An on-going process for outdoor track
Track and field, at its essence, is about strongest, highest and fastest. Thus, it really may be the simplest sport to understand and appreciate.
Then why has the continuing evolution of NCAA Division I track's outdoor championship been so complicated? Do the majority of college sports fans know the path athletes take to an NCAA title? Do they care to watch any of the process?
Track and field boasts some of the best athletes on every campus nationwide and remains one of the largest participatory sports for both genders from junior high all the way through college. But track's popularity as a spectator sport in the United States, even at the most elite levels, has declined over the last 40 years.
Is collegiate track doomed to be a relic that never dies but also never gets significant spectator attention, even for its NCAA championship? Or could thinking far outside the box result in a NCAA track championship that raises the sport's profile on the college level?
Toss out those questions to track coaches, officials, participants and journalists and you might get as many answers as people you ask. "Everybody has an opinion," said Sam Seemes, CEO of the U.S. Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association. "If we've got an obvious flaw as a sport, one of our biggest is that so many people base their opinions on what their own needs are, and not the needs of the sport."
You could say that, to varying degrees, about every college sport. But reaching consensus on collegiate track and field's supposedly premiere showcase, the outdoor championships, may be most difficult in part because it's the sport with the most diverse group of constituents who are all involved in the same NCAA final event.
Track (indoors and outdoors), cross country and tennis are the only large-participant sports at the Division I level that have their men's and women's NCAA championships at the same place and same time. (Fencing, rifle and skiing, which have far fewer schools participating, also combine the men's and women's NCAA championships.)
But track's constituency is the broadest, both in the makeup of types of athletes and the differences in funding for programs nationwide. Track athletes range from elfin distance runners to lanky jumpers to spectacularly muscled sprinters to gargantuan shot/discus throwers.
Track programs range from those with large staffs that have a full complement of complete scholarships spread among the disciplines to those schools that have just partial scholarships and regularly compete only in certain events. But all are under the same Division I competitive umbrella, despite the vast differences. "We don't all play the same game," said Seemes, a former track coach at LSU. "Unlike, say, men's or women's basketball, where there are probably not any programs in Division I that don't have full scholarships and similar structure in staff. One school's staff may be a little bigger and paid better than another's staff, and one school may get better athletes than another. But most of the basics are the same. "In track, though, we don't have a defined game, so to speak. It leads to a very convoluted discussion about what we should be and what we are."
The NCAA outdoor championships were completed in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 11 with Texas A&M three-peating as men's and women's team champions. Both titles came down to stellar performances by Aggies athletes in the last two races, the 4x400-meter relays. Earlier in the meet, Florida State's Ngoni Makusha won the men's 100 title with the fasted collegiate time ever, 9.89 seconds.
So there was plenty of drama and many highlight moments. But how much did it resonate with fans of college sports? And should that really matter? "Look, we're not football or basketball. I think we spend too much time in track and field comparing ourselves to other sports," Florida track coach Mike Holloway said. "We need to be who we are. We've tried so hard to get everything lined up with television, and get people in the stands. But track and field fans are going to come to the meet if it's held at midnight or the middle of the afternoon."
Others will argue, though, the sport should keep trying to find ways to draw those who aren't die-hard track fans, and that the notion "track is what it is" doesn't allow for an aggressively different way to look it.
For that viewpoint, go to Texas A&M coach Pat Henry. He thinks track's popularity would be boosted by a team championship with a field of 10 to 12 schools competing in select events. Then also have a subsequent individual championship with all events, meaning top athletes not at strong programs also have the opportunity to win NCAA titles. "I think the general public wants to see one team versus another," Henry said. "They want to see, 'Can A&M beat LSU? Can Texas beat UCLA?' I think we have to do that. We have a tremendous sport, but we're losing people in the stands. The kids keep getting better, but we don't have a competition that people want to watch for two-and-a-half hours, then they can get up and go home."
There are any number of impediments to Henry's suggestion, though, ranging from earning broad-based support across Division I to getting NCAA approval to financial obstacles. Consider that until four years ago, the NCAA didn't pay for teams' travel expenses to the NCAA indoor and outdoor meets; schools had to choose which one to pay for themselves. So would the NCAA fund another championship event? "All ideas have repercussions," Seemes said. "We can get focused on the good side of an idea, but not focus on the repercussions."
Or as Portland Oregonian reporter Ken Goe -- who covers probably the most popularly followed college track program in the nation, Oregon -- puts it, "It's easy to throw rocks at the way the championship is, but it's really difficult to try to come up with a better way that's fair to everybody."
Collegiate track actually has made some substantial changes, though, in the past decade with its postseason.
When the NCAA outdoor track championships (then for men only) began in 1921, it was an all-comers meet for any NCAA member schools that could afford the travel costs and entry fee.
In the 1970s, qualifying standards were established for eligibility into the championships. The women's championship was begun in 1982, the school year in which the NCAA took over supervision of women's athletics.
The NCAA established a participant cap in 1992 for men and women, achieved by giving automatic entry to the championships for those athletes who had reached a specific qualifying mark, and limited entry for a varying number who reached what was called a provisional mark.
Then in 2003, a much-debated regional system was introduced for everything but the 10,000 meters, the decathlon and heptathlon, which continued to have advancement to the NCAA championships determined by qualifying marks.
Every other event went through the four regions, entry into which was determined either by reaching a standard mark or being part of a conference championship team. Then the top-five finishers in each event at the regionals made it to the NCAA championships, along with a varying number of at-large entries.
The next big change came in 2010, in response to criticism that the four-regional system did not provide adequate competitive equity. Which essentially meant some regions were too strong in certain events, keeping some of the overall best athletes out of nationals, while others in a "weaker" region advanced.
The attempt at alleviating this was to go to two regions, which serve as the preliminaries for the NCAA meet. For instance, the qualifying and quarterfinal rounds of a race now are at each regional, then the semis and final are at the NCAA championship two weeks later. (Again, the multi-events disciplines do not use the regional system.)
Regional qualifying is based on a descending-order list of top performances during the season, with tie-breaking procedures used to limit the field to 48 participants per event per region.
Are you thoroughly confused by all this? That's part of track's problem. But everyone concedes it's a very difficult puzzle to solve, especially when there isn't even agreement on what the final picture should look like.
Still, Seemes sounds a note of optimism that outdoor track's postseason evolution is on-going. Whether it significantly advances the sport's popularity or not, his hope is the championship does advance in whatever ways it can despite the obstacles. "We need to continually make it better," he said. "It's rare that anything can't be improved. I know that what we're doing, we can keep improving it."
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.