SBJ/February 25 - March 3, 2002/Opinion

New home, familiar old problems

“Downsizing" is what some couples do after their children have grown up and left home. Unloading the big house and moving into cozier digs makes sense when a family's numbers shrink, although when your kids are Gen X or Yers, you never know when they might show up again.

The same process can apply to sports, but with fewer positive connotations. Such will be the case on Friday and Saturday, when the U.S. National Indoor Track and Field Championships go off in the 168th Street Armory in New York's Upper Manhattan.

The meet's move to the armory from the Georgia Dome in Atlanta is downsizing a mundo, involving a drop in seating capacity to about 5,000 from about 70,000. Atlanta, in its Olympic-enthusiasm period, hosted the event from 1994 through 2001, but the typical spectator turnouts of 10,000 to 12,000 for its sessions there rattled in the dome's vast expanse and cast a pall over the doings on the oval. That won't be a problem in the armory.

Other things recommend the change. The National Indoor was a New York staple for most of the 80 or so years before its Atlanta phase, so returning it there is a homecoming of sorts. It's a vote of confidence in the city in the wake of the Sept. 11 cataclysm, and it stands to bring to the meet the heightened attention that comes to any sports show in the nation's news-media capital.

Better yet, the armory itself is a good story, a rare example of track and field renaissance in this country. Once a center for grassroots track in the Big Apple, the facility had fallen into the decrepitude that came with its 1970s and '80s employment as a homeless shelter for as many as 1,200 men of various ages, motives and tempers. When it became evident that the drawbacks of such mass warehousing far exceeded the benefits, the building was made available for other uses, and a group headed by Norbert Sander Jr., a physician and former world-class distance runner, recaptured it for the sport.

With money doggedly raised from many sources, the group cleaned up the armory and installed first-rate facilities for running, jumping and throwing. The place quickly became a practice mecca for area school teams and the site of 90 or so meets annually. From November though March, it's used weekly by an estimated 10,000 teen athletes, making it the busiest youth-sports installation in the land.

Still, by putting its showcase indoor event into a 5,000-seat hall, USA Track & Field is confirming the declining reach of the sport it oversees. Track's U.S. indoor circuit, once vibrant, now is down to a handful of struggling meets, and the outdoor season has long since become a European affair. Except for the quadrennial Olympic summers, track and field rates little more than a passing glance from the American public.

The main reason for this development is the crowded calendar that has made the U.S. sports scene downright Darwinian, relegating to the periphery games that haven't grown the requisite sharp elbows. That's mostly beyond track and field's control, but other things aren't. The sport has contributed to its own troubles by allowing an outmoded appearance-guarantee system — a throwback to its "shamateurism" days — to remain as its main form of professional payment.

Appearance guarantees remove from view much of the money that might add to an event's allure and make picky independent contractors of a sport's top performers. The list of this week's expected New York no-shows, headed by the Olympic heroine Marion Jones, adds testimony to the system's failings.

Track fans hope that the spirit behind the 168th Street Armory's rebirth can rub off on the broader activity. The sad truth, though, is that it's probably too late for it to make much difference.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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