NCAA Track & Field: As good as the “good old days”?

LOS ANGELES, Jun. 14, 2011 – There were a lot of positives to reflect on at last week’s NCAA Track & Field Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa:

• 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;
• ESPN.com;
• 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.

3 Comments

  1. I think they should try the bigger markets like Los Angeles, and New York. Those markets have really strong track fans. Des Moines can’t really be packaged as a vacation/track trip. The Olympics are held in cities that are interesting, so should the NCAA. Also, t&f needs to be marketed to the cable companies. Whether it’s Universal, Big Ten Network or Versus, they need content and, I think, would be willing program t&f.

  2. Track & Field has many problems and it is clear when you look at attendance numbers. With the exception of high school events where parents are a given, most meets struggle to get respectable attendance let alone sell out the stadium. I have been a track fan since I first went out for my eighth grade cross-country team, over the years I have attended many meets from youth events to the Olympic Games and I have seen the decline of interest over the years. The product is just as good as it was 40 – 50 years ago when we had good attendance at many meets, I believe that it how the product is packaged!
    Consider that perhaps a four-day event is just a bit to long and take a look at the final-day numbers from the past 50.
    (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
    Except for 1990 I don’t believe the other 4 had a joint Championship for men & women.
    Perhaps this is an issue with potential fans, after all the NCAA does not hold a joint men & women’s Basketball Championships! Title IX has been a great thing for women in college sports and it has especially been a boom for women’s track & field.
    When Title IX first came along I thought if a college had a million dollar sports budget they would just go raise another million dollars for the women’s programs, but that is not how it worked out, I was young & dumber in those days! There is a clear lack of dual meets at the college level, this does not allow schools to develop a fan base beyond the die hard track fans like myself. It’s not like we don’t have potential fans, just look at high school track, which year after year has the highest participation numbers in high school sports. The numbers are like a million kids a year! Wow, just think about the attendance at meets if we could just turn 10 percent of those kids into fans. Surely the 10 percent isn’t an over reach and what about all those parents. The numbers are there we just need to do a better job of putting a track & field product in front of the public. As I said track & field has many problems but the sport at it’s best can be so pure man against man, man against the clock, man against himself you get the point. I love this sport and hope the people who are in power are smarter then me. Hopefully they will wake up soon and get it right. In the span of 3 days last week I saw track at it’s and best, I witnessed a HS 3200 (3200 that’s another letter at another time) that clearly should not have never been started only to watch the master minds in charge stop the race with 1 lap to go! Then 2 days later I went to the IAAF Diamond League meet in New York to watch the Pros run really fast and instead got my money’s worth from the sub 4 – minute mile by a high school runner! Great track still thrills me. As I said the product is good and maybe we just need some out of the box thinking on how to re-package track & field.

  3. The solution to filling the stands is much, much simpler, and it’s simple economics. People don’t have as much money to throw around these days.

    The final day ticket price was $30 across the board, regardless of the quality of seating. All the good seats were filled. If the NCAA was willing to make average to poor seats cost about the same as going to a movie, then more locals would have come and the place would have filled up.

    A similar inflexibility in pricing by USATF kept down attendance at last year’s national championships.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Oregon » Blog Archive » Oregon track & field rundown: Oregon State rejoins the party with a new track and field facility
  2. Your Morning Headlines | The Track & Field Superfan Blog

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