Eugene: track ghetto or capital?

Eugene, Oregon, is a beautiful little town. It has many virtues. The issue at hand is whether it ought to be the track and field ghetto of the entire United States.

A more charitable way to put it, of course, would be to call it the track and field capital of the United States.

Decathlon champion Ashton Eaton practices earlier this year at venerable Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon // photo Getty Images

Decathlon champion Ashton Eaton practices earlier this year at venerable Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon // photo Getty Images

Because after the announcement this week that the NCAA Division I outdoor track championships from 2015 through 2021 will be held at venerable Hayward Field, there’s little doubt that Hayward, and Eugene, and for that matter, Oregon, are poised to be — if not flat-out are — at the epicenter of the track and field scene in the United States for essentially the next decade.

Query: is that a good thing?

Hayward staged the 2013 NCAAs. It will play host to the meet next year. Going through 2021 will make it nine straight.

Each year in late May or early June, Hayward puts on a Diamond League meet, the Prefontaine Classic. In 2014, Hayward will be the site of the world junior championships; in 2015, the USA nationals; and in 2016 — just as in 2012 and 2008 — the U.S. Olympic Trials.

Meanwhile, Portland — just up the road — recently won the right to put on the 2016 world indoor championships.

In Portland, the Oregon Project, with coach Alberto Salazar, is home to some of the world’s leading runners, including Mo Farah, Galen Rupp and, now, American teen sensation Mary Cain. Olympic and world decathlon champion Ashton Eaton and Nick Symmonds, silver medalist in the 800 meters at the 2013 Moscow world championships, headline the list of athletes who in recent years have come out of Eugene.

Depending how you see it, this week’s NCAA announcement is either brilliant or yet another turn in a disturbing trend to further niche-ify track and field — to consign the sport to a distant corner of America, to a remote college town in the late-night Pacific time zone where the sport is destined to get noticed every so often, if then.

It must be noted, of course, that track and field in Oregon revolves around Nike. Without Nike there is virtually nothing.

In its elation over the 2021 thing, the University of Oregon put out a news release that maybe was just a little bit over the top. It quoted athletic director Rob Mullens as saying, “Being the birthplace of running in the United States, Track Town USA offers the most unique experiences for both student-athletes and fans alike.”

When the biographies of Jesse Owens, Glenn Cunningham, Jim Ryun, Billy Mills and other greats get around to claiming Eugene as the “birthplace of running,” that will surely be news. As will the fact that the University of Chicago played host to the NCAA championships virtually every year, 13 times, from 1921-36 (they were at USC in 1934, Cal-Berkeley in 1935).

Meanwhile, giving credit where it is due: boosters of the move to see so much action in Eugene, like Vin Lananna, the farsighted senior university associate athletic director who is also president of the entity that is itself called TrackTown USA, envision Hayward being a permanent site for the NCAA championships, like Omaha, Neb., is for men’s baseball, or Oklahoma City for softball.

And that’s fine.

But there are two key distinctions.

One, Omaha’s convention and tourism bureau, for instance, recognized that it was unlikely to be a so-called “big-league” town like nearby St. Louis or Kansas City. Those cities actually really do have NFL and Major League Baseball teams.

So to build the Omaha “brand,” they aggressively sought the College World Series and have bid successfully in recent years for events such as the U.S. Olympic Trials in swimming. They are concededly after a wholesome, family-style vibe.

Eugene is hardly in competition with Portland or Seattle. And maybe track and field is after the family scene and maybe it’s after the die-hard — nobody is quite sure what audience it’s after. That’s for sure one of the challenges. Another of the many issues facing the sport is that, if you’ve never been to an evening at the track before, you often leave after three — or more — hours feeling you’re not quite sure what you’ve just seen.

At any rate, the key distinction is this:

Track is the No. 1 sport at the Summer Olympics. You can like it or not, Omaha and Oklahoma City, but baseball and softball are no longer in the Games.

Moreover, everyone in Eugene and, for that matter, Oregon, you can this it or not as well, but the IAAF, track’s international governing body, wants more in the United States. Way more. They look at this country, and they see New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Miami, big cities, all these huge and important markets, and the only activity seemingly going on of note is in Eugene, or Portland, and Portland is hardly a top TV market, and they ask — huh?

