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Footlocker versus NXN - Some Thoughts

Bill Meylan ... (December 27, 2008)

 

Nike decided to transform NTN to NXN in 2008 by adding individual runners to the championship races.  I was planning to write an article concerning the Footlocker versus NXN meets before the 2008 season started, but decided more information would be available after the 2008 XC was over.

Both Footlocker and NXN are great meets.  Footlocker and Nike use these events for advertising purposes, and in the process, many runners get some excellent opportunities and experience ... It's a win-win situation for both the companies and the runners ... Cross country runners are fortunate to have this opportunity at top-level post-season competition.  This article is not meant to pick one event over the other, but to present some information and thoughts at the conclusion of the 2008 XC season.

Competitor Numbers

I compiled some figures to see how many runners have been competing in the Footlocker and NXN (NTN) qualifying races in hopes of seeing some impact-trends of NXN on Footlocker ... The competition numbers are shown in the table below:

 

Number of runners competing at the NXN and Footlocker Qualifying Meets between 2003 - 2008

To get the numbers below, I used available on-line results and added-up the number of high school boys and girls who competed in each meet ... There were seven regional NXN meets (the NY and NE regionals are combined into a single event) ... California does not have an NXN regional (they use the CA State Meet, but those numbers are excluded here).

 

 

                                         Actual Number of Runners Competing
                                      ---------------------------------------     
  Qualifying Race     2008 Date       2008   2007   2006   2005   2004   2003
  =================  ============     ====   ====   ====   ====   ====   ====

  NXN NY & NE        (11-29-2008)      540    444    --     --     --     --
  NXN Southeast      (11-29-2008)      414    271    --     --     --     --
  NXN Southwest      (11-22-2008)      776    513    --     --     --     --
  NXN South          (11-22-2008)      552    393?   --     --     --     --
  NXN Midwest        (11-15-2008)      586    328    --     --     --     --
  NXN Heartland      (11-15-2008)      716    492    --     --     --     --
  NXN Northwest      (11-15-2008)      760    606    --     --     --     --
                                      ----   ---- 
                              Total   4344   3047


  Footlocker West    (12-06-2008)     1759   1805   2022   2117   1995   2156
  Footlocker NE      (11-29-2008)     1389   1552   1951   1910   1810   1944
  Footlocker South   (11-29-2008)     1418   1502   1736   1730   1584   1690
  Footlocker Midwest (11-29-2008)     1053   1259   1405   1506   1444   1483
                                      ----   ----   ----   ----   ----   ----
                              Total   5619   6118   7114   7263   6833   7273

It is obvious from the table that the start of NXN (NTN) regional qualifiers in 2007 had an immediate impact on the number of runners competing at Footlockers ... the number of Footlocker competitors dropped by roughly 1000 (or about a 14% drop in 2007).

The total number of runners at both Footlocker and NXN in 2008 and 2007 was 9964 and 9165 respectively ... Compared to previous years at Footlocker, the number of runners competing in the post-season has increased on the order of 2000 or more (a small fraction of runners did compete in both races, but that's being ignored for now).

Footlocker Northeast vs. NXN-New York-Northeast .... These two races offer some perspective of having separate races on the same day ... Both races were run on Nov 29, 2008 ... NXN was run at Bowdoin Park (NY) ... Footlocker NE was run at Van Cortlandt Park (NY) ... These two sites are only 61.5 miles apart (according to Microsoft Streets & Trip).

Looking at the numbers above, there appears to be a strong correlation between the drop in number of runners at Footlocker NE and the number of runners at NXN-NY-NE .... The Northeast is not contributing significantly to the increase in number of post-season competitors (the close proximity of the sites on the same day may be the reason) ... Even with fewer runners than previous years, Footlocker NE is still getting more than 2.5 times as many runners as NXN-NY-NE.

Competitor Numbers - Random Thoughts

Just speculation on my part ... The 2000+ increase in runner participation nationwide could simply be due to the increase in regional qualifying sites established by Nike ... more sites conveniently located will attract more runners ... I wonder what would happen if the four Footlocker sites were removed from the mix?

There is probably a finite number of high school runners available (or willing) to run post-season meets.  The "team" concept of NTN is a bit more demanding than individual participation because is requires teams to stay together after the official high school season ends ... And I believe there are a limited number of teams available (or willing) to compete in a team competition post-season.  At any NXN regional, a limited number of teams will come with legitimate hopes of qualifying ... a few teams will come because it's a great experience ... a small number of local teams will come because it's close and convenient ... but the total number of teams will be limited in a post-season environment.

My first thought when hearing NXN was adding individuals --> NXN is trying to increase their participation numbers ... It's a good idea because it allows more runners to experience a special event ... My second thought was "NXN wants to compete with Footlocker" ... My third thought was "If Nike wants to grow NXN significantly, they did not have a choice except to add individuals and set-up a confrontation with Footlocker".

