TrackTown USA head aims to help competitors earn living, grow sport

EUGENE — A year ago, Atlanta-based sports agent Paul Doyle initiated a U.S. track and field team competition called the American Track League that didn't gain a lot of traction.

Now Vin Lananna hopes to put together a similar enterprise called the TrackTown Summer Series that will culminate with a season-ending championship meet at Hayward Field next summer. The league is scheduled to begin shortly after the 2016 Olympic Trials July 1-10 at Eugene.

Lananna, president of the TrackTown USA organization that promotes the sport and stages major events, says he has reached out to representatives of 12 cities "in major media markets" to serve as sites for teams.

"I can't provide details, but Portland is one of those cities, for sure," Lananna says.LANANNA

Other West Coast cities believed to be involved in negotiations for a team include Seattle, San Francisco and Sacramento, Calif.

Lananna's idea is to provide competitive domestic meets for U.S. athletes after the USTAF national championships in late June and leading up to the World Championships or Olympic Games in late summer.

"We have felt for a long time we need to have opportunities in this country during the summer for our high-end athletes as they peak for the World Championships, Olympic Games or Diamond League events," Lananna says.

Eugene played host to a high-performance professional meet last summer "with the full intention of shifting the paradigm of everybody running out of town after the U.S. championships or Olympic Trials and going to Europe," he says.

Lananna says he has received "good response" from reps of four cities thus far, plus "great response from the athletes and great response from the investors. This is one of the first times when any initiative has started with having the financial background, then developing the outcome with the rest of the idea."

There will be teams representing cities and team scores kept in dual meets. There will be an athlete draft conducted to balance the talent pool.

"We feel we'll (field) 200 athletes," Lananna says. "Our objective is to provide opportunities for U.S. athletes. We may have some international athletes, too, but at a lower percentage."

Not every event will be included in every meet, which Lananna says will take 90 minutes to complete. He says the championship meet in Eugene will take one hour and 45 minutes.

"The meets will be scored, and we'll engage the team concept similar to the way the NCAA Championships are set up," Lananna says.

Athletes will be "financially compensated for participating," he says.

But those athletes will be able to continue with their shoe and apparel endorsement deals and will wear their normal uniforms during meets.

"They'll continue to wear whatever they currently wear," he says.

Lananna hopes to incorporate road racing in the meets, with the race to end at the finish line inside the stadium. TrackTown USA — which will stage the 2016 World Indoor Championships in Portland and the 2021 World Outdoor Championships in Eugene — will help operate each of the meets. Lananna says he is in negotiations with a "major television network" for broadcast rights.

The investors, Lananna says, "will either coach the team themselves or hire somebody."

"We'll pit one city's team against another's," Lananna says. "Right now, we anticipate having at least four (dual meets), and there will be a national championship held at Hayward Field.

"The objective is a buildup to the 2021 World Championships. It's my goal to create stars of our sport (to become) household names as we get ready to host the 2021 World Championships."

Attendance at the dual "regional" meets, Lananna says, "won't be important at all. They're going to be on TV, so it doesn't matter if (attendance is) 2,000. Attendance at the national championships in Eugene — the financial model for the investors — will be very important."

U.S. athletes will to be able to continue to compete in Diamond League events in Europe.

"We will do our best to pick the dates so not to conflict with the Diamond League," Lananna says. "But once you join, you do have to participate."

Lananna says the league has been in the works for three years.

"We are mostly interested in engaging our younger athletes, some of whom have been part of our planning stages," Lananna says. "They're excited about it. We have some pretty cool elements we're not ready to roll out yet. I have every reason to believe once you put out some reasonable finances, and they don't have to spend $5,000 to $6,000 (to go to Europe for meets), it's a win-win for everybody.

"My intention is to grow the entire sport. We'll take on what is a long-needed objective for our athletes in the U.S. We have to get track being thought about in the summer months. After our national championships, nobody utters the words 'track and field' in the U.S. except when something controversial comes up."

In interviews with several athletes during last week's USATF Championships at Eugene, none — including Nike Oregon Project distance runner Galen Rupp — said they had heard of the planned league.

Having no domestic meets after the USATF meet "is a big problem for U.S. athletes," national 5,000 champion Ryan Hill of Portland's Nike Bowerman Track Club says. "We have to go to Europe in the summer. Some of us would like to stay in the States and race.

"(A domestic league) would be fantastic. I'd love to see it. The only problem might be, the big names can make more money in Europe. But for athletes who don't feel confident about making money in Europe, the best idea is to stay here and race."

National steeplechase champion Evan Jager says much the same thing.

"That would be pretty cool," says the Nike BTC runner. "I don't know what the payout structure would be, but it would be hard for some of the top guys to turn down the Diamond League money.

"But if if there's some money in these meets, I could totally see that taking off. Why would you not want to stay in the States, stay at home, potentially race in your hometown in front of your fans? It would give people more opportunity to run faster races, which would be awesome for American track."

Veteran high jumper Amy Acuff says it is becoming harder for the top-flight U.S. track and field athletes to make a living.

"Since I started (in 1996), I've seen a decline in the number and quality of meets," the five-time Olympian says. "The European meets don't take a lot of athletes. There are small fields, and prize money is not deep. There is not as much an incentive as it used to be. And when (the meets) are spread out, there's incredible expense to put yourself up for a whole week or two.

"It's really hard for U.S. athletes. The contract support (from shoe and apparel companies) has dried up substantially the last few years. There are people who are relying on track and field for their day-to-day survival — really talented people. We're talking top 10 in the world making almost no money in the sport. That's scary for them. They just don't know what they're going to do.

"(A U.S. track league) would be amazing. I wish Vin all the best of luck in pulling that off, but it's no easy task. He'll need a lot of help and support from the track and field community. I hope that's achieved."

Lananna says plans for the U.S. and World Indoors — which will be held a week apart in March at the Oregon Convention Center — are moving quickly. The track is currently being shipped from Estonia, where it was built, and is expected to arrive in Portland on Thursday.

"We'll have it housed and surfaced in Portland and ready to be set up when the time comes," Lananna says.

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