FOOT LOCKER 2013 – WORLD CLASS REUNION

Champion Tessa Barrett, Waverly, Pennsylvania senior sprinting to the tape

Champion Tessa Barrett, Waverly, Pennsylvania senior sprinting to the tape

San Diego, Ca. — It is all grist for the running mill, this Nike Cross Nationals versus Foot Locker Cross Country Championships debate:  Which high school championship is better? Which one will outlast the other?  Who wins?  Who loses?  Goodness me.  For as in all things running, it seems, the sport has found a way to engage in an internecine battle rather than work as one to take on the outside world which is where the real fight should be waged.

Of course, Nike and Foot Locker were once partners in the Foot Locker Championships until Nike departed to create Nike Team Nationals in 2004 after Foot Locker turned down the offer to add a team element in San Diego. The competition then really heated up when Nike introduced an individual championship and renamed its meet Nike Cross Nationals in 2007.

But whichever high school national cross country event you may prefer, NXN or Foot Locker, this much is true, the sport at the high school level has all the passion and energy that is missing at the professional level.  And one important reason is the built-in rooting that comes from a fan-base that is actually attached to the athletes they care so deeply about. 

Meb Keflezighi's daughters, Sara and Yohana, rapt spectators, budding fans

Meb Keflezighi’s daughters, Sara and Yohana, rapt spectators, budding fans

As we all can recall, there is never a time in life when one’s passion runs as deep or is mined as pure as when first we give our heart and soul to “my” team.  This connection first emerges around the age of ten when hero worship enters a young fan’s consciousness and he/she becomes aware of the local pro or college team that his/her father or mother follows closely.

But it is upon entering high school that the attachment takes the deepest root, for this is truly my team — think Friday Night Lights.  From there college fandom forges loyalty into a lifelong bond.  How many college friends first dress their newborns in the jerseys and memorabilia of their alma maters?

Now look at running.  While this “my-school, my-team” sentiment is evident to a degree for cross country and track — given the history of the program and its level of excellence — with the lack of scholarships needed to field entire teams, the days of collegiate dual meets are long gone, and once runners, jumpers, and throwers graduate, any connection they have to something beyond themselves goes missing altogether. Instead it is every man jack for himself as they now perform for shoe company contracts.

Louis Colson, Thomas Edison HS senior, Alexandria, Va. - All out at Foot Locker 2013

Louis Colson, Thomas Edison HS senior, Alexandria, Va. – All out at Foot Locker 2013

Yet look at the running chat rooms today and see how deeply felt the passions run.  Read how venomous are the arguments for or against Nike or Foot Locker’s particular national high school cross country offerings.  Where is that passion for the pro side of the sport?  Perhaps it isn’t there because there remains no context, no linking element to join fans to anything beyond the individual athlete.

That said, club teams, once the mainstays of post-collegiate athletics, have begun the long climb back to relevance. This weekend’s USATF Club National Cross Country Championships in Bend, Oregon were very well attended, if not widely covered.

As part of its PR outreach USATF continuously touts the USA has having the greatest track team in the world. But then there never is any competition staged to prove the validity of the boast; only the Olympics and World Championships keep a tally of national medal hauls.  Yes, there is a USA versus The World format at the Penn Relays each spring, but that is a one-off meet at the beginning of the season that even includes double USA squads, one red, one blue. As such it doesn’t present the public with the binary choice  — Yankees versus Red Sox — necessary to develop a true rooting interest over a calendar span.

And the world-wide Diamond League track tour essentially stages individual competitions that attempt to break world records in every event at every meet, but never links one event to another in any sort of fan-friendly narrative.  As a result nobody actually wins a track meet. Instead numerous track and field events simply share a venue rather than a common purpose or goal.

*****

John Dressel leads eventual champion Grant Fisher heading for home (courtesy Letsrun.com)

John Dressel leads eventual champion Grant Fisher heading for home

As it turned out, NXN had the better girl’s race in 2013 with Alexa Efraimson, Elise Cranny and Sarah Baxter duking it out for the best-in-the-nation status, while Foot Locker staged a more compelling boy’s competition between juniors Grant Fisher of Grand Blanc, Michigan and Colbert, Washington’s John Dressel who fought a bare-knuckles brawl over the final 800 meters.  Now if only those passions could be somehow harnessed and transferred to the pro game we might see the internet forums light up with the same level of energy and vitriol.  And wouldn’t that be a welcome change?

*****

Say what else you will about the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships, it is without a doubt a wonderful reunion.  Of course, with only ten years of history behind it NXN can’t dig as deeply into the past as Foot Locker can with its 35-year legacy.  And while Nike brings in a large stable of its pro runners to mingle with and inspire the NXN teams and individuals in Portland, the combination of wintry weather and the scheduling of Foot Locker as the final high school cross country meet of the season keeps the NCAA coaches and previous year’s champions from joining the festivities.

