Earlier this month, Lashinda Demus said what’s been on the minds of many track fans for a while – at least in the US, track is a dying sport. In the wake of that, the blogs saw a resurgence in the ongoing “how can we fix this” discussion – See here, here, here, here, and here for some of the good bits (and don’t forget the comments section – lots of useful nuggets in there). Here, in no particular order, are what seem to be the consensus good ideas (with a few others that weren’t so much consensus as just good ideas). It’s my blog, so I made some editorial decisions…:)

In-stadium fixes
* Beer/food
* Giveaways – tshirts, thunder sticks
* Music
* Mascots/entertainment
* Shorten the meet!
* Money – prize money, big bold and advertised
* Stats on the screens (if you have one) – a la DL stream – show WL/WR/AR/AL/whatever is relevant as the event is unfolding

Pre-meet/athlete fixes
* Marketing
* Marketing
* Promotion
* Sponsors
* Marketing
* Smaller/discipline specific meets (jumps/throws a la Europe, distance a la Oxy, sprints a la nobody)
* Money – prize money, big bold and advertised
* Marketing

Perhaps I should have mentioned marketing a bit more. This is sort of beating a dead horse, but the Oxy High Performance meet is a USATF meet – and it’s mentioned nowhere on their site! I looked around the site, and while they have a place for meet directors to report results, they specifically say the results will be put in a database but not online. WHY NOT??! I love Track and Field News, but USATF is exactly  where results should be available. And I haven’t even started talking about what the USATF isn’t doing off the website. Where are you guys? Do you listen? Do you exist? Jill Geer, the communications director for USATF, made a good point – that American interest in track spiked around the 1984 and 1996 Olympics, when the biggest meet of all happened on our soil. So her prescription for the sport? USOC – you guys make it happen.

Jill – don’t be so short-sighted! Your organization has a responsibility here, and you can’t just slough it off on the USOC. The silence from USATF during this discussion is not just worrying, it’s downright damn insulting to the fans. The USATF likes to say it’s all about the athletes, and to some degree that’s a good thing. But by ignoring the fans – and I don’t just mean not providing the best product, but actively ignoring a loud and growing cry for change from the fans – you’re choking off the very source of support that the athletes need. The USATF, when faced with any question about their way of doing things, sticks to the status quo as though it’s oxygen. Nick Symmonds and all the athletes clamoring for looser sponsorship regs can attest to this. Rather than listen, the USATF gets in their defensive posture and trots out spokespeople and surrogates to tell us that they’re staying with the status quo because the status quo is what we do.

Really, guys? Nike will pull sponsorship dollars if the sport’s visibility is increased? REALLY?

Okay, that’s my brief (and very edited) rant about the USATF – I think you can see that in my opinion, the biggest problem with the sport right now lies directly with them.

So, about fixing things. Let’s go over some of these ideas. As discussed, marketing is a big issue here. Flotrack, Runblogrun, etc., do a great job, but they only market to track nerds like me – it’s a closed audience. USATF putting events on their site (as any other large professional organization would sorry sorry I’ll stop…) would be a closed, but larger, audience. But what about newspapers, tv? We can’t just bitch that they don’t cover us – you have to ram the information down their throat. Press releases, PR events, emails, whatever works to get free media – and they will cover you! Hell, it’s a new age – every large city has an “ist” site now – LAist, Seattleist, etc., and they’d cover it in their own snarky way. The point is, you have to ask for attention repeatedly, and you will get it. There should be volunteers wandering after road races, handing out flyers for meets like Oxy – hey, it works for other road races, let’s get in the mix! Get volunteers at street fairs, even. Get local and get involved!

There are so many options for meets that would improve things – when I see people writing about them, there’s something of a silver-bullet search, but really there is no reason to pick just one option. Meets should be shorter, absolutely (but sometimes that doesn’t work, and that’s okay, says Penn Relays and every high school championship meet ever). Move them along, keep the fields a bit smaller and close the gaps between events. Let’s try duals again. Let’s try the discipline specific meets, like the jumps and throws meets they have in Europe (Drake Relays Vault in the Mall, KU Relays shot put already do this), distance events like Oxy, or speed-specific (sprints and hurdles) meets which, to my knowledge, no one is currently doing. Hell, follow Drake Relays and Manchester’s lead and run a normal meet but have an invitational 100 meters run inside a mall the day before to draw media attention.

