I have an announcement to make.
I didn’t become a track fan until my junior year of high school.
*phew* There, I said it.
Sure I ran, but I didn’t really care about the sport. I think that is how it goes for most of us. We learn to love the sport only after we realize how hard it is to truly conquer. So naturally, by the time I started college, I was a full-time fan.
John McDonnell: The Most Successful Coach in NCAA History was a uniquely influential book for me as I built up knowledge of track and cross country. The former Arkansas coach is a legend in nearly all circles for how he turned the Razorbacks into a national powerhouse on both the grass and the track. As the title of the book suggests, he was the greatest collegiate distance running coach in NCAA history and the arguments against that are little to none.
The book was interesting for me in so many ways, but what caught my attention the most wasn’t necessarily the national titles he won. Instead, the races that sparked my imagination were the battles that Arkansas had at Penn Relays. For Coach McDonnell, breaking through at the Penn Relays helped put Arkansas on the map and show the entire country (or at least the east coast) just how special his team was. Competing with prestigious programs like Villanova, or schools who (at the time) had some of the top runners in the world like Mount St. Mary’s, forced McDonnell’s Arkansas teams to treat Penn Relays like a midseason championship.
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Fast forward to now and Arkansas has created its own national relay meet where many of the best teams in the country come to compete. A team that was once revered on Franklin Field has not only stopped going altogether, but they've begun to a host a meet that conflicts on the exact date.
It's almost as if they are trying to make a statement.
Where has the magic of the Penn Relays and the Drake Relays gone? It's a fair question that many fans have begun to ask themselves with each passing year. While we were writing the Penn Relays Preview, we were asked if historic relays still have any meaning.
All of us answered no.
There are still outstanding professional and high school races, but it seems like every year there are fewer collegiate teams who circle this week on their calendar.
Last weekend, at both the Drake Relays and the Penn Relays, we saw numerous thrilling moments like Morgan McDonald chasing down Spencer Brown and Ben Veatch to win the 4xMile or Houston dominating the sprint relays. Villanova bouncing back to win the women’s 4x1500 against some tough competition was also impressive, but it is a hard for me to believe that we will remember any of these races past this year.
So the question is, how do we make relay races relevant again? More on that in a bit.
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There has been a lot of talk about how to make professional running more popular. With the Diamond League eliminating any race longer than the 3k from its meets, it seems that one answer is to make the races and the meets shorter. I guess that helps, but a meet can be as short as a soccer game and have little to no entertainment value if there aren’t events worth watching throughout the meet.
For the American audience, track needs to develop a concept of teams and rivalries. Why does everyone in the US suddenly become an avid track fan every four years that screams with delight when Matt Centrowitz wins the first 1500 meter gold medal for the United States in 100 years? Is it because they really like strong finishing kicks? No, not really. It's because they see that Centrowitz is representing their country, and they want their country to beat everyone else’s athletes.
Simply put, it’s a matter of pride.
The audience knows who to root for without knowing anything about the sport or the athlete. That is, after all, how we become avid sports fans of football or basketball as kids.
In every popular American sport, there are teams that we root for. If you are from Boston, then you’ll be cheering for the Bruins in the playoffs even if you know nothing about hockey. When March Madness comes around, people avidly support their alma mater even if they couldn’t have named a single player on the team before March.
One of the reasons professional track struggles is because, outside of the Olympics or World Championships, there is no sense of team for an audience to rally around. How do we fix that?
No, seriously, how do we fix that? That’ll be a topic for another article.
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The point is that the NCAA doesn’t struggle with this issue of "teams". It is easy to know which teams you want to cheer for. If you went to the University of Wisconsin, then you were scouring the results trying to tally the point totals between NAU and BYU or Colorado and New Mexico. Chances are, if you are watching an NCAA meet, then you know who want to win.
But, like all Americans, we want to see our favorite team or school display teamwork and passion while they are competing. It is hard to show teamwork while you are running a race on your own, but it's not hard to see in relays. One supremely talented individual can carry his or her squad, but it requires a full team effort to win the race which means the team with the best runner doesn’t always win. This is one of the many reasons why the DMR and 4x400 are one of the most entertaining races every single year. This year’s men’s DMR saw Yared Nuguse edging out Grant Fisher while last year’s women’s 4x400 saw a miraculous comeback from USC to beat Purdue.
So my proposal? Add more relay events to NCAA Track & Field Championships.
Not only will this make National Championship meets more exciting, but it will also make relay meets important again. Heck, we already see this trickle-down effect happening during the indoor season. There are certain meets such as the Alex Wilson Invitational where teams bring their top DMR lineups to only qualify for Nationals. If a DMR, SMR, 4x800, or 4x1500 was added to Outdoor Nationals, then we wouldn’t even need to add any meets to the schedule. We already have them! The Penn and Drake Relays can now be places for teams to qualify for Nationals which gives these meets added value, more for fans to root for, and more for the media to cover.
A quick note about my proposal: Distance relays would not be run at regionals. Instead, teams would compete for the top 12 time spots to go to Nationals just like indoors. We have already seen how much drama a relay race can create after LSU edged out Houston in the 4x100 earlier this year. Imagine seeing a distance version of that race where NAU and BYU go toe-to-toe on the track instead of the cross country course. You're telling me you wouldn't want to see that?
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This may seem like a far-fetched proposal, and maybe it is, but it is the best way to make relays relevant again. Outsiders like to call track and field an individual sport, but when done right, it can be one of the best team sports in the world. The energy that torpedoes around the track when your teammate or your relay team is doing well is an experience like none other. This is the energy that will make the sport more attractive and entertaining.
Let’s solve two problems with one solution. Adding more relays to Outdoor Nationals will add more intrigue and excitement to the meet while restoring value to historic relay events.
At the end of the day, everyone wins.