Villanova's Marcus O'Sullivan taking in the action

Villanova’s Marcus O’Sullivan taking in the action

You couldn’t toss a wayward Frisbee at yesterday’s Foot Locker meet without hitting one of the many college coaches who had flown in from around the nation to take in the one-stop-shopping recruiting opportunity.  There was Marcus O’Sullivan from Villanova.  Next to him searching for a race program was Tennessee’s J.J. Clark.  After the meet Michigan’s Mike McQuire was chatting up one of the athletes and her mom.

Of course the balmy San Diego weather added immeasurably to their inclination to hang around Balboa Park and discuss the sport in all its facets.  And afterwards a number of coaches and old friends gathered at ex-UCLA Coach Bob Larsen’s Mission Beach condo for pizza and beers.

Post-race party at Coach Bob Larsen's beach-side condo

Post-race party at Coach Bob Larsen’s beach-side condo

Included in the bunch was Tulane’s Eric Peterson, who had been at UCLA for 16 years prior to taking the job with the Green Wave.  Also on hand was current UCLA assistant, Forest Braden, local Grossmont College women’s coach Robert Claesson (where Coach Larsen had begun before taking the UCLA reigns), and Pat Tyson, the head coach at Gonzaga, who was the roommate of Steve Prefontaine while at Oregon.  With so many old friends on hand, Pat called his former U. of O. coach Bill Dellinger to rub in the camaraderie and good cheer that Bill was missing up north.

Early 1970s Grossmont College squad

One of Coach Larsen’s early 1970s Grossmont College squads

After the pizzas were devoured, everyone crowded around the dining room table where Coach Larsen had laid out many old pictures that opened memory banks and loosened tongues, times that make such occasions a big part of why sport is the mortar that cements friendships for life.

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12 comments on “FOOT LOCKER 2013 – WORLD CLASS REUNION

  1. Mike says:

    The USATF Club Nats XC was awesome Saturday. Clubs slugged it out for bragging rights on a great course. Competition is alive!

  2. Geoff Hennessy says:

    Tony, you were at ground zero when clubs got overtaken by shoe company teams. Back in the day the GBTC and Liberty AC were the best distance clubs in the country for men and women. Then it all disappeared. Are we any better now? Coaches like Bill Squires, Sev, Bill Clark and John Babington produced a pipeline of talent. And got paid peanuts. I miss those days.

  3. Leon Lewis says:

    It doesn’t get anything like the widespread coverage of the H. S.
    championships, which means it is settled even further into the depths
    of the inner ring of running freaks, but Mike is right about the terrific
    competition of post-collegiate runners at the XC Club Nats. I’m very
    proud of our Blue Ridge N. C. ZAP team’s 2nd place.
    And, as an observation, just look how both entities thrived when Indy
    racing split into two warring factions.

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Leon,

      Congrats to the Zap team for its performance in Bend. Wouldn’t it be great if we could see “Zap” across the chest of top pros going up against other teams at the media covered events?

  4. Where’s the tail and where’s the dog in this discussion? It’s long bothered me that running’s media (Flotrack, T&FN, Let’s Run) gives so much more coverage and pushes out so much more content about HS races than they do for pro events. Are they responding to the market’s demand, or are they shaping their readership’s perspective of what’s important in the sport? If we take them at their word that they are working to (re)build this sport in America, then the hierarchy of coverage should reflect the HS – college – pro progression that we not only see in every other sport, but that gives youth athletes something to aspire to. Media coverage of NXN or Footlocker is like an 8th grade graduation – you can’t shake the feeling that we’re telling these kids “Well, this is as good as it gets. You’re free to keep going and work hard, but don’t expect much more in the way of accolades.”

    • Toni Reavis says:

      That’s good insight, George. One problem in covering the pros is that every high school kid is an American (just about) who has decent media skills, a coach, parents, and a team back-story to tell. In other words, it’s richer media field to till. Once you get to the pros its an international mish-mash with fewer competitions in the USA, you have less access, fewer media savvy stars, and a less contextualized format. High school sports, therefore, are the lower hanging fruit.

  5. Robert Cooke says:

    Toni,

    Great perspective. Besides the one-off coach or parent, from a media perspective, high school runners and coaches provide easy access versus the restrictions College programs impose on media and the firewall that agents and brands try to protect instead of enhance at every opportunity. Every once in awhile that easy access can be troublesome but the experience gained is invaluable in so many different ways as it’s the building block approach to gaining that needed experience.

    I’ve been to quite a few Foot Locker Championships over the last 10 years and the field and media dilution because of NXN was quite evident this year.

    Foot Locker has a great history and over the years not a whole lot has changed in terms of format. Can the product continue to draw the national attention over time or does it too need to evolve?

    • Toni Reavis says:

      Having missed the last ten Foot Lockers due to a scheduling conflict with the Honolulu Marathon, I didn’t notice, but many people also said the crowd was smaller this year at Balboa Park than in the past.

  6. […] FOOT LOCKER 2013 – WORLD CLASS REUNION « Toni Reavis […]

  7. […] Reflections On Foot Locker [Toni Reavis | 12.15.2013] […]

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