This blog post is one I have been wanting to write since my two-year stint as local race director for the USA Cross Country Championships came to an end back in February. I was finally spurred to write it just a few minutes ago after reading an article entitled “Who Cares About Cross Country” by Peter Vigneron on Competitor.com. I recommend reading Peter’s article before continuing on with mine.
Peter makes a number of very good points in his article and for the most part I think he and I are on the same page. I especially agree with his assertion that things are not good right now and they need to change. However, I have a few different thoughts on why and how.
First of all cross country is not as weak in the United States as his article might have you believe. Obviously, having just put on a very successful meet in Saint Louis I take issue with his suggestion that the “epic” Championships in Boulder (which were in 2007 not 2006) were dubbed so because they had a mud ditch on the course. Also, I don’t know what he means by putting the spectators “close to the action.” That’s the one thing that’s most certainly not broke. How much closer could they be (see pic above)? Finally, I have no idea what “truck in spectators” means? Is he suggesting we pay actors to come watch the meet? Or maybe we’ll just bring in homeless people from nearby big cities?
Okay, sorry Peter. Had to get those jabs off my chest. Onward. Cross Country is very much alive and well in the United States, at least at the high school and college level, and that’s a good base off which to build. And running, in general, is certainly on the rise. I’m biased but I think we had a great crowd in Saint Louis to watch the meet. The atmosphere was outstanding and the athletes and fans had a blast. The problem, and Peter alluded to it, is money. In my opinion a lot of it stems from the reliance on the participatory side of the sport and the belief that running is something we can all do, and thus not something we should have to pay to watch people do. There was an uproar in 2012 when we charged $10 for parking to watch the Championships.
So it becomes a chicken-and-egg issue. I agree that there needs to be more prize money at the World Championships. That’s obvious. But where is it going to come from? Well, I say if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. The money in the sport is in one place right now; mass participation big city marathons and half marathons. I wish it wasn’t that way. I wish we could pack 50,000 seat stadiums at $25 a pop to watch track meets. I wish we could have the USA Cross Country Championships live on ESPN and get them to pay us for the rights instead of the other way around (yes folks- often when you see track on TV USATF paid for the time). But guess what…. it just ain’t happenin’.
The masses want in on the action too so let’s give it to them. What if the IAAF went to a big city race that takes place sometime between January and the end of April and tried to strike a deal? Host the World Cross Country Championships in a park or golf course near downtown and have your marathon the next day. Imagine the added exposure for all parties if the World Champs had taken place the day before LA last week? Imagine if it was in Franklin Park the day before the Boston Marathon? I’m not going to extend this blog post and try to suggest exactly what the deal would entail but I think it could be something along the lines of the race putting up a significant amount of prize money for the Championships (which they could make up for with a slight entry fee hike for marathon participants in the name of added value).
And for pete’s sake, have it in the same place every year! Why our sport continues to use the Super Bowl model of rotating Championships is beyond me. We are not the NFL! We’re much more like Tennis whose 4 Grand Slams are in the same four cities each and every year. Those cities build up a familiarity with the event. They make it better and better each year and the tournaments grow and grow. They become attractive and destinations for fans from all over the world. In our sport though, both USATF domestically and the IAAF internationally, have Championships that essentially start from the ground up every year (or every two years for World Cross Country and the World Track Champs). I mean c’mon folks, the model is right there in front of our faces in the form of the big city marathons and half marathons. They do nothing but grow because they have full-time staff members working 365 days a year, learning from the previous year and trying to out-do themselves.
So that’s my solution. Feel free to disagree. As Peter put it, let’s not forget that this sport could matter again.