PORTLAND — With an eye on sparking greater interest stateside in track and field, the TrackTown Summer Series is expanding this year.
The unique team competition — the brainchild of TrackTown President Vin Lananna — made its debut last year in Eugene. It was a one-off meet that was overshadowed by the Olympic Trials and ultimately the Rio Games.
But the intention was always to expand. This year the series will consist of three meets in late June and early July in Portland, Stanford, California, and a championship in New York.
Four teams are taking shape under high-profile GMs: Allyson Felix for the New York Empire, Nick Symmonds for the San Francisco Surge, Bernard Lagat for the Portland Pulse and Sanya Richards-Ross for the Philadelphia Force.
The four were part of a draft held Friday in Portland, with two athletes going per pick. With the first selection, the Force took hurdler Devon Allen and high jumper Chaunte Lowe. Both have Olympic credentials.
And no, Usain Bolt wasn't eligible to be picked. This is Americans only.
There were lots of other big names eligible to compete, including American 400-meter record holder Phyllis Francis, three-time Olympian Shannon Rowbury, and hurdler Queen Harrison.
The idea is to give American track and field athletes greater exposure on home soil. After college, many take part in national championships and then head to meets overseas, one of the few ways besides sponsorships to make a paycheck in the sport. Some take part in the Diamond League series, which has just one U.S. stop, The Prefontaine Classic in Eugene.
"We always felt that it seemed crazy that we had the greatest team, the No. 1 team in the world, and the team basically packs up whatever they're going to pack up and they go to Europe after the NCAAs, the U.S. nationals or the Olympic Trials. Then not much happens until the following spring," Lananna said. "So we always felt for our athletes it would be better for them to be able to build their brand in the United States before heading to Europe or wherever they land."
But the meet is also an effort to get U.S. fans more excited about the sport in advance of the 2021 World Championships in Eugene. Lananna heads the local organizing committee for Oregon21.
"For 3.95 years, no one worries about track and field," Lananna said. "For the Olympic years everyone gears up and we have this great energy around it and pay attention. We have the World Championships every two years. We have the top team in terms of medals and yet a person like Ashton Eaton, who is a double world record-holder and Olympic medalist, can go anywhere in this country in an airport and walk through without one person recognizing him. That's troublesome."
If anyone can pull it off, it's Lananna, the former Stanford and Oregon coach who as president of TrackTown has successfully organized the world junior championships, along with last year's Olympic trials in Eugene and the World Indoor Championships last year in Portland.
Lananna's idea is to make the Summer Series more of an experience than a track meet. He's focused on short two-hour events that are surrounded by live music, activities for the kids and opportunities to interact with the athletes. In New York, the plan is to have fans seated on the infield of the track.
He's got other elements on his side: Two major investors in Bob Greifeld, chairman of the board for NASDAQ, and venture capitalist Franklin "Pitch" Johnson Jr., as well as a TV deal with ESPN.
The Summer Series opens at Stanford on June 29, then shifts to Mt. Hood Community College in Portland on July 2 and wraps up at Icahn Stadium in New York City on July 6. The four teams will compete for prize money, giving athletes a financial incentive to join.
The event will likely expand again in 2018.
"Our plan is get through this year, see where we are, then our goal is to be able to add a couple of cities next year," Lananna said. "Long term, we hope to have nine or 10 cities leading up to 2021."