Space forces Big Ten meet off campuses

The indoor track and field championships will be hosted at a non-Big Ten facility in Ohio.

Megan Ryan

The Gophers track and field teams are used to traveling.

With its outdoor track riddled with fissures and depressions, the teams can only host about three indoor meets a year at the University Fieldhouse.

But the Gophers are not used to traveling to a non-Big Ten facility for the indoor conference championships.

For the first time, the Big Ten will host the indoor championships at an off-campus location — the Spire Institute in Geneva, Ohio — because of inadequate on-campus facilities.

The Spire Institute is an indoor, multi-sport training and competition facility of more than 750,000 square feet.

The decision was the result of combining the men’s and women’s championships, which had been held separately before last year.

“You double the athletes, you double the fans, potentially a significant increase in officials and volunteers,” said Marc Ryan, Gophers senior associate athletics director for track and field. “So really, it’s a space issue.”

Finding space

The University Fieldhouse features bleacher seating for more than 800 people.

When the Gophers last hosted the Big Ten indoor championships in 2008 for the women and in 2010 for the men, the University had to make several adjustments to accommodate about 2,000 people, Ryan said.

Those adjustments included extra bleachers, an area for communications staff and media and port-o-potties for athletes and fans.

“We used every inch of that space when we hosted,” Ryan said. “That was for one gender.”

Nebraska hosted the first combined Big Ten indoor championships last year. The Huskers’ indoor track has capacity for 5,000 people.

Nebraska’s head coach for the combined men’s and women’s team, Gary Pepin, ranks his facility the best in the nation. Seating-wise, he said Nebraska was probably the only Big Ten facility capable of hosting a combined meet.

Pepin said one of the only negative comments he recieved about hosting the championships every year was that Nebraska would have an unfair advantage.

Gophers senior Harun Abda said he is excited to participate in a neutral event this year.

“At the same time, you kind of miss being in a campus,” he said.

The Spire Institute seats 5,000 spectators with full locker rooms and warm-up areas.

The track itself is a 300-meter oversized track with eight lanes — a layout conducive to running fast times.

“We do believe that the equipment and the set-up that we have does lend itself to the best performance possible,” said Jeff Orloff, chief operating officer at the Spire Institute. “I think what we realize is that this is a weekend that a lot of athletes from the Big Ten are going to remember for the rest of their lives.”

Controversy around the conference

While this year’s indoor championships will be at the Spire Institute, no future locations have been decided yet.

The conference coaches and administration will meet next week to discuss how the 2013 championships went and if they want to continue the partnership with the Spire Institute.

The conference sent a survey a few weeks ago to all track and field programs asking questions related to hosting a championship meet, such as capacity, obstructed views, warm-up areas, number of lanes on the track and whether the track is banked or flat.

Head Gophers men’s coach Steve Plasencia said most schools probably answered similarly.

“I’m willing to bet there were not too many … that said, ‘We could not host a Big Ten championship,’” Plasencia said.

Head Gophers women’s coach Matt Bingle said he wants the championships to return to campuses.

“In my opinion … it should be always on a college campus because for the fans, for the connection to the University,” Bingle said. “Because that’s where we get most of our draw. Because there’s not a ton of fan support for track and field besides moms and dads and friends.

“When we get farther away from that, it’s just not good for the sport.”

Pepin said he thinks the Spire Institute’s location may discourage spectators.

“When it’s on a campus, you generally can get a lot of people that are from that area,” Pepin said. “If it’s just kind of in the middle of nowhere, so to speak, not relatively close to anything, a lot of those people aren’t going to travel that far.”

Nebraska’s team drove 14 hours to the meet. The Gophers women’s team is taking two flights and also driving. Ryan said if the Spire Institute hosts the championships in future years, it would be unfair to the schools that would have to travel farther.

“It’s a huge financial obligation for someone like the University of Minnesota because we have to fly there, both genders,” Ryan said.

Bingle estimated the cost of traveling to be $50,000, and he said the trip will be tiring for athletes and coaches.

“I don’t think I’d want to go there every year,” Plasencia said.

Conflict and compromise

While Bingle, Plasencia and Pepin all want to see Big Ten schools host the championships again, they disagree on a central issue.

Minnesota’s men’s and women’s programs are separate, while Nebraska’s is combined under one head coach.

When the conference had separate championships for men and women, coaching staffs of combined teams had to decide if they would coach at the men’s or women’s competition.

Bingle said he can’t see the conference splitting up the meets again since it is unfair to the combined teams.

But without separate meets, Big Ten schools will likely have to settle for championships at off-campus facilities.

“If it was just about running the track portion of it and the field portion of it, we could run the meet at most of the Big Ten institutions,” Ryan said. “It’s really warm-up areas, fans, amenities for athletes and coaches.”

The Gophers have been brainstorming alternative ways to host a conference championship.

To solve the problem of warm-up areas, Minnesota could have athletes use the Bierman Field Athletic Building and then shuttle to the Fieldhouse for competition. The Gophers have also used gyms in the University Recreation and Wellness Center for warm-up areas in the past.

Other options would be to restructure the meet schedule, such as extending it from two to three days and having the men and women compete at different ends of the weekend.

The University is also in the process of creating a facilities master plan that could include a remodel of the Fieldhouse. The renovation would most likely not be a priority, though, as Minnesota wouldn’t be in rotation to host the championships again for another few years, Ryan said.

Plasencia said the track in the Fieldhouse is in good shape, but the building is “dingy” and lacks amenities.

“But we feel like we have a serviceable indoor facility that we’re able to use,” he said.

The conference will also have to consider the addition of Rutgers and Maryland in 2014.

 While the future of the indoor championships is still undecided, Gophers senior jumper Todea-Kay Willis said she is excited to try the new setting for the meet and isn’t letting the unfamiliarity rattle her before competition.

“As long as I have a runway, I have a pit, I got room to jump, no one stands in my way,” Willis said. “I’m good to go.”