The Millrose Games is one of the best and longest-running indoor track meets in the world. From 1914 to 2011, the Millrose Games was held at Madison Square Garden with most races contested on an 11-laps-to-a-mile banked track. In 2012, the race was moved to the Armory building in Washington Heights and shifted from Friday night, with a schedule that ended close to midnight, to Saturday afternoon and early evening. Although there was some concern that changing the date and venue would erode the tradition of the meet, the level of competition and the opportunity for world-class runners to run on a world-class track have made the meet both exciting and relevant.
Millrose is also a meet that should make for great television. It attracts the biggest names, stages the most competitive events, and oozes historical significance. This year’s meet brought together outstanding fields in several events (men’s and women’s miles, 3000m, and men’s 5000m). It featured a world record in the non-standard 500m, and a thrilling finish in the men’s 1000m. The world’s best multi-event athlete very nearly killed himself when he flipped over the padding after finishing the 60m hurdles (he’s OK, he’s OK!). The final event on the track, the men’s Wanamaker mile, was a tremendous battle between two of the best milers in the world, and included for a good measure the fastest mile ever run by a forty year old.
Which makes it all the more puzzling why NBC, which owns the broadcast rights, continues to squander its opportunities, settling for mediocre coverage seemingly unaware of what makes a race on the track compelling entertainment.
I realize that Track and Field is not a major spectator sport. I understand that the audience is small and the number of hard-core fans is smaller still. It would be unrealistic at this point to expand live broadcast coverage to include more events, or show longer races in their entirety. I’ll never be happy that the network thinks it’s OK to interrupt the 5000m with not one, but two commercial breaks, but at least I can see why they do it.
But I will never understand why NBC settles for a broadcast team that simply doesn’t have the knowledge and skills to announce the marquee events on the program. Wouldn’t it be in NBC’s best interests to hire announcers who, when given the privilege to witness a Wanamaker mile like the one on Saturday night, managed to convey what made that race special? Instead, year-after-year, NBC hands the responsibility for calling the race to the team of Tom Hammond and Lewis Johnson, who just don’t have the chops for it. Hammond has a tendency to focus only on the leaders and often misses the significance of what’s developing on the track. Johnson communicates a lot of excitement, but often about something of only marginal importance. Both announcers have a bad habit of bringing in irrelevant background information when they should be describing what’s happening on the track.
For example, during the race Hammond feels the need to tell us that Louis Zamperini ran in the Wanamaker Mile (finishing fourth). Sure, this is interesting background info that helps establish historical context, but mention of Zamperini, or Nurmi, or Cunningham, or Delaney, or Kip Keino, or any of the other great runners who have competed in the mile belongs in the pre-race introduction. Johnson insisted that Lagat’s poor start showed that there was something “not right” with him, and both announcers seemed to expect him to go out like he was capable of running sub-3:50. Really?
I’ve gone back and listened to the broadcast a couple of times now. Even before the race begins there’s a mix-up, where the live announcer is forced to repeat his introductions of the top five runners because the TV broadcast missed it. Obviously, this was a timing glitch, but I’ll bet the broadcast announcers were unprepared to give a rundown of who was in the field. But what bugs me most is what’s missing once the racing starts. In particular, the race is called as though there were only four-five men in the race. There’s not a single mention of Leer (the 2014 champion), Manzano, Cheserek, Lalang, Jager, Gregorek, or Merber. There’s no mention of the development of the race in the first few laps, where the rabbit goes out a little too fast, forcing everyone to make a decision. Centrowitz decided to go right with the rabbit, and after a little hesitation, Pat Casey rolls the dice and follows. Willis decides they’re going too fast, and holds back, falling almost two seconds behind, which means he has to bridge the gap in the 3rd-6th laps. The point is, there are things happening at every moment, and being content to tell us only who’s in first, second, and third doesn’t communicate that.
These runners are not automatons. They are distinct racing machines with different strengths and weaknesses, different levels of fitness, and different motivations. It would have been extraordinarily foolish for Lagat to run a 55 first lap because Lagat is now FORTY YEARS OLD. The decision by Casey to go with the pace and eventually hang on for third barely registered. Fine performances by Jager (closed faster than Lagat), Cheserek, and Gregorek were completely ignored. By the way, after mentioning the world masters record before the race, there was absolutely no mention on the broadcast that Lagat had indeed broken that venerable record by over three seconds, taking it away from Millrose legend Eamonn Coughlin (photo, above). Unbelievable that they didn’t mention that.
Am I being unreasonable in wanting to hear a race called by someone who knows the runners in the race, knows the significance of what is happening, and communicates that through words and tone of voice? I don’t think so. The otherwise amateurish Flo-Track guys do that every week for much more low-profile meets. The thing is, this is the Millrose Games, arguably the brightest jewel of the indoor season. Doesn’t the best meet deserve better?