHart Hubbard (Michigan, 1925), Jesse Owens (Ohio State, 1935-36) and Carl Lewis (Houston, 1981).
• The first-ever women’s 1,500 m/5,000 m double, in convincing fashion by Sheila Reid of Villanova, who overpowered the field in both events over the final 150 meters.
• New hope for the United States in the triple jump, with the Florida duo of Christian Taylor and Will Claye riding the winds to 58-4 3/4w (17.80 m) and 57-9 3/4w (17.62 m), respectively, backed up with legal jumps of 57-1 for Taylor and 56-11 3/4 for Claye.
• The first-ever three-time event champions who did not win in consecutive years: Jeshua Anderson of Washington State in the 400 m Hurdles (2008-2009-2011; second in 2010) and Makusha in the long jump (2008-2009-2011; redshirted in 2010).
And there were some lowlights, especially the weather, which dramatically impacted the attendance, totaling only 29,377 over the four days, compared with 41,097 in better weather in 2008.
But before moaning too much about the attendance at the NCAAs, the reality is that while fan support for other events like college football and basketball has soared over the last 20-30 years, significantly aided by heavy national television coverage during their regular seasons, track is where it has always been. Really.
Here’s the proof: we researched the four-day attendance at the NCAA meet for the last 25 years and the NCAA final-day attendance for the last 50 years, as reported by Track & Field News in the magazine and in Track Newsletter. The top four-day crowds, going back to 1987?
(1) 2010: 45,847 in Eugene
(2) 2008: 41,097 in Des Moines
(3) 1990: 35,600 in Durham
(4) 1994: 34,816 in Boise
(5) 2003: 31,900 in Sacramento
And what of the final-day crowds for the climax of the championships? Over the past 50 years, the top single-day crowds:
(1) 1967: 19,553 in Provo
(2) 1990: 18,600 in Durham
(3) 1968: 17,000 in Berkeley
(4) 1965: 16,000 in Berkeley
(5) 1975: 15,841 in Provo
That’s not much more than the 12,812 in Eugene in 2010 or the 14,000 in Austin in 2004, especially considering the size of the facilities involved (Provo and Durham ran their meets inside their campus football stadia).
It’s also harder to attract large attendance in small markets, which is where the NCAA runs its meets now. The NCAA championships hasn’t been in a top-10 market since 1976 in Philadelphia and has been in a top-12 market all of four times in the last 50 years: Houston ‘83, Philadelphia ‘76 and Berkeley in ‘65 and ‘68.
And that speaks to another important factor in track’s overall decline in the U.S. sports consciousness: lack of media coverage.
Yes, CBS was there with two hours live in CBS College on Friday and full coverage on Saturday on the CBS network. But the saddest piece of paper on display during the entire meet was the press box seating chart. Of the 22 media outlets seated in the press box, six were from Iowa, eight were from track-specialist publications and a grand total of eight were from news media outside of the local area:
• Associated Press;
• Arkansas Valley News;
• Baton Rouge Advocate;
• Eugene Register-Guard;
• GTR Newspaper (Tulsa, OK);
• Indianapolis Star;
• The Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL).
That’s it. One news outlet (the Indy Star) from the top 60 U.S. markets. Why? Well, for one thing, no team from a top-10 U.S. market has won since 2000 (Stanford) and a grand total of three times in the last 25 years on the men’s side (Stanford, UCLA) and three times on the women’s side (USC and UCLA) on the women’s side. None of this year’s contenders – Florida, Florida State and Texas A&M for men and LSU, Oregon and Texas A&M for women – come from large media markets.
Can this be changed? What does draw a crowd? More on that tomorrow.