True track fans are a dying breed, the numbers getting smaller year after year, before long they will all be gone. I'm not talking about the grandparents, families, and friends who attend meets to watch an athlete they know. That group will always be there.
I'm talking about the track nuts, the ones who attend because they love the competition and excitement of the sport. The ones who bring a pencil and buy a meet program, just like the baseball diehards who continue to fill in the play-by-play scorecards - despite the giant video screens.
Track nuts simply enjoy the competition.
One of my good friends (I hesitate to call Steve an old friend for fear that also makes me old) still attends track meets on a regular basis, bringing crib sheets and photocopied results to every competition - a diehard just like me. We need more track fans like him...but the future of this group doesn't look good.
In 1970 I was seventeen and hitchhiked to the NCAA Championships at Drake University, purchasing a program just inside the door for $1, throughout the 2-day meet filling in the winner for each event as results were posted on the big scoreboard.
I still have the program. Watched every even. Written in ink on page 27 is "Jan Johnson 17'7," two pages later in the steeplechase "Sid Sink 8:40.9," on event #15 "Marty Liquori 3:59.9," towards the back of the program "Steve Prefontaine 13:22.0." I had no allegiance to these or any other athletes at the meet - I just wanted to watch great competition.
I was talking with the former Iowa coach this past week, both of us lamenting (as older men are prone to do) that the track and field fan base has disappeared. Been steadily whittled down. That once the son/daughter of currents fans graduates they are replaced with a new set of fans - just like tourists on the Navy Pier Ferris wheel.
One go-around and you're gone.
The only thing saving our sport is the high secondary school participation rates which rank #1 for the girls, and #2 for boys. This might be enough to sustain the current crowd sizes, but I wonder if the consequence is only making meets longer - not better.
Beginning in 1966, the Drake Relays had forty-eight years of consecutive Saturday sellouts, the streak ending in 2014. I can rest assure you that every one of the 18,000 seats had a butt in it - unlike the magical accounting we see in today's collegiate basketball, the so called sellouts only 2/3 full.
At Drake each of the 8000 homestretch seats were reserved, the $20 price in the 90's, at the time, more expensive than a ticket to Big Ten football. I realize those days of glory are long gone, but meet directors and coaches need to find a way to discover and embrace new track nuts - whether with stadium renovations, beer vendors, tighter schedules, or more comfortable seats.
Don't tell me Power 5 schools don't have the money. They do.
I worry our sport is dying because it hasn't evolved, failed to adapt to changing times. That in ten years the product will be so bad that even I, a track nut, doesn't want to watch anymore. Poor time scheduling. Too many heats. Bad clerking. A meet far too long. Lackadaisical meet management. It's driving this nut away.
Sad to say, but it's true.