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More state money sought as Eugene prepares to host 2021 world track champs

Public funding for big-time sports tends to generate static. So, Oregon Governor Kate Brown is building her case now for additional taxpayer support for the IAAF World Track and Field Championships, which are coming to Eugene in two years.
The local organizing committee for the world outdoor track championships, Oregon21, says it needs a state subsidy because ticket sales and sponsorships won’t come close to covering the cost of putting on the event. The state's tourism agency, Travel Oregon, has already allocated $20 million from the state lodging tax, which was increased recently. But the host committee says it is counting on another $20 million.

Brown, a Democrat, says she is committed to delivering that additional subsidy.

"This is a world, premier event," Brown told reporters Thursday. "It is being held for the first time ever in the United States of America. For a small city like Eugene to host it is amazing."

Brown joined a range of local dignitaries and medal-winning American runners, jumpers and throwers on stage at the University of Oregon Thursday for a splashy, formal kickoff rally for the 2021 outdoor championships.

"I am confident that we will have the resources we need to make this event happen," Brown said. "The investments that we make in this event will pay off for decades to come not only for Eugene, but for the entire state of Oregon."

Brown told the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) in an April letter that she will ask the 2020 Oregon Legislature to pony up as well as dip into a reserve fund she controls and seek "other opportunities for direct and value-in-kind investment." The increased subsidy may require a hard sell.

In 2016, the Oregon Legislature voted by a narrow margin to increase the state lodging tax at the behest of Eugene-area lawmakers who had the 2021 world championships in mind. A request to lawmakers from Brown to allocate another $5 million was not granted during the 2019 session.

At least a few critics in Eugene and in the Legislature argue the state has higher priorities than to subsidize a sports spectacle.

"There are plenty of competing uses for $20 million in the state," said University of Oregon economics professor Bill Harbaugh, the author of a critical blog. "I think it would be hard to find something sillier than a track meet that will happen anyway to spend $20 million on."

"There's no way that the IAAF is backing out of this now," Harbaugh added in an interview with public radio. "So why would we give them a gift of $20 million? If that had gone into higher education, it would have led directly to lower tuition increases."

University of Oregon president Michael Schill has billed the world championships as a "once-in-a-lifetime platform to show the world" all that Oregon has to offer.

"Hayward Magic will be on full display and we couldn’t be more proud than to share it with the entire world," Schill told the kickoff rally crowd, referring to the legendary atmosphere at the Hayward Field venue.

Credit Tom Banse / NW News Network
NW News Network
The 2021 World Outdoor Track and Field Championships will be held at new Hayward Field, now under construction.

Eugene styles itself as TrackTown, USA because of its long association with elite-level running, not to mention being the birthplace of the Nike shoe empire.

Brown traveled to Doha, Qatar last week to receive the ceremonial passing of the baton from the Qatari hosts of the 2019 World Athletics Championships. The previous two editions of the biennial track showcase were held in London in 2017 and Beijing in 2015.

A budget for hosting the world championships submitted by Oregon21 to Travel Oregon in 2017 pegged the total cost of putting on the event at $85 million. Ticket, merchandise and food and beverage sales only covered an estimated $18 million of that total. The requested $40 million state subsidy would be the single biggest source of funding for the 10-day competition by far.

The local organizing committee is preparing to host 2,000 elite athletes from around the world along with 3,000 media members and broadcasters, plus throngs of spectators. The throwers, jumpers and runners will be housed in UO dorms that will be recast as an Olympic-style athletes’ village.

TrackTown's boosters and the state of Oregon achieved a surprise victory in 2015 when they secured the 2021 world championships. Eugene is thought to be the smallest city ever to host the event.

The IAAF's opaque bidding process, which resulted in steamy Qatar winning the 2019 hosting rights and Eugene hosting in 2021, has since come under scrutiny by corruption investigators in multiple countries.

The former head of the TrackTown USA bid committee, Vin Lananna, and current TrackTown USA CEO Michael Reilly were contacted by U.S. Department of Justice investigators in 2017 regarding the awarding of the world championships bid. The pair said early last year that they have cooperated with authorities as part of the investigation.

It is unclear what the current status of the USDOJ investigation is or who the targets were. The USA Track and Field federation and Eugene bid organizers have consistently said they did nothing wrong.

The 2021 world championships will take place at the new Hayward Field at the University of Oregon. The historic track venue is currently being transformed into a sleek modern stadium designed specifically for track and field. This month, the general contractor secured a noise variance from the city of Eugene to allow construction workers to labor until midnight in order to keep the privately-funded, roughly $200 million project on schedule to open next spring.

The first event booked for the architecturally-striking new stadium is the Pac-12 track and field championships in mid-May. The next major events come in quick succession, including the nation's premier pro track meet, the Prefontaine Classic, in early June and then the 2020 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials later in June.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.