After last week’s 2014 USATF Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Sacramento, California the sport is again engaged in a dialogue regarding presentation venues. Eugene versus Sacramento is the current exchange with Indianapolis, Des Moines, and Palo Alto also in the conversation as recent championship host sites.
Eugene is Eugene, Tracktown USA. Say what you will about Big Swoosh, the folks in Oregon understand track and field, and know how to present it. The 2008 and 2012 Olympic Trials in Eugene felt like a major sporting event. The stands were full, and a fan festival was erected right outside to entertain and inform the casual fan.
By comparison, despite the attendance figures released –- 32,783 over four days –- Sacramento’s Hornet Stadium on the campus of Sacramento State University looked consistently empty on the backstretch, and only two-thirds to three-quarters filled on the homestretch throughout the four days of competition. Some of that may be attributed to the heat that bakes Sacramento each summer. Who but the most rabid fans want to sit out in triple-digit heat for hours on end? (Though it was only in the 80s till the final day).
Others point out that Hornet Stadium is larger than Hayward Field , 21,000 capacity versus 10,500 (though expandable to 21,000). So while it might seem emptier, there may in fact be more people in attendance than one realizes. This argument only reminds us of the role perception plays and how important staging and presentation is.
From the vantage point of wide-screen TV Sacramento looked no different than the Aztec Invitational at San Diego State. There was no “look” of a pro sporting event taking place, no special stadium dressing, bunting, flags or signage. Even the football markings remained on the infield, subliminally reminding everyone that this was not primarily a track facility.
In thermodynamics, an isolated system is one which cannot exchange any heat, work, or matter with its surroundings, while an open system can exchange all heat, work and matter. In terms of physics, then, a stadium like Hayward Field with its covered grandstands and enclosed seating is an isolated system; it contains and focuses the energy of the crowd back onto the presentation stage — think back to the the 2008 men’s 800-meter final at the Olympic Trials. Hornet Field with its uncovered seating and low-angled bleachers is an open system; its energy is dissipated.
One reason track & field is popular in Europe is because of their presentation venues. Bislett Stadium in Oslo and Stockholm’s Olympic Stadium are like Fenway Park and Wrigley Field in American baseball. Both are smack in the middle of town, not overly large, and were built specifically for the sport they present. Performance is, in some ways, a function of the environment in which it is placed. Many fans prefer indoor track because of its isolated-system energy. But except for Hayward Field there are no isolated-system performance venues built specifically for the presentation of professional track and field in America.
When track and field was first organized in the 19th century, football, baseball and soccer were also in their infancy. Boxing, cycling and horse racing were well established spectator sports. Today the marketplace for eyeballs and wallets is littered with new sports. Yet in the face of this increased competition where sport is spectacle, track and field continues to exhibit itself as when corsets, bonnets, top hats and bustles were still the height of fashion.
The small irony is we saw how presentation can matter last Wednesday when USATF staged their shot put championship off-site at the State Capital building. Some 5500 fans turned out to watch one event in an isolated system environment. Joe Kovacs threw over 22 meters (72′ 3 1/2″ ). The other 20 events drew 32,000 over four days in an open viewing system with many of the sport’s top stars choosing not to attend.
USATF is not blind to the fact that without a sense of theater and showmanship in presentation the sport of track & field will continue find itself falling farther behind in the ongoing competition for eyeballs and wallets in the 21st century marketplace of sports.