Without question, Eugene, Oregon (aka Track Town USA) is the mecca of track and field in America. Such a concentration of world-class competition drawn to a relatively remote corner of the world, year after year, is not the result of dumb luck.
It is the product of decades of historic moments combined with a deliberately forward-thinking strategy.
But being mindful that track and field is struggling to find relevance alongside America's other major sports, is it possible that in the pursuit of establishing a regional showcase for the sport, the broader appeal of track and field among casual sports fans might be compromised?
That is the fear among some of track's hardcore fans, and it's worth discussing.
Not that long ago, in the collective consciousness of sports fans across the country, the host city of the University of Oregon Ducks was an obscure outpost somewhere along the old Oregon Trail. For the member schools in what was once the Pacific-8 conference, a road trip to Eugene was typically a penciled-in beatdown of one of the league's perennial cellar-dwellers.
But times have changed. These days, Duck football is annually a top-five powerhouse, and Autzen Stadium is regarded as one of the most hostile venues in the NCAA. Indeed, all-around athletic excellence has now become synonymous with the University of Oregon.
For such a small place, Eugene is becoming a favorite destination in America. In recent years the city of 160,000 residents has frequented the top-10 listings in multiple categories such as 2013's Most Livable Cities, per a study from Livability.com. And just this year, perhaps as a result of that particular notoriety, the Emerald City was spotlighted as one of America's 10 Snobbiest Mid-sized Cities, per Movato Real Estate.
Track Town's Bountiful Harvest
While Oregon football and Autzen Stadium have certainly given Eugene a measure of national prominence, it is the red track and timbered grandstands across the Willamette River—Hayward Field—which (even through those earlier lean years) has given the town its international acclaim and revered identity as Track Town USA.
As such, Hayward Field is a natural candidate as a host site for the nation's most prestigious championship and invitational meets. This is evidenced by Track Town having recently been awarded the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships through 2021.
Then consider that Hayward annually hosts what is arguably the top single-day invitational meet in the world, the Prefontaine Classic. The Pre's roster of athletes, like a mini Olympics, is typically loaded with current and former World and Olympic champions.
Another feather in Hayward's cap is the 2014 IAAF World Junior Championships to be held in Eugene on July 22-27. This will be the largest IAAF-sanctioned meet ever held on U.S. soil.
And it doesn't hurt that Eugene and Hayward Field have a top-notch PR team, TrackTown USA, (a separate entity from the city's nickname) headed by track guru/promoter Vin Lananna with a significant financial assist from Nike. Lananna's resourceful group was able to land the 2016 IAAF World Indoor Championships for Portland.
Then TrackTown USA pulled out all the stops earlier this year, submitting a bid on behalf of Eugene for track's biggest prize short of the Olympics, the 2019 IAAF World Outdoor Championships. Despite the USA's global dominance of track and field since the World Championships were instituted in 1983, the Worlds have never been staged on American soil.
As a capstone to that impressive billing, Hayward organizers have developed a time-tested reputation not just for drawing quality athletes but for putting on a quality, seamlessly smooth show.
Still, many within the sport have legitimate concerns that outside Eugene's bubble—except for one Diamond League meet in New York City and the Penn Relays in Philadelphia—there is no significant track and field presence in the major U.S. metropolitan areas. This is anathema in terms of the overall viability of the sport and would be considered a public relations disaster in any other major sport.
With all of Hayward Field's positives and apparent monopoly as a host venue, there are other legitimate options throughout the country that already have the infrastructure and history to help carry the weight of hosting the major meets.
Just this week for example, Sacramento (Sacramento State University) is providing the venue for the USATF National Outdoor Championships, which is normally the meet (in odd-numbered years) to select Team USA for the World Championships.
Indianapolis, Des Moines, New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York are former big-meet sites which could readily take on the challenge of hosting major national—if not international—meets in the future.
Even so, Eugene still leads the pack due in part to the Hayward staff and Lananna's TrackTown USA team having already established a standard so high that everyone else is playing catch-up.
The Sacramento organizers know this and find themselves in the position of having to go beyond any performance standards from their storied past. Count on it: There will be eyes on the ground from the IAAF, USATF and the NCAA.
If Sacramento can navigate a successfully run meet with good turnstile numbers they will probably find future favor with the decision-makers in high places, as there is a general agreement among the track community that the big-meet wealth should be spread around.
What Others Are Saying
I asked Ken Goe, longtime track and field writer for The Oregonian to weigh in on the subject:
The people who run the meets at Hayward know their stuff. They put on a good show for both the participants and the spectators. ... The fans are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. I think the athletes enjoy that feeling of being on center stage that they don't always get in other venues. ... I think there always should be a place for Eugene in the sport. But it shouldn't be the only place. Track and field needs to have a presence in cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, and, obviously, Indianapolis.
Goe then highlighted some logistical drawbacks:
Eugene is isolated...far from major media markets. It's a difficult place to reach and has a tiny airport. ... When so many major U.S. track meets are held there, it's easy to write off track and field as a minor sport.
And finally, Goe addressed some structural issues (which must certainly be on Lananna's "to do" list):
For all of Hayward's charm and tradition...it has some major flaws...inadequate bathrooms and poor concessions...posts in the way of the sight lines...no real premium seating.
Noted track junkie Jesse Squire, writing in his column in The Daily Relay, used the World Cup as a model from which track and field could take some lessons:
The World Cup’s matches are spread out across as many as a dozen cities within a nation. A lot of people can see matches this way and one city does not get overloaded. Track’s big meets are held in one city and one stadium–but we’re getting away from that and it’s to our benefit. ...
By breaking our sport into smaller pieces and spreading it around a single city, we are drawing more people into the fold.
Even in Track Town, there is a sense that its so-called monopoly on the major meets is not intended to diminish other possible venues but rather reflects a determined challenge to pull the whole sport up to its own level of excellence.
After all, when the health of the sport of track and field is looked at as a whole, every venue should theoretically be on the same team.