AWAITING THE MARQUEE MATCHUPS

Mayweather unloads on Ortiz

    I have been a boxing fan even longer than a track/running fan, watching Gillette’s Friday Night Fights with my father in those halcyon days when black and white television had the jittery faraway look of today’s USA 5 KM Championship internet coverage in Providence, Rhode Island.   But even now I find foot racing and boxing to be at least sporting second cousins. Both require rigorous training, and then the shared goal in competition of trying to stop the other guy from doing to you what you are trying to do to him.
Last night, in Las Vegas Floyd Mayweather Jr. remained unbeaten (42-0) with a controversial fourth round sucker-punch KO of Victor Ortiz to claim the portion of the world welterweight title Ortiz carried into the ring.  Today, in Providence Ben True of Maine bested six-time NCAA D2 champion Aaron Braun ex of Adam State and Kenya’s Sam Chelanga two-time D1 NCAA champion ex of Liberty University, while in Philadelphia Matthew Kisorio defended his Philly Half title against fellow Kenyan Sammy Kitwara in a U.S. all-comers record 58:45 (joined by New Zealand’s Kim Smith’s similar 1:07:11 record performance on the women’s side.) In a side-note, former multiple time NCAA champion out of Colorado, but long injured Adam Goucher qualified for the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston with his 1:04:53 time (needed sub-1:05).

Of course, the overt violence of boxing and mano-a-mano nature of the game separates it from the more subtle and less obvious violence of running where the pain and savagery is meted out using pace as the hammer (and head-butting and sneak punches aren’t an issue).  Another difference is that no runner on the planet – no, make that ALL runners together on the planet – don’t earn what Mayweather pulled down for the 11:59 of fighting last night, $25 million, a sum likely to rise when pay-per-view receipts are counted.  For reference, the Samsung Diamond League total payout for the 2011 track and field season is $8 million spread over 32 event champions.  Dartmouth grad Ben True earned the princely sum of $5000 for his USA 5 KM Championship. 

While boxing fans still await the one mega-fight we’d all pay to see, Mayweather versus Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines, foot-racing fans still long for the match ups that the Samsung Diamond League was supposed to deliver but hasn’t.  In Brussels that would have been World 100 meter Champion Yohan Blake versus World 200 meter Champion (and training partner) Usain Bolt. Instead each man opted for the other man’s championship distance, whetting the fans appetite even more for a showdown that won’t be happening.

The question is, is there any proposition in track which might lure fans into a pay-per-view mood?  And if so, how to build an undercard to sate a paying crowd knowing that the Main Event will only consist of a few seconds of warfare?  Even if it only took Floyd Mayweather less than 12 minutes to dispose of Victor Ortiz, the possibility of 36:00 of action-  12 rounds – remained intact until the final blows were landed in round 4.

Notwithstanding, young Mr. Blake is exactly what the lordly Mr. Bolt needs as the 2011 season wraps and the Olympic year beckons, a real eye-opener – whether in the competitive sense, or Phil Hersh sense, i. e. Did Yohan Blake just make it seem dopey to watch track …

Yes, the kid was a real sports car in Daegu at the World Championships 100 meters, but only after Bolt false-started to the sidelines, leaving the field ripe for Blake’s golden harvest.  Following Daegu, the 21 year-old added a pair of 9.82s in Europe and now this, 19.26, second-best all-time for the deuce after a balky start!!  And you wonder why Mr. Hersh wonders?

But Brussels now looks more and more like Bolt saw what was coming, and opted to go to the non-Diamond League 100, ceding the furlong to his smaller training partner, who blew Walter Dix’s 19.53 into an adjoining language.  Now even Bolt’s golden 19.40 200 in Daegu and Friday’s stumbling (left toe scraped out of the blocks) 9.76 world-leading 100 in Brussels with its rushed drive phase seemed lazy.  Well, Blake just woke him up.

Still, one of the few times there’s actual matchup people want to see, and the powers that be can’t deliver.  As always, everyone is protecting turf.  That’s how you know the pitch is too small.  You want your athletes expansive, hungry for competition.  But we narrow their choices and inhibit the risk.  It’s a self-limiting methodology which doesn’t showcase the best against the best, which is what you really have to sell. When the best match up on paper doesn’t make it the track or roads, you aren’t just using that pistol to start your race, you’re shooting yourself in the foot at the same time.

David Rudisha, History’s fastest 800 Man

That’s why I have always felt it isn’t how much you pay people to win that counts, it’s how much you pay them to risk losing. That said, forget Bolt v. Blake.  What I want to see is Bolt and David Rudisha over 400 meters.  Bolt is the world champion and world-record holder at 200 meters. Rudisha is undisputed king of the 800 meters, world champion and record holder, as well.

The question we want answered is: where is that line separating pure speed from speed endurance?  It’s somewhere beyond 200 and less than 800.   A Bolt v. Rudisha battle might well settle the issue for our current times. And since neither man would be racing in what is his Diamond League event, no one’s ranking would be on the line, just his rep.

Bailey Over MJ

Donovan Bailey: “Where’d you go, bro?”

Perhaps the last time the sport of track and field made a dent in the national consciousness in pure competitive terms was June 9, 1997 when the USA’s Michael Johnson and Canada’s Donovan Bailey hooked up in a 150-meter “World’s Fastest Man” showdown in the Toronto SkyDome when Bailey was the world number one 100 meter man, and Johnson reigned supreme in the 200-400.  Problem was Johnson pulled up down the stretch when it became obvious he wasn’t going to win, thereby creating a huge anti-climax to what had been a very successful promotion.