 

NXN - Random Thoughts

NXN (NTN) has been in existence for five years.  Nike and all of the people involved with NXN have done an outstanding job in promoting the sport and delivering a great opportunity and experience to teams and runners traveling to Portland Meadows.  Nike should be congratulated for providing a real team championship scenario through head-to-head competition, and doing a very good job in the process.  I have talked to coaches and runners who have competed at NXN (NTN) and heard many good things about their treatment and experiences in Portland.

Portland Meadows in not my favorite cross country course (I have been one of the critics of the course itself when it's compared to other XC courses around the country) ... However, Portland Meadows (or another horse racing facility) has many advantages which make it good site for a national event: (a) designed to accommodate large crowds, (b) conveniently located near airports, hotels and major highways, (c) great spectator viewing, and (d) on-site satellite uplink capabilities for live television or webcasts (especially if you have a Race Track  Network satellite dish that picks up Portland Meadows through Roberts Communication who transmitted the webcast).

Portland Meadows XC course ... Nike representatives (such Paul Limmer and coworkers) have done a great job in developing a challenging course on the interior of a race track ... But I prefer a course with some small hills similar to "Cardiac Hill" at Sunken Meadows or some narrow wooded trails where an expert hip-nudge stops a competitor cold (just kidding) ... Paul (and other NY and NE guys) were expert in their design to maximize the potential of the NY and NE teams ... So from that point-of-view, I appreciate Portland Meadows.

Here's the Important Random Thought --> NXN (NTN) has been very successful in developing, promoting, and conducting a national Team championship event ... NXN does not need individual runners to be successful; they have already proven that ... However, individual runners are necessary for NXN to grow significantly beyond what they have already achieved.

 

Footlocker - Random Thoughts

Continuing the Important Random Thought --> Footlocker has been very successful for 30 years in conducting an "Individual" championship ... Footlocker does not need a team concept to be successful.

The real question becomes: "Does Footlocker even want teams to be part of their champion event??" ... Right now, the answer "appears" to be NO ...  (note that "appears" is in quotation).

Most of the Footlocker Finalists I have talked to like the fact that only 40 (or 32) runners are in the race ... They appreciate how well they are treated ... They like the individual attention they receive at Footlocker Finals ... Nearly all of the Finalists I have talked to do not want that to change.

Over the years I have asked many runners why they compete at Footlocker regional races  (mostly in the Northeast) ... The varied answers include (a) one final race of the season, (b) it's a really nice event, (c) a trip to New York City, and (d) hopes of qualifying for Finals ... But one re-occurring notion is "I don't have to worry about any team responsibilities ... I can just enjoy the race and not worry about how I finish" ... and this leads to a root cause of various NXN vs. Footlocker disagreements amongst coaches, runners, fans and media people.

The Team vs The Individual

Is Cross Country a Team sport or an Individual sport?? ... I wrote a long section here but deleted most of it because this is just a case of differing opinions ... Personally, I believe cross country is both with team and individual being equal (it's one factor that makes XC special ... and it causes very few problems during the course of a high school season) ... The team vs. individual aspect never really mattered at the national-level until the introduction of NTN which forced a choice on top runners of top teams.

Many current NXN people seem to be strong advocates of "team before individual" (as are many coaches and former coaches) ... This is perfectly fine and desirable for a team competition ... BUT - We are talking about the post-season and that means the "official" high school "team" is done for the year ... If the team members decide to stay together for the post-season, that's great ... BUT if an individual wants to compete as an individual and attain as an individual, that choice needs to be respected equally IF the NXN vs. Footlocker confrontation wants to find an amicable and joint solution.

 

Why is Footlocker on National TV (and NXN isn't)??

Footlocker Finals is broadcast nationally on TV by FSN (Fox Sports Net) over a number of cable and satellite channels.  Initially, NTN was also broadcast by FSN, but then it stopped ... I enjoyed those broadcasts and was annoyed that FSN stopped ... I spent some time trying to find out why, but never got connected with the right person ... However, I did get a few ideas from several TV production people (such as a producer who decides which camera picture to show).

The current notion of sports promotion is to promote "star individuals", especially of pro teams ... The NBA used Michael Jordan with great success ... LeBron James is currently used to promote Cleveland ... Kobe Bryant to promote LA ... Tiger Woods to promote golf ... and so forth.

The TV producer noted the "Up Close & Personal" segments of the Olympics ... I wonder how many hours of my life have been consumed watching "Up Close & Personal" segments of the Olympics??

Apparently, TV producers like to focus on an individual, and put a name and story on the individual ... This became painfully obvious during the live broadcast of the 2008 NCAA Division 1 Cross Championships on CSTV ... Sally Kipyego is great repeat winner, but keeping the camera focused on her for virtually the entire race and then keeping the camera on her after her finish (to the exclusion of all other runners finishing) was too much ... The same thing happened in the guys race with Galen Rupp vs. Samuel Chelanga which was covered to the exclusion of the runners behind them ... The team aspect of the races took a  back-seat to the individuals.

