By: Sam Ivanecky
A topic that has been at the forefront of conversations around track & field in 2021 has been the process in which NCAA athletes qualify for regional and national meets. For outdoor track, the regional meets are considered to be postseason competition and are split into the East and West. The current setup works where the top 48 athletes in each event are awarded a spot in the regional meet. Athletes outside of those 48 can also qualify if athletes ahead of them opt to scratch an event, in which case the next runner on the descending order list (49th, 50th, etc.) would be selected.
On paper, this seems like a fair way to approach things. Look closer, and it may not be the case. When one evaluates the current system in practice, there appear to be a number of improvements that could be made which would lead to better overall competition and more exciting races for track fans. First, let’s examine why the existing setup is an issue.
Author’s note: When looking at the graphs, we are focused on how the red & blue points compare. When they are close, it means the cut-off times between regions are also close and vice versa. In this case, we’re looking at events that show significant gaps consistently, such as the men’s 10k where the East has been significantly slower than the West.
For the sake of simplicity, we’re going to assume that the 48th fastest time in each region was the cut-off mark for a given year. This might not be true if scratches occurred but it provides a good benchmark for comparison. Above, you can see the changes in cut-off times from 2011 into 2021 (no data for 2020 due to COVID-19 cancellations).
We can be a little bullish on 2021 given there are a couple of weeks of qualifying left so these times may shift. However, looking at the other years, it’s easy to see a handful of events that are starkly different between the two regions. In particular, the 5k, 10k, 200m, and 110H on the men’s side and the 5k, 110H, 400H, and 400m on the women’s side.
It’s clear that many athletes in these events are not making their respective regional championships despite being better than their counterparts in the opposite region. Shouldn’t the system promote sending the best athletes to the postseason, not just a subset? The NCAA already does a similar approach indoors, where they select the top 16 athletes in each event to compete at the national meet (no regional races) regardless of where their school lies.
And sure, the NCAA could do the same thing outdoors, but that also might not be the best approach. Hosting regional meets allows for athletes from smaller, mid-major universities to qualify for the postseason and potentially earn a bid to the national meet. This comes closer to something like March Madness, where these athletes may not be favored but still have a chance to upset the “big dogs” and write a Cinderella story.
So how do we make the track postseason better but still create a situation for upsets and opportunity? Here is a potential option.
Proposal: Take the top 100 athletes in each event regardless of region and split them into two groups. Each group would contest races in the same format as the current regional meets with prelims & finals, with the only difference being how athletes are split (time vs region). Contest races for both groups at the same venue on the same days, taking place when the current regional meets are held. Keep the national meet qualification system the same as the current regional meets.
Instead of demarcating schools into the East vs West, simply take the top 100 times in each event and extend a postseason bid to those athletes. This would ensure the top competition still makes it onto the track, helps balance events between regions, and would actually add four athletes in each event versus the current system. Take those 100 athletes and then split them into two groups. We’ll call them “A” and “B” for now. So in an event like the 10k, runners #1 and #100 would be put in “A”, #2 and #99 put in “B” and so on — essentially creating an event talent split between the two groups.
This is where things get a little trickier. Originally, I thought it would be great to host two preliminary round meets, similar to how regionals are hosted. However, that doesn’t quite work because athletes from the same school could be placed into “A” and “B”, which would make the coaching situation next to impossible. So instead, this becomes one massive prelim competition in place of the regional meets, where all of the racing takes place at the same venue.
This system would not change the number of races run by athletes, nor would it decrease the number who make nationals. Because this prelim meet would be replacing the regional meets, it could be held on the same weekend as the regional races, allowing athletes the same amount of time to recover prior to nationals. Each group (“A” and “B”) would approach events the same, having prelims and finals for their respective runners. The TL:DR version — it’s the regional meets combined into one meet but with two distinct groups of runners that are selected based on their ranking in the NCAA, not the location of their school.
And since someone will probably say “What about relays?”, this works for that too. Relay teams would be assigned a group the same way that individual athletes would, and since the groups are both competing at the same venue on the same weekend, travel and coaching would not be an issue.
Above, you can see more data highlighting where the top 100 would help athletes being disproportionately impacted by the currently regional setup. Under the proposed system, the year-over-year (YOY) breakout of runners qualifying for this “super prelim” meet would follow what you see above. Under the current system, the breakout would be the black line where the split is 50/50. The key takeaway here is that under the proposed system, the number of athletes from the traditional East/West regions varies based on the event, accounting for the overall strength of the event rather than using an arbitrary cut-off of 48 runners from each region.
Of course, this seems like a lot of work to do in the name of “fairness” so why does it matter beyond that? Well, consider a couple of things. First, high school athletes who are the best in their event(s) tend to go to schools with programs that are strong in those areas. For cross country & distance runners, those schools (BYU, NAU, Stanford, Colorado, etc.) tend to be in the West region. Sprint programs such as Arkansas, Florida, Texas A&M, and many of the SEC schools tend to be in the East region. So before they even get into college, athletes may be hindering their postseason chances by enrolling in a particular program. Secondly, the NCAA Championships provide a great opportunity for aspiring professional athletes to showcase their talents for brands and training groups. Yes, the best-of-the-best will find a way to do this on the national stage, but there are plenty of runners who may be knocked out during the regional meets but still be looking towards post-collegiate ambitions. Obviously, this is more applicable to the better talent within each event and so focusing the qualification system around talent rather than geography would also promote their chances of competing beyond the NCAA.
At the end of the day, is this a perfect solution? No, of course not. It has flaws, namely that hosting a joint preliminary meet would require the venue to be in a big(ger) city to accommodate for hotels, stadium, etc. This could potentially take some revenue away from schools that would no longer be able to host a regional meet, although the revenue generated by fans in track & field is largely minimal, to begin with. What this super prelim style competition does promote is the best athletes in the NCAA getting a chance to showcase their talents on the biggest stage. Isn’t that what collegiate competition is all about?