What would have been an even better promotion should have been a three-race series with a 100 run in Toronto (Bailey’s distance and home country) followed by a 200 in Dallas (Johnson’s game and town), and a climatic 150 in Las Vegas under the lights on the strip with betting and live TV.

If we want to engage the public, we better find a way to put the right athletes in the right events in front of an anxious public ready to cough up their hard-earned wages to see the fight.  Right now I’m guessing it’s Rudisha and Bolt who would create the biggest buzz.  What other match-up do you think would light up an audience?

END

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13 thoughts on “AWAITING THE MARQUEE MATCHUPS

  1. To show how fragile these peaks can be, on the heels of Bolt getting outshone by Yohan Blake in Brussels last Friday, tonight in Milan, Italy David Rudish’s 34-meet 800 meter winning streak came to an end at the hands of 17-year-old Mohammed Aman of Ethiopia.

    Here we are touting a Bolt v. Rudisha showdown over 400m, and now his star has been tarnished just enough to kill that idea in the blocks. Rudisha won his World Championship gold in Daegu, then nipped close to his own world record with a 1:41.33 run in Rieti, Italy, then followed that with a winning run in Brussels to secure the overall Diamond League title. But his 1:43.96 was one of his slower times of the season, and young Aman was still in the picture at the tape, just 0.34 behind. The combination of efforts had made Rudisha vulnerable,

    In tonight’s Notturna di Milano Meet Aman hung on Rudisha s as pacer Sammy Tangui slipped through 400m in 50.21. Excited by his performance in Brussels, Aman moved to Rudisha’s shoulder in the stretch, then passed him with 80m to go. And though Rudisha hung tough, he couldn’t find the necessary gear to pass. Aman won in 1:43.50. Rudisha trailed just 0.07 behind.

    One road too many.

      • Hugh,

        It’s not that Borzakovsky is quicker than Rudisha at 400m, it’s the marquee value of Rudisha and Bolt meeting somewhere in the middle that might intrigue people. Only we in the sport know Borzakovsky. He wouldn’t be a big enough draw. And Bolt-Rudisha is only one idea. Let’s think of any other interesting match-ups. How about a Gender Challenge with Blake and Jeter over something beyond 100 and under 200 with Jeter getting the appropriate head start? Think in terms of fans.

    • Anon, Bolt v. Rudisha just one match up I’d like to see. Different proposition than Bolt v. 400 specialists. Wonder where the odds would fall with each of those, and see where the money flows.

  2. Hi Toni,
    nice articles on this blog (reminds me of the runnerville-project) and I want to share my opinion with you.

    I think those ‘special match-ups’ don’t add much value to track&field. They create a buzz on something different than the sport itself: competing and performing. It’s like those ‘city-games’. Lots of people attend those ‘meets’ not because they’re interested in t&f but because of the location (city center). Imagine a hitting-battle between Soza and McGuire in the Boston Common, that would also gather a large crowd but doesn’t have anything to do with baseball. The best athletes should do their own event.
    What’s more important is that big names race each other way more often, especially in sprints. Sprinters are the most marketable athletes in the sport (sorry distancerunners and shotputters) and if they avoid each other, interest in the sport will diminish. Imagine Red Sox and Yankees only to meet each other in the AL play-offs and play only minorleague teams in the season. The DL supposed to end this problem, but that didn’t work out. Now it’s time for athletes, managers and meetorganisers to tackle this problem. In the short term their payment will be a little less, but if the media and sponsor interest will (probably) increase, prize and appearance money will too.

    Other subject is that the IAAF will have to allow a less strict rule on sponsorship appearance on apparel. The worldmarathonmajors tried to increase recognition of the athletes with the introduction of different (country) shirts, but it’s way better if other sponsors and colors would be added to the sport. I really like the SMTC, Footlocker (Mike Powell) and Hansons shirts because people can recognize athletes more easy. In that way it becomes more a team match-up and that’s also why t&f and xc is pretty popular in highschool and college.

  3. Bart,

    You are absolutely right that the best advertisement for the sport is the sport itself. My suggestions are much like the government’s TARP or stimulus package, merely a short-term fix to gin up the machinery while institutional change is undertaken. Problem is, I just don’t think change is coming via the institutions (IAAF) we have in place. Somehow there has to be competition for the services of the athletes which awakens the IAAF and puts it on edge. Until they feel threatened, I don’t see the broken model changing.

    In point of fact, the imposition of sponsorship limits on apparel underscores the fact that the IAAF and its federations are in competition with the athletes rather than serving as their advocates. By limiting the number of sponsors an athlete can display on his/her apparel, the governing bodies are simply protecting their own bib sponsorship sales. They use their mandate to legislate a rigged system, keeping the athletes in serfdom and the sport on life-support.

    So as long as they hold the exclusive franchise of the Olympics and World Championships, the athletes and agents continue to make due as best they can, often by avoiding head-up competition to protect their own limited financial opportunities. Imagine that, a system which inhibits growth and encourages the avoidance of competition. No wonder I want Sosa and McGuire hitting homers in the Boston Common. Gimme sumthin!

  4. sponsorship limits on apparel is not just 1aaf thing,soccer and rugby at their major championships don’t allow anything on their players shirts so as to maximise their own contracts…eamonn coughlin
    in the 80’s had a very good deal with the irish tourist board,with his DISCOVER IRELAND logo on his shirt

    • Anon: Then why aren’t there more logos on the athletes’s vests at the Diamond League meets? Is every agent incapable of selling a sponsorship beyond the shoe companies? This isn’t just a major championships issue.

  5. Pingback: So Where Are Track’s Marquee Matchups? | News

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