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.

2008 Olympic Trials at Eugene's Hayward Field
2008 Olympic Trials at Eugene’s Hayward Field

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.

Hornet Stadium, Sacramento State
Hornet Stadium, Sacramento State

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.

Oslo's Bislett Stadium
Oslo’s Bislett Stadium

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.

Isolated system for Shot Put Championships
Isolated system for Shot Put Championships

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.


16 thoughts on “PRESENTATION MODEL

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  3. It would be nice to get the meet back in Indianapolis. Whether it was the nationals or Oly trials, folks seemed to support the meet.

  4. I live in East Sacramento and it was definitely in the upper 90s/low 100s all four days. It did get quite cool for the distance races on Thurs/Friday night. My kid’s track team received a bunch of free tickets at the last minute, but it was for the weekend part when it was quite hot. We ended up watching it on the TV through the online streaming. I hate to say this, but I would rather plan a vacation to the champs in Eugene than watch it here in Sac.

  5. Track and Field lacks a disdtributed competition season like NFL, NBA, NHL, etc that gets people from all over the country interested. There are local regular season games, then playoffs within each region, then a championship round. Track and Field just suddenly declares “championship” and holds a meet way out West with no involvement of anybody East of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. That system is doomed to failure. I live in Ohio and even my running friends didnt know the meet was happening, but you better believe they knew World Cup Soccer was on. The pros even run in college meets (again, all out West) because they have no other places to qualify for USATF finals. So why would anybody expect fans to suddenly appear? It’s not just the oversized, hot football stadiums; its the lack of build-up of a fan base across the country. I would love to watch Pros and top collegiate atheletes run, but there is never a Pro meet in my state (Ohio). Ditto for about 45 of the 50 states. Think about the implications of that; there are NO PRO OUTDOOR TRACK meets in 90% of the United States. Name one other sport with so little distribution of competition that is doing well. There are none.

    1. Kenney,

      That there is no “season” leading to a championship, that there is no performance arena besides Hayward Field, that there are no perceived stakes, that many of the sport’s top stars fail to show up, all points to the lack of a grand design. There is nothing for the public to follow, and thus they don’t. Did anything in Sacramento reach beyond into the greater culture? Yes, Alysia Montano’s pregnant 800. When a century-plus old sport holds its national championships and nothing registers beyond the bubble of its own site, that is a red-flag message.

  6. Toni, the pic of Hayward isn’t from the Trials… If you remember at the trials they had a stage set up under the scoreboard… That pic is from the 08 trials and there were even MORE people at the 12 trials!!

    Couldn’t agree more with your column…

    Coached my first athlete at the 09 Nat’l Champs in Eugene and it was unreal… In 10 had another athlete for Des Moines and built it up to be a big deal… What a let down… Really depressing to see USA Nationals looking empty in BIG venues like Des Moines and Sacramento… Noticeable on TV for both those venues… Looked empty, gives the impression that is how track is in America… Empty.

    Go to Eugene, swoosh or not, THAT’s what track is in America!

    Dan Tomlin

  7. Track&Field needs to tighten the meet schedule up to attract more fans. I was at Sacramento Saturday, and there was way too much time between races. Athletes come first, but fans count too. In the 99 degree heat I would leave for 15 minutes of shade between races. Why not 5 minutes between races? I gave up my Sunday ticket to watch on TV.

  8. Toni, I guess Don L did not see the temp indicator, showing the trackside temp over 120 degrees. When we went to Des Moines, and experienced the same sweltering heat, all we were looking for was shade, and sadly, we’re loyal Iowans and have experienced plenty of heat.
    Sacramento had the look of a high school conference meet and about as many fans.

  9. Toni please at least look at the facts before purporting to state them.

    “Who but the most rabid fans want to sit out in triple-digit heat for hours on end?”

    It never reached 100 degrees any of the five days of competition. When someone runs 4:05 or 4:20 we don’t say they broke 4 minutes in the mile, track people by their very nature are precise, So don’t whine about temperatures that never happened, Thursday it never even reached 80 degrees.

    I’ve been a fan of your work for decades, but this felt like Nike sponsored piece. Continuing to only hold events in Eugene will only make track smaller in the US over time.

  10. I have only attended 2 USATF outdoor championships – Indianapolis in 1997 and Eugene in 2012, which may or may not be a fair comparison, but which were light years apart. Indianapolis also has a track-specific venue (on the campus of IUPUI), albeit one lacking of any personality or “look” – not even a borrowed one – whereas Eugene, as you noted, had the look and feel of a major sporting event. And that feel extended beyond the track, as well. In Indianapolis, once you stepped outside the stadium, you would never know there was a sporting event happening just steps away, whereas in Eugene, the meet permeated the entire town. Everywhere you went, there were runners, signs, billboards, parties, and excitement, and that excitement then came back into the stadium for the events. It was what I imagine Super Bowl Week or Final Four Weekend must feel like.

    As for the Swoosh, I understand why some people feel that Nike may have too much influence in the sport, but the answer is not to cut Nike out. As you said, their knowledge of the sport and their ability (and willingness) to present it in a professional manner cannot be disputed. Instead, USATF needs to bring in more sponsors to ensure that Nike’s influence does not become over-bearing.

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