Millrose Games leaving the Garden is track and field's latest setback
The Millrose Games' move out of MSG shows track has grown old, tired and lazy
The sport's professionals lost sight of the values that enabled professionalism
To recover, sport needs more healthy, frequent and drug-free competition
A book closed last week when it was announced that the Millrose Games, the most venerable of all indoor track meets, would be moving out of Madison Square Garden (cap. 18,000), its home since 1914, to the Armory in New York's Washington Heights (cap. 5,000). The event began in 1908 when the Wanamaker department store wanted to hold a track meet and did so at a local Armory. When the meet simply grew too big, it moved to Madison Square Garden, where it would become the venue's longest standing annual event.
The track at the new Armory is faster than the one at Madison Square Garden and is put to constant use for collegiate and high school meets, invitationals, masters races, just about everything. The place is run by Dr. Norbert Sander, winner of the 1974 New York Marathon and a decent, earnest man who seems to work 25 hours a day to support the sport at its grass roots. His heart is in the right place. With a stellar facility and a marvelous Hall of Fame on site, it is a great place to lose yourself in the pulse of the sport. It's all good. Really it is.
Except it isn't.
The problem isn't the decision to move the showcase event of the indoor track season to a fine place like the Armory; it's the reality of having to move it away from an iconic showplace such as MSG. Simply put, this was the last of the marquee indoor meets on a circuit that once held buzz and grandeur, and it's one more sign that a sport I grew up loving has grown old, tired and, most of all, lazy before my eyes. You don't see the Kentucky Derby leaving Churchill Downs or the Indy 500 leaving the motor speedway, do you?
For me, it was an annual rite of passage from the age of 7 on to call the Wanamaker store in Philadelphia at 9:01 a.m. on exactly the day when tickets first went on sale at the out-of-town store that happened to be the event's main sponsor. I knew if I waited for tickets to go on sale at the Garden box office, three months before the event took place, I'd have mere table scraps to choose from. After all, Millrose was a sellout. Millrose was a happening.
The man I usually spoke to in the events department knew my screechy voice and had my mother's credit card on file, and I always asked for two mid-level seats in the center, then counted the days until the Friday event. The whole process made me late to school, but my parents knew the Millrose Games were a good cause in my development as a wide-eyed child of awe. One day each year, with their permission, class could wait.
And if you missed Millrose, there were more events. In those days, the late-January/early-February period featured three great Friday meets: Millrose; the Vitalis Invitational at the Meadowlands, where Eamonn Coghlan broke the world indoor record; and the U.S. indoor championships, which began with preliminary heats at something like 9 a.m. and ran through the day. When it wasn't in the metropolitan area the indoor circuit also filled big arenas in Los Angeles, San Diego and Dallas. The intimacy and chaos of the world's fastest humans crashing into restraining walls after bolting through the infield or shooting around the high-banked tracks was electric.
But something slowly went off-track. Apologists for the sport --full disclosure: I have been an unabashed track geek for many years -- make fair points about the growing competition from other sports. But when, in recent years, the Millrose organizers didn't even try to sell all the event's seats because of more modest attendance goals, the vibe wasn't the same. Meets in big arenas disappeared. Sponsors came and went and TV ratings for both indoor and outdoor track rose and fell as meets shifted to more obscure cable stations.
Road racing, especially for major marathons, has remained robust as ever. But if you don't care to watch the stars of those events, especially the big marathons, you can just as easily watch for your neighbors. Big as they have become, the marquee road races are still people's races, which, by their nature, can't get too exclusive even if they tried.
The catchphrase that gained popularity in the '80s and '90s was that track and field was becoming more "professional." But professionalism has obligations as well as spoils, and somewhere along the way, the sport's professionals lost sight of the values that enabled this new professionalism.
For starters, track constituents grew tin ears to the growing scourge of drugs and the avoidance of the rivalries that give the sport its luster.