- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

For all the negativity, for all the doubts, for all the criticism, there was a Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden on Friday, and it was a pretty exciting track and field meet.

The nation’s oldest and most prestigious indoor track meet has encountered some huge challenges in the recent past. Once an attraction that drew sellout crowds of more than 20,000, the meet has seen attendance drop since the mid-‘90s as track and field has found it more and more difficult to compete in a crowded sports world.

There was rampant speculation last month that Friday’s 98th Millrose would not even happen. After Verizon failed to renew its backing after last year’s event, organizers were left without a title sponsor.

They never found one but insisted the meet, which is said to cost more than $1million to put on, would not suffer.

Professional Sports and Entertainment Inc., a Los Angeles-based company that bought Millrose in 2003 from Octagon Sports Management, took on the financial liability of the 2005 meet without a title sponsor. And the estimated 13,519 engaged fans undoubtedly would agree they received their money’s worth.

The numbers were down from last year’s 14,154, which was bolstered by the beginning of an Olympic year and the much-awaited return of Marion Jones, who many believe saved that meet from financial disaster.

But attendance was much higher than the 8,830 of 2003. Compare that with just seven years ago when 17,775 saw Marcus O’Sullivan nail his 100th career sub-four-minute mile, with Chase Bank as the title sponsor.

Beating O’Sullivan in that race was Laban Rotich of Kenya, who won again in 2001 before 15,000 spectators and again was one of the stars Friday.

As Jones raised eyebrows last year when meet organizers announced her entry, America’s great mile hope, Alan Webb, received a similar reaction when he announced his intention to race at Millrose for the first time just a few days before the meet.

Webb’s announcement followed Bernard Lagat’s announcement that the two-time Olympic medalist (bronze in 2000, silver in 2004) in the 1,500 meters again would compete in the marquee Wanamaker Mile at Millrose.

For a few short days, meet organizers and USA Track & Field did much to promote this classic duel, a rematch of the Grand Prix 1,500 in Ostrava, Czech Republic, last June, when the 21-year-old Webb beat the 29-year-old Lagat in an astounding 3:32.73.

This is the same Lagat who got tied up with Webb in the final stretch of the first round of the Olympic 1,500 in Athens last summer, which contributed to Webb’s failure to make it to the second round.

At Millrose on Friday, the 27th of 39 events provided plenty of excitement, but not from Webb’s perspective. Lagat disposed of Webb from the start and circled the odd-shaped banked 146-meter (160 yards) board track behind his pacesetter, Elkanah Angwenyi, at a record-setting pace.

When it was over, Lagat, defending champion and favorite coming in, had broken the 1981 Millrose record of 3:53.00 by “Chairman of the Boards” Eamonn Coughlin with a 3:52.87. The 400-meter splits were 55.8, 1:55 and 2:52.8, way too fast for Webb, who ended up third in 4:00.91 behind Rotich’s 4:00.33.

But that wasn’t all the entertainment. Fans were treated to all four of America’s world-leading shot putters — Reese Hoffa, John Godina, Adam Nelson and Christian Cantwell — who finished in that order.

They also saw many U.S. Olympians from 2004 like Stacy Dragila, winning her seventh Millrose pole vault; Allen Johnson winning the 60-meter hurdles; defending champion Toby Stevenson placing second in the pole vault; and Allyson Felix sprinting to third in the 60 meters.

For a ticket as cheap as $15 (before a $4.50 facility surcharge and Ticketmaster fee), track and field still is a good deal for several hours of excitement with many of the sports’ biggest names. That is the challenge for Professional Sports and its Millrose Games: to convince more spectators and sponsors that track and field is still an undervalued entertainment option.

This race against time — to nail a huge title sponsor — will not be an easy one.

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