And that, friends, is altogether a reasonable question if you want track and field to stop being a niche sport in the United States.

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9 thoughts on “Eugene: track ghetto or capital?

  1. Good article, however, at this point, and certainly based upon the last 2 Olympic Games TV coverage, swimming and gymnastics are numbers one and two, with track & field coming in third place in popularity.

  2. Hi Alan,

    Unfortunately, Track and Field is not popular enough in the US to consistently fill the stands except in Eugene. The big market cities have big market sports that drown out the relatively meager resources that T&F meets can muster. More power to Lananna and TrackTown USA for doing something to boost T&F’s visibility in the US and internationally. Starting from the strength of Eugene is a smart way to rebuild, and hopefully other cities will be able to build off these hoped for successes.

    There are a lot of reasons for T&F’s declining popularity, but in Oregon and especially Eugene there are plenty of fans, knowledgeable fans, to fill the stands at Hayward Field and the organization knows how to present a top quality meet. So if there’s any place to start rebuilding interest in T&F in the US it would seem Eugene is the place. Placing big meets where there’s a small fan base will not boost the popularity of the sport, no matter how big the market is. Otherwise, the Diamond League meet in New York would draw many more fans than the Pre Classic. That said, any place that wants to create interest in the sport should be encouraged, but right now that’s a big order that only a few smaller cities are interested in tackling.

    And then there’s how the sport is presented. Organizers need to present meetings that are a joy to watch in person, and TV needs to figure out how to consistently present the sport and its athletes in a compelling way to attract and nurture more fans. Figure out these two things and T&F will blossom.

    By the way, the claim that Eugene is the birthplace of running in the US is legit. In 1966, then U of O Track coach Bill Bowerman wrote the book “Jogging” after a trip to New Zealand that sold over a million copies, and is widely credited to starting the running boom in the US.

    Howard Banich

  3. The powers in track (USATF and NCAA) tried to “grow” the sport by staging events in Indianapolis, New Orleans, LA, Sacramento and NYC during the 1990’s and early 2000’s…they failed miserably and that is why Eugene is getting most big meets now. I don’t think the key is having the meet in a “big city” anyway. More important to have good TV coverage.

  4. This >>>>
    “By the way, the claim that Eugene is the birthplace of running in the US is legit. In 1966, then U of O Track coach Bill Bowerman wrote the book “Jogging” after a trip to New Zealand that sold over a million copies, and is widely credited to starting the running boom in the US. “

  5. Being from the east coast, I was amazed when I attended the 2008 olympic trials in Eugene. The electric buzz the entire night was incredible… Even more so than the Penn Relays. Small cities throughout Europe have track meets that are like Eugene…and it is the only way track will gather fans!

  6. Good replies. If track and field is going to rise in the sports world it MUST draw fans to watch it on TV. It does not matter where the meets are these days … It MUST be packaged for TV differently. A full stadium is just a start (as in Eugene). Other places at this time (LA, NYC, Des Moines) can’t get the stands full even for championship meets. With 10+ million to draw from, how many spectators would show up for NCAA or USATF meet in LA or NY? maybe 5 or10 thousand with half the tickets given away free? And there wouldn’t be any more for the World Championships. Look at the Diamond league meet at Randallls Islamd. NYC can’t even full a small stadium like that for a one day top international meet.

  7. Alan makes a good point about track needing to expand as a whole in this country, but I think the point about the NCAA meet is misguided. No matter where you put this meet, it’s a niche sporting event that is mainly attended by the athletes, their families and the die-hard fans. Eugene just works for this meet. Hayward is an intimate track that fills up, and Track Town USA has a mystique that no other U.S. track city can match. Given that college students are constantly replacing each other, there is a never-ending flow of athletes who yearn to experience Hayward Field. This is not to mention people like me, former track athletes/current track fans who are looking for a meaningful place for a pilgrimage.

    That said, the United States desperately needs a world class track in a major city. The Diamond League meet in New York plays terribly on TV, with such long stretches of blank background. Franklin Field is too quirky. Somehow, somewhere, the track community needs to latch on to one of these new MLS stadiums that are intimate, well-built and urban (even though a track kills the atmosphere of a soccer game).

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