Saturday morning's DI NCAA Cross Country Championship at UVA was one of the most anticipated running events of the year. A battle royale between the greatest DI teams and athletes in the nation. To say I was excited about the event on ESPN would be an understatement. Fanatical or zealous would be more apt.
All week long, favorites for the men's and women's team titles and the individual champions were fervently debated - NAU men vs OSU Cowboys, NC State women vs N. Arizona Lumberjacks - Katelyn Tuohy vs Parker Valby, Ky Robinson vs Graham Blanks. The passionate opinions of prognosticators were on podcasts across the country.
The event lived up to its billing.
Race day the skies were blue, course pennants and team flags fluttering in the breeze, the new course in Earlysville pristine, an exciting feel of tension in the air before the gun went off. Men or women, this was going to be a good one. I can't say enough about the production, and especially the commentators - John Anderson, Carrie Tollefson, and Kyle Merber -all turning in a tremendous two-hour performance.
I've always maintained there is no sporting event more colorful than the starting line of a championship cross country meet - the Kentucky Derby may be an equal - but against the scenic backdrop of the Blue Ridge mountains, this competition comes out on top. Ask Carrie Tollefson.
The course was challenging but tough, the camera on the lead vehicle, and stationary ones around Panorama Farms, providing great views of the individuals, updates at the side of the screen keeping everyone abreast of the team scores as they passed timing mats around the course. It would be tough to find fault with anything at this competition.
The two thousand tickets were gone like that - the cross country meet sold out.
It sounds great, but therein lies my only issue with the site. I understand the logistical issue, but I have one question. Why should any cross country meet be limited to such a small number of fans? If we want to grow the sport, this is not the way to do it. We need to make it an even bigger event.
A month ago there was a women's basketball game between Iowa and DePaul which had over 55,000 fans, prior to that a volleyball match in Lincoln with 9000+ supporters from Nebraska and Wisconsin, over five years ago at an Iowa wrestling competition in Kinnick Stadium over 42,000 showed up.
Crowd sizes have grown like my waistline.
During post-race interviews there were comments from runners that the crowd noise was deafening, one athlete comparing it to the "Running of the Bulls" in Spain, Parker Valby even mentioning a sign in the crowd while she was racing. We want more fans with clever posters, encouraging runners through their moments of doubt.
Why can't we have crowds of 5000? Or 8000? Or even 10,000 in attendance? If you asked most any athlete, they would say they like having fans close at hand, cheers inspiring them to reach levels they didn't think possible. On the track, have you ever heard a runner say they didn't want fans at trackside to cheer them on? Nope.
They love it.
There are cross country courses that can handle 10,000 spectators - Iowa State and Indiana State immediately coming to mind - so this needs to be a bigger factor in site selection by the NCAA XC/TF Committee. Especially if we want to continue to grow our sport. Crowds are good!
I love the Zimmer XC Course at the University of Wisconsin, the site of the 2024 NCAA Championships, but we will have the exact same issue in Madison as we had in Virginia. Tickets selling out before the demands to see it in person have been met.
Just like the baseball field in Dyersville, Iowa - "If we build it they will come," so will more fans show up if we make access (on-site parking) to the cross country courses a requirement for hosting the national meet. Selling out a meet is wonderful - but more so if 10,000 fans are there - instead of only 2000.