Great piece out today by Ken Goe, highlighting the problem that is killing college track and field as a spectator sport (thanks to Matt Daddy for the link). Goe's premise is basically as follows: the overspecialization of track and field at the collegiate level (mainly due to a scholarship limit of 12.6 for men and 18.0 for women) has led to teams concentrating their scholarships in order to be really good in a certain area, and leaving then lacking enough athletes across the board to participate in scoring meets. The money quotes from Vin Lananna:
From a conceptual standpoint, the more things we can do that involve scoring in the sport of track and field, and get in line with what other sports do, I think it’s good for the sport, good for the spectators and good to generate interest. I’ll be quick to follow up and say as long as we have a ludicrous number of scholarships, 12.6 for men and 18 for women, it makes it very difficult. It’s a great idea, a great concept. But it’s really hard. There are 21 events in track and field and 12.6 grants. We don’t even have a starting lineup.
The bottom line here is context. There has to be two things present for the average fan to pay attention to an event: it has to be easily accessible, and it has to be easy to see why the event matters. College track and field fails on both accounts.
The accessibility issue is the least concerning to me. As it becomes ever more clear that we are going to have a Pac-12 Network in 2012, and that a primary focus will be to show off the non-revenue sports, my interest in baseball, track, womens basketball, etc will go up because I should actually be able to see a decent number of events without having to make the drive to Eugene. As far a track and field goes, however, the context issue is far more concerning.
In football or baseball, it is easy to see why an event matters. There is a clear winner and loser. You can take a look at the national rankings or the Pac-10 standings and easily gain some context for an event and discern the importance of its outcome. Track and field has gotten away from that in a big way.
Take a look at Oregon's 2011 track and field schedule. There are exactly two scoring meets in the regular season (a scoring meet being where you have entire teams competiting for a meet title, as opposed to the college standard these days, which is meets with various individual events with athletes from many different schools but incomplete teams). Those meets are this weekends Pepsi Team Invitational at Hayward Field, and the annual Dual Meet with UCLA. I can easily tell in a dual meet where the Pac-10 pecking order stands. Same with the team invitational. But when we're sending our sprinters one place and our throwers another, thats hard to follow. When we have a meet thats just for sprinters, its hard for me to sit around for a few hours to watch that when there are only a few Ducks participating. When I have to research PRs and who have already reached qualifying marks to enjoy a meet, its too much. I want to be able to go to an event, see my team go up against another team, and come out knowing who is better. I want it simple enough that I don't have to be a die hard to know what's going on. If I can't take children of a reasonable age to an event and give them context, its too complicated. Track and Field in its current incarnation fails miserably on this account.
I don't know what the answer is to make this happen. Obviously, we are one of the better and more follwed track and field teams in the country, but we can't just schedule a bunch of dual meets if nobody else wants to follow that model. I understand that teams feel like they just don't have the depth to pull that off anymore. But its also the issue that is keeping myself, and many others from following an otherwise great sport and a great program. If college track and field ever wants to be relevant, it has to go back to its roots, and reclaim the essence of why fans follow a team.