I wonder if this makes a difference in FSN covering Footlocker, but not NXN?? (the fact that is easier to follow and talk about individuals during an XC race as compared to teams) ... I do not know ... I wonder if it would make a difference if NXN got all the top individuals to race with the teams?? ... Who knows - maybe one of the ESPN channels would broadcast the combined Footlocker-NXN Championships live ... I wonder who would get the most attention during the broadcast??

NXN Web-cast

I thought Rich Gonzalez, Tony Reavis and company did a great job during the NXN web-cast this year. They were informative and entertaining.

The perception to NXN webcast-viewers during and immediately following the races was Individual over Team aspect because the majority of camera-time was spent following the leaders ...  From a cameramanís perspective, itís much easier to follow the front runners, especially when one of the main cameras is on the lead-vehicle.  Trying to follow scoring team members during most cross country races is hard enough, but trying to do it at a quality race like NXN is nearly impossible ... I had no idea where any of the Fayetteville-Manlius girls were running during the race except that the team was leading at every 1K split ... The people at Portland Meadows got a very different perception of the race than the people watching at home because they had the ability to see and follow team members throughout the race.

 

Top Runners Split Between Footlocker and NXN

In 2008, top runners in the NY, Northeast, Southeast and California regions of NXN were forced to choose either Footlocker or NXN ... a few runners in other regions were able to do both because the Footlocker and NXN qualifiers were on different weekends.

The majority of top individual girls competed at Footlocker in 2008 (the matchup between Jordan Hasay, Ashley Brasovan and Kathy Kroeger certainly helped).  On the boy's-side, the top talent was split more evenly between NXN and Footlocker with NXN having some excellent talent from the team runners ... but the top two boys (Solomon Haile and Trevor Dunbar) were at Footlocker and they ran one-two.

From a purely numbers point-of-view, the majority of top individual runners from around the country are very unlikely to be members of teams qualifying for NXN ... only 22 teams qualify for NXN (boys and girls each) ... Some of the top runners nationwide will be NXN team runners (that's one reason their teams qualified for NXN) ... But most top individual runners will come from teams unable to qualify for NXN.

Several Footlocker Finalists (who qualified at Footlocker regional races) have told me the same thing ... Why should they pick NXN over Footlocker when Footlocker treats them so well and gives them special individual attention?? .... This is a major hurdle in combining the NXN Nationals and Footlocker Finals into a single race ... BUT this hurdle can be jumped if the parties involved want to.

Tradition

I appreciate tradition ... Footlocker/Kinney has been going strong for 30 years ... Footlocker/Kinney has provided great opportunities for many runners and I hope that continues ... The question is "What is the Tradition?" ... Is it the regional qualifying races?? ... Is it the Finals?? ... or Is it both??

By far, the majority of participants compete at the four regional Footlocker races ... In 2008, 5619 high school runners competed at the Footlocker regional races ... Compared to the 80 qualifying finalists (40 boys + 40 girls), 98.6% of all runners had their only traditional experience at their regional race.

By simply maintaining the four regional races in their current form, Footlocker would maintain the "traditional experience" for the vast percentage of runners, volunteers, fans and spectators.

Now the hard part ... Footlocker Finals is a wonderful advertising promotion for Footlocker.  They get national media attention and national TV coverage via FSN ... The Footlocker Finalists are treated like celebrities ... Seems like a "tradition" worth preserving.

So - Assuming some "Act-of-God" encouraged Nike and Footlocker to discuss combining their Finals into a single race ... Is it possible to maintain the "tradition" and the individuality for the Footlocker Finalists in a combined final?? ... I'm on the individualist-side on things, but to me the answer is obvious ... the answer is YES.

How To Combine Races

Discussing details is pointless until both sides acknowledge the principle that combining races is possible (that would be a major accomplishment ... might cause an earthquake in California) ... Sometimes the "devil is in the details", but this could be one situation where the details "are the solution".

NXN Nationals and Footlocker Finals each have significant strengths ... Certainly the advertising genius of Nike and Footlocker could leverage those strengths into a combined event to benefit both the companies and the participants.

Maintaining individuality for the Footlocker Finalists ... This is important (the NXN notion that making individuals feel like team members is not the sole solution) ... I suggest the following:
(1) get ideas directly from runners who have done both NXN (NTN) and Footlocker (past & present)
(2) get ideas from successful college runners familiar with high school and college championships

Conclusion

This article presents some random thoughts.  I expect next year will be the same as this year (separate NXN and Footlocker Finals); and into the foreseeable future ... The top runners will be split between the two races - for some top runners (especially the top individuals at Footlocker), that's not a bad thing.