EUGENE - The University of Oregon will play host to the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, which begin Wednesday at Historic Hayward Field, for the 13th time since 1962.
In a bid to make the NCAA meet more fan and television friendly, the 2015 edition of the four-day championships will feature a new twist: Men will compete on Wednesday and Friday, while the women take center stage on Thursday and Saturday. The exception to the segregated schedule is the multi-events - men's decathlon and women's heptathlon - which will both be contested on Wednesday and Thursday.
Meet organizers believe that the team battles for the NCAA title - along with other storylines - can be showcased much better when only one gender is in action each day. The team aspect of track and field is often down-played in favor of highlighting individual performances, but the new format could help bring both into sharper focus. The greater emphasis on team competition might also attract more casual fans, which would be significant for the sport.
"The men's and women's team competition at the NCAA championships is always thrilling," said Championships Director and TrackTown USA President Vin Lananna, when the revised schedule was announced.
“The new format will enable us to tell those stories in the most clear and compelling manner possible," Lananna said. "I believe we will see two of the greatest days of track and field ever staged at Hayward Field when the men’s and women’s team champions are crowned on Friday and Saturday.”
Along with the schedule change comes greatly expanded television coverage. 12 hours of live coverage will be provided on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPNU, with an additional 25 hours of multi-event and field event coverage on ESPN3.
This increase in TV coverage is huge. For years, college track fans had to wait for a delayed broadcast of the NCAA meet on CBS, which crammed four days of competition into a pre-packaged 2-hour highlight show televised after the outcome was already known. What major sporting event in this country is shown days after the event is over? None.
Track and field is admittedly difficult to televise live. Sometimes there is too much going on all at once, sometimes there are periods of dead time, and often the meets are too long for TV. The NCAA schedule seeks to avoid that by creating a tight window of action each day. Friday and Saturday telecasts on ESPN and ESPN2 will feature 14 event finals in a 2 1/2 to 3 hour time slot.
The team battles at the NCAA meet should be exciting. The latest projections on the Track & Field News form chart has the UO men winning by two points over Florida, with LSU and Texas A&M right behind. The men's 400 meters could be a key event, as each of the top four contenders could have at least one runner in the final. The 4 x 100 and 4 x 400 relays will also be crucial to the outcome, though Oregon is not projected to make the finals in either relay.
The women's race is projected to be even tighter, with the top six teams separated by just four points. New favorite USC is projected to score 48 points, while Oregon is at 47, Arkansas and Texas A&M are at 46, Florida 45, and Texas 44. Having so many schools in the hunt for both men's and women's team title means any slip up or surprise break-though performance could be huge, and should make for great television.
The downside of this format is its negative effect on athletes. For an athlete like Oregon junior Jenna Prandini, who carries a big share of the Duck women's title hopes on her shoulders, the compressed schedule is going to be challenging, to say the least.
Prandini will compete in three individual events - 100, 200 and long jump - and at least one relay. Instead of her preliminary and final races being spread over four days, they will all happen on two. On Thursday, she will have to run a 4 x 100 heat, a 100 prelim, a 200 prelim, and prelims and finals in the long jump, all in a space of less than three hours.
Prandini said that it would be "different and kind of weird" not to be competing at the same time as her male teammates, but she didn't take issue with the schedule for her events.
"As far as the scheduling goes, you just have to take it like any other meet. You're given a schedule and you can't back down from whatever (it is). I think it will be fine. We have a day in between to recover, so I'm excited."
100 meter favorite Trayvon Bromell of Baylor feels more strongly about the lack of recovery time.
"I feel like doing all our races on one day for boys and girls is just crazy . . . I like how it was last year. One day you do one event and the next day you do your other events. Competing against people at this high level, they just didn't think about the athletes' bodies. We're going out there to compete at a high level and trying to PR, and for our bodies to try to recover in this short amount of time is not good. They didn't think about that."
Most of the high-profile coaches have been cautious but generally positive in their comments. Oregon Head Coach Robert Johnson told reporters this week that the schedule may cause him to substitute for his fastest 400 runner, Marcus Chambers, in the 4 x 400 prelims, which come just two hours after the 400 prelims on Wednesday. The Friday schedule is even tighter, with the 4 x 400 finals coming just one hour and 25 minutes after the 400 finals.
Despite the very legitimate concerns of the athletes who are doubling and tripling at the NCAAs, it seems like the schedule change is a good move. Track and field needs desperately to build its fan base, and that means it has to be more appealing to television viewers and people at the meet. Fast-moving action with easy to follow storylines and team competition can only help.