Only 3,184 people, some lured in with free tickets, attended this first-of-its-kind track meet. The event's promoter estimated the day's financial losses totaled about $1.5 million. A stiff wind ripped through Mitchel Athletic Complex, making many of the winning times at the inaugural Track and Field Association ProChampionships seem almost as slow as the turnstile counters.
The show also went on without the event's biggest draw, Olympic gold medalist and world record holder Michael Johnson, who withdrew last week because of the death of his grandmother -- but not in time for his picture to be removed from the glossy cover of the program.
Yet at the end of the afternoon, TFA Chief Executive Officer Brian Vandenberg expressed disappointment at the sparse crowd but cheered the day's 15 events and vowed to press on with his ambitious plans for a televised track series in the United States next spring.
Vandenberg said he and the approximately 30 other investors backing the ProChampionships are prepared to lose more than $10 million over the next four years with the goal of building the first profitable pro track league in the United States.
"We made a conscious decision: Let's build this as a business and do it right," said Vandenberg, a lawyer and sports marketer who founded a successful European sports management firm.
The day began with a crowd of fewer than 50 watching female high jumpers and male pole vaulters in a far corner of the stadium. It concluded with the small crowd on its feet, and non-competing athletes lining the track or watching television monitors, as hurdler Melissa Morrison won the day's biggest race.
Morrison, who has never earned more than $20,000 in one payday, finished first in the 100-meter hurdles (12.98 seconds), which had been randomly selected to be the jackpot event with a $100,000 payoff.
"Whoever wins that race is my girlfriend!" announced Maurice Greene, winner of the men's 200 meters in 20.37 seconds, moments before the start of the race.
Staged in a fast-paced format that would keep the attention of the fans and television viewers, most of the events were squeezed into the 90 minutes of broadcast time the TFA had purchased from ESPN.
The only thing small-scale about the event was the crowd, but organizers and athletes alike blamed it on the traffic jam of athletic events in the area this weekend: the Mets-Yankees series in the Bronx, the Belmont Stakes around the corner, the Knicks in the NBA Eastern Conference finals at Madison Square Garden.
"If you take the first pro football game, there probably weren't a lot of people there, either," said Lake Braddock High School graduate Allen Johnson, who finished third (13.48) in the 110-meter hurdles, behind Mark Crear and phenom Larry Wade, who won in 13.39.
"It's like they said in `Field of Dreams': If you build it, they will come," said Jon Drummond, the fourth-place finisher in the 100.
Despite the absences of Michael Johnson and Gail Devers, who withdrew with a hamstring injury, the field was stocked with big names.
Among the other highlights: Marion Jones easily won the women's 100 running into the worst wind of the day in 11.33 seconds, and Regina Jacobs won the women's 800 in 1 minute 59.64 seconds. Barbados's Obadeia Thompson finished first in the men's 100 in 10.29, and Kenya's Paul Bitok topped Bob Kennedy in the 3,000 meters by just .17 seconds, winning in 7:43.11.
"This is going to take a little bit of time," Jones said, "but this is a wonderful concept."