USA Track and Field: Drake Relays Discovers the Sport's $ecret to $uccess

Red ShannonFeatured ColumnistApril 30, 2013

(AP photo: Charlie Neibergall)
(AP photo: Charlie Neibergall)

By every measurable indicator, last week's Drake Relays was a success.

A record number of Olympians, national champions and world-class athletes were drawn to the Des Moines, Iowa meet.

Those same athletes produced 10 world-leading marks and broke 11 meet records.

The turnstiles whirled with activity as every ticketed session was sold out, and the overall attendance smashed the modern Drake Relays record, kept since a 2006 renovation of Drake Stadium.

And this, while competing for attention on the same weekend as the prestigious Penn Relays in Philadelphia and the popular distance qualifier out west, the Payton Jordan Cardinal Invitational in Palo Alto, Calif.

But the most impressive standard established—and the one directly related to all the other positive indicators—was the record purse of 500,000 smackeroos.

This translated into $50,000 prize money for each elite pro race—$25,000 for first place, $15,000 for second and $10,000 for third. In addition, $120,000 was designated for distribution in three road races—a half-marathon, a 10,000-meter race and a 6,000-meter run.

Even several selected field events received $25,000 apiece to dole out among the podium finishers.

Think this didn't get the attention of some of the sport's most celebrated stars?

Here, the ever-witty hurdler/bobsledder Lolo Jones replied to a fan via Twitter:

Drake pays 25k to the winner. Penn u run for free. minor what? RT @ballinjeffk: @drakerelays thats minor leagues, penn relays place to be!

— Lolo Jones (@lolojones) April 25, 2013

As it turned out, Jones finished out of the money in fourth place but still produced the fourth-fastest time in the world this year (12.79 seconds). Running into a strong headwind, she was pulled along by the young pro, Queen Harrison (12.71) and fellow Olympians Dawn Harper (12.74) and Kellie Wells (12.78).

Drake officials were able to secure the impressive purse (impressive by US track standards) through a sponsorship deal with Midwest grocery giant HyVee in exchange for the naming rights to the century-old track meet. Hence the official title, The Drake Relays presented by HyVee.

In the case of Drake, it turned out to be a brilliant move and could be seen as a boon to American track and field in general—if established sponsors such as Nike, Adidas and Visa take notice and up the ante in their signature meets.

Any upward trend in athlete compensation can only be good for a sport which lags far behind other major sports in terms of providing a decent living for its labor force.

Granted, HyVee is not the same deep-pocketed corporate benefactor as Nike is to the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., but one has to think the number of new track converts brought into Drake Stadium by that cool half-million is significant—even in a track-centric town like Des Moines.

It was a good step in the right direction. Track and field is one entity where throwing money at its problems is perhaps still the best solution.

Click here for all the 2013 Drake Relays results, notes and quotes.

Related reading: While my article deals primarily with issues related to live, on-site viewing, Drake apparently still has work to do in the arena of video coverage. Interesting read here.