“There are 20 million runners in this country. I don’t think there are 20 million track fans.”
–Vin Lananna, Head Track Coach, University of Oregon
Okay, if you love the sport of track and field, that’s a problem. Luckily, people like Milan Donley, Meet Director of the Kansas Relays, have been working overtime to convert some of those non-track fans. For the past three years, the Kansas Relays has held a world class shot put competition in downtown Lawrence. Milan got the idea from street meets held in Europe, and the concept has transferred quite nicely to the American heartland. Throwers love it. Spectators love it. And the businesses in downtown Lawrence who report a 40% increase in sales on those competition days really, really love it.
Milan, who would like to see other communities adopt the street meet concept, was kind enough to share with me the nuts and bolts of hosting one of these competitions.
In order to lure spectators and grow interest in the sport, Milan is determined each year to put on an entertaining “show.” That means putting together a world class field (more on that later) and adding a few “extras” such as the KU cheerleaders, t-shirt tosses, a post-competition meet and greet with the athletes, a sound system, and a beer garden.
I know, I know. I had you at “KU cheerleaders.”
The competition consists of one flight of top-notch throwers taking six throws apiece. In order to accentuate the drama, the flight is re-ordered after the third and fifth rounds. Throwers get to choose the music they want to hear as they enter the ring, and are encouraged to “play to the crowd.” Milan seems quite pleased with the fact that Christian Cantwell (as a University of Missouri alum) is booed heartily by the pro-Jayhawk locals.
The way that attendance has increased (1,500 in year one to 3,500 this year) would seem to indicate that Milan has accomplished his mission of showing people a good time.
A local quarry donates 400 cubic yards of crushed limestone for the landing area (which is in turn donated to the city of Lawrence). Since the street is not perfectly level, the thickness of the landing area varies from approximately 6 inches just in front of the ring to 3 feet at the opposite end of the sector (approximately 85 feet away).
The ring itself is set in a portable 10′ by 10′ concrete slab built according to specs that Milan obtained from the folks who run the shot competition in the Zurich train station.
Stopboards are placed at the end of the landing area, and barriers and bleachers are set up along the sides to keep spectators safe and comfortable.
Add in a couple of tents to shelter the athletes, a beer garden run by a local establishment and you have everything you need for a great competition.
The city of Lawrence donates the labor necessary for the setup and takedown. Setup begins at 6:00am and takes 5-8 hours. The competition is held at 6:00pm, and the city begins removing the limestone at midnight. By 6:00am the cleanup is done.
Here are a some views of the competition area:
The cost of holding the Kansas Relays shot in downtown Lawrence is $50,000. Part of that money is accumulated through donations from local businesses such as restaurants and banks, and part ($20,000) comes out of the Kansas Relays budget.
The majority of that $50,000 is devoted to putting together a world class field of putters. The very best shotputters in the world can command an appearance fee of $7,500 to $9,000. Less accomplished throwers may settle for $2,500 or less. Each is given $300.00 for travel as well as a per diem and hotel accomodations. The prize money is $1,000 for first place, $750.00 for second, and $500.00 for third.
I feel the need to digress here for a second because I don’t want people who are unfamiliar with the sport to get the wrong idea.
As is often the case, the money paid to athletes may seem like a lot to us average Joes. Nine thousand dollars for one day’s work? Sounds pretty sweet. But paydays for shotputters are few and far between. The best of the best (recent World and Olympic champions) might get invited to a handful of decent-paying meets per season, and might quickly find themselves uninvited if their performance slips a bit. Opportunities are even more scarce for those who have not quite achieved “best of the best” status. I recently spoke with a 21-meter putter who has never made a World Championship or Olympic team and now, at the age of 30, is facing the liklihood of having to retire due to financial considerations. There just aren’t enough paying meets out there to allow him to make a living.
And that’s not good for our sport. As Gia Lewis-Smallwood has recently demonstrated, some throwers do not find their groove until long after they’ve left the security of the college environment. For the United States to field its best team at the Olympics and World Championships, we’ve got to give developing athletes a chance to make some money.
The great thing about street meets is that they help fill that need while also expanding track and field’s fan base.
Anyhow, Milan asks that each thrower arrive the day before the competition so that they may attend a dinner with local doners, and that they stick around after the event to pose for pictures and interact with the spectators, and he says the athletes have been great about doing just that.
I have spoken to two putters who participated in this year’s Kansas Relays street competition, Cory Martin and Justin Rodhe, and they both greatly enjoyed the experience. Milan said that the throwers he has come to know would like nothing better than to have a series of street meets held each summer in the USA. So, if you decide to host one of these competitions, you will be dealing with motivated, personable athletes who will do everything they can to make your event a success.
I would advise anyone who is considering putting on a street meet to contact Milan. He is a great guy and very happy to share his expertise.