Speaking of gimmicks, why not gimmick events during meets? There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. Mt. SAC ran the Puma mile, with bonus money for sub-4 or sub 4:30 miles for the men and women, and last year at Mt. SAC they had a speed gun up and had sprinters running against each other to get the highest speed on the gun – people *loved* it. Some road races now do gender head starts – see Geb and Paula Radcliffe going head-to-head in a half-marathon earlier this year, she with a head-start and money on the line for first finisher. Why not let Wallace Spearmon race Allyson Felix with a similar setup over 200 meters? Put money on the line, winner take all – you think the crowd wouldn’t be dying to see who wins that?

Music between events (during events? – think about a thumping soundtrack to the 5000 meters we saw at Oxy last week), or during athlete introductions. And let’s ham it up – look at the nonsense the NBA does during introductions. It’s ridiculous, but people go crazy for it, it’s human nature. Beer! Let people have a damn beer. Have entertainment, a band, freaking mascots running around. Put important information up on a screen or announce it OFTEN. Let the crowd know what’s at stake. Have athletes throw t-shirts in the stands after their race (okay, they can have a minute to catch their breath). Hey, track professionals: It is not engaging to watch runners slowly work their way off the track and disappear after a race. I saw in comments somewhere, why don’t the athletes put their name on their singlet? It’s a great point – are these people shy? Your name is your brand, you’re a professional, put your name on your damn back so the people we drag to meets to introduce them to the sport can see, “Oh, there’s Nick Symmonds, got it” instead of trying to figure out which guy in the OTC singlet we’re pointing at. (Nick’s a bad example, because he’s easy to describe. Andrew Wheating is another bad example. Let’s think about getting our friends to locate Dan Huling during a race…)

I know, I’m putting some of the onus on the athletes. Well guess what, buttercup? You have to pitch in. Look at soccer – nobody leaves the pitch, win or lose, without applauding the crowd. WNBA does post-game interviews FOR the crowd. Athletes sometimes have to give a little more of themselves to help their sport (caveat: some athletes are already very giving of their time. As an example, Nick Symmonds, Andrew Wheating, Shannon Rowbury and David Torrence were amazing at Oxy about responding to shouted requests and all came over to sign autographs and take photos. The buzz in the stands afterward is *exactly* why more athletes should be doing this). Even those who are super fan-friendly should be open to some change in their meet routine to help the sport

As a side note, can we stop saying the drug issue is part of the problem? It’s bullshit. It’s an excuse. I don’t see empty baseball stadiums. I don’t see empty football stadiums. Both sports have drug problems miles worse than ours, and much better documented. The average fan might be outraged about it, but they still showed up to see Barry Bonds swing a bat. If Usain Bolt was suspected of doping, people would still show up to watch him run as long as he was running. Make the sport more engaging for the fans, and sprinters can be shooting up steroids at the starting line for all they care. (See: MMA, WWE)

So here’s where we get to the nitty-gritty. How does all this stuff happen? Obviously, as discussed, the USATF will be doing none of the things listed above. Unless…unless we force them. You know, they do have an annual meeting. Those of us who are involved, stakeholders like Runblogrun, heck, meet organizers who would like to pitch a better product – why not storm the castle? The sponsorship kerfuffle last year at least got on the agenda. Not a lot came of it, but they were forced to at least recognize it.

And here’s a really crazy idea: Why not do it ourselves? Putting on a track meet is an undertaking – more so than putting on a road race, for which there are now specialty consulting firms. But it can be done. Why not a Flotrack branded distance event? Why not an LA Times sprints meet? Why not why not why not…the options are really limitless, if we are willing to take the chance and do the work. It could fail, some of these ideas may turn out to be crap, but just maybe we show the USATF that you can draw a crowd to a meet with a new way of doing things.

In a way, we’re revisiting the battles our athletes fought with the AAU in the 1970’s, but we, the fans and track ecosystem, are in on the solution this time. Pre isn’t around to put on an international dual meet (Wait…there’s another idea!). What do you think; can we gather together and make a change without the institutional support? Or do we have to just wait for the USATF, and meanwhile watch the American track scene outside of Eugene, Des Moines and Philly wither up and die?