How To Create The Illusion of The Regular Season Mattering

By Kyle Merber

June 7, 2023

For those of us working in corporate America, we have a little saying: TGIF! No, it’s not a proclamation of which fast casual restaurant has the best wing special. It’s a celebratory statement because it’s the end of the work week.

But this past Friday, at 2 pm ET, TGIF took on an entirely new meaning: Thank God It’s Florence.

Ever since those heat sheets were released a few days before, my mouth was salivating like a plate of loaded potato skins was just deposited at the table. This was the World Championship challenger preview. If there was ever a fight to see who could get the title fight vs. Jakob Ingebrigtsen, this was it.

As expected, the race did not disappoint. Unless you’re a sicko who is disappointed by things like the deepest 5000m field ever assembled. A record 13 men dipped below the 13-minute barrier!

With a field this deep, Mo Katir’s winning time of 12:52.09 doesn’t likely scream at you from the results page, but that does not make the performance any less stellar. To cross the line first he had to beat six different medalists from the two most recent global championships, which includes the 5000m world record holder himself, Joshua Cheptegei.

And besides, with fifteen men spread across three lanes with a lap to go and a final kilometer split of 2:23, this was a tactical affair, true championship-style racing. One takeaway from that last kilometer slugfest is that if anyone is capable of matching Jakob’s speed in a similar situation in Budapest, it might just be Katir – who has also run 3:28 for 1500m – or Yomif Kejelcha – and his 3:47.0 mile best.

This race could have been half as interesting and still be a boatload of fun, because of the sheer amount of discussion that took place in the days leading in. I name drop my track fan group chats or the CITIUS Slack channel a lot in this newsletter. That’s because the best part of sports is often the speculative banter around it! During the heyday of my baseball fandom, I was a regular listener and somewhat regular caller to Tri-State drivetime sports talk radio shows, my favorite, of course, being Mike Francesa. (I promise I’m going somewhere with this.)

In the ongoing brainstorming of how to make the regular season count, or at the very least more interesting, there are plenty of reoccurring good suggestions centered around adjusting the championship qualifying process to ensure more regular season participation.

Do I think we should stop giving byes to World Champions? Yes.

Do I think we should have a smaller qualifying window? Yes.

Do I think we should get rid of the standard? Yes.

Do I think there should be a minimum number of meets? Yes.

But all of that combined (plus quadrupling prize money) will be of little to no consequence for the megastars of the sport. The Olympic 10,000m winner Selemon Barega may have only finished 9th in 12:56.18 at the Florence Diamond League, but he’s still qualifying for the World Championships. So who cares?

Well, to pivot back to ol’ Mike Francesca World, the 2019 New York Yankees were winning the AL East regardless of an extra-inning loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in late September. But fans still watched the game! The purpose of tuning in was to be a part of the conversation and to contribute to the community, whether that’s with your buddy you’re watching with, or the internet acquaintance you’re roasting on Twitter or Reddit.

In sociology, there is the concept of a “third place” for individuals to congregate. For some that may be a library or church, and for more conventionally fun people it might be a bar. But really, it’s any location outside of home or work where people can meet for chance encounters and to discuss the goings on in town.

Kyle Merber TweetKyle Merber Tweet

Having a place to talk track is important to make it fun – whether that’s on social media, during a run with a training partner, in one of the few remaining track-specific LetsRun message board threads, through the FastWomen Facebook group, or via the Coffee Club discord. People who participate in these types of spaces find more enjoyment from these early-season races that would be considered inconsequential in the long term, than those whose fandom exists on a social island.

Mo Katir did not win the World Championships, which are still two months away. But his win gave us something to talk about in the meantime, and isn’t professional sports supposed to be entertainment?

For more of the top stories and analysis from the biggest stories in track and field from the past week, subscribe to The Lap Count newsletter for free. New edition every Wednesday morning at 6:30 a.m. ET.

Kyle Merber

After hanging up his spikes – but never his running shoes – Kyle pivoted to the media side of things, where he shares his enthusiasm, insights, and experiences with subscribers of The Lap Count newsletter, as well as viewers of CITIUS MAG live shows.