| First Quarter 2013 | story by DAISY WAKEFIELD | photos by STEVEN HERTZOG |
Phog Allen, as most around these parts know, was the University of Kansas basketball coach with a stunning career and a fieldhouse dedicated to his name.
Glorious though that may be, Allen’s legacy is not confined to basketball. Phog Allen is also the co-founder of the Kansas Relays, which has become a premier national star in its own right.
The Kansas Relays began in 1923 in a brand new Memorial Stadium. It was modeled on the Penn Relays, the oldest and largest track meet in the United States. Over the years, thousands of high school, collegiate, and professional athletes in track and field have converged in Lawrence each April to compete.
“We see some of the best Midwest competition at the Kansas Relays,” says Josh Williamson, Assistant Meet Director. “We’re seeing Olympians and future Olympians, several as high school athletes. Over the span of some years, 33 athletes have competed at the Kansas Relays that were Olympic athletes.”
The Relays bring in approximately 5000 athletes to compete over a week’s span in April, with the bulk of the meets happening over a weekend at Memorial Stadium. The attendance varies greatly – 13,500 spectators came for the Saturday competition in 2012, but a record 32,000 spectators came in 1972 to watch renowned track athlete Jim Ryun.
The expenses of the Kansas Relays is offset by the registration fees from each team, with KU Athletics providing the budget for the bulk of the event. Though this is an expense for the athletic department, Track and Field coach Stanley Redwine says that it comes back to the university.
“These high school students have the opportunity to see the University of Kansas and Lawrence,” Redwine says. “Even if they don’t continue to do track and field, they see the campus and consider KU as a college choice.”
The athletes that descend on Lawrence also bring a host of coaches, staff and family members that fill every hotel in Lawrence, and some in Ottawa, Topeka and Kansas City. This, combined with other business brought to the city, bring a shot of significant economic benefit from hosting the Relays.
In 2011, the Relays took to the streets in European fashion, and held two events downtown. Competitions for the Elite Men’s Long Jump and the Elite Men’s Shot put were held on 8th Street (between Massachusetts and New Hampshire), marking the inaugural street meet not only for Lawrence, but for the U.S. The next year, the downtown competitions changed from Men’s to Women’s Long Jump, allowing an up front view of the strength and massiveness of male shot putters right beside the svelte skill of women long jumpers.
“These events really give people the chance to see entertaining athletics in track and field, people who wouldn’t usually be track and field watchers,” says Milan Donley, Meet Director.
Marketing the Relays in the distant past fell upon after-the-fact media coverage. But the street events have served as effective PR for the Relay. The downtown competitions are held earlier in the week, acting as a kick off for the weekend events. The 2011 events were well-received and created buzz for the next year’s relays. The 2012 Memorial Stadium Saturday attendance increased by 32% over 2011. The downtown events attendance jumped from 3500 to 5000 spectators for both events.
The Relays also tap into other marketing, such as Flotrack, an online track and field site that covers the Relays, and a partnership with Adidas to hold a qualifier for the mile run and the 100-meter dash for high school students. A QUALIFIER FOR WHAT? Research has been done through KU journalism students, focus groups, interviews and online surveys to gauge which events and athletes most attract spectators. Plans are being made for more targeted advertising, especially through social media.
With the creation of Rock Chalk Park slated to host the 2014 Kansas Relas, this is likely the last year the event will be held at Memorial Stadium. Competitors who have previously been turned off from coming to the Relays because of Memorial Stadium’s outdated tracks may well reconsider in 2014. Still, all of the Relay’s history is held in Memorial Stadium, and there are plans to properly celebrate its last year as host.
With a dedicated venue at Rock Chalk Park, the Kansas Relays will have options to expand, hold simultaneous events, and attract more teams with faster tracks. The venue will decrease from a 50,000 seating stadium to a 10,000 one, creating a more intimate and hopefully higher-energy atmosphere.
“The ticket demand will change since we are not in a 50,000 stadium,” Williamson says, “We will really push advance online purchases of tickets. The Jayhawks are currently one of the top-ranked programs in the nation and we believe we can bring in some of the other top college programs in the nation to compete in the improved facility.” ■