Fifty years ago, the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field took its first turn in the national spotlight. Legendary UO track and field coach Bill Bowerman had pulled off what previously seemed unimaginable: bringing the U.S. Olympic Team Trials to Eugene.
The 1972 Olympic Trials, followed up by trials in 1976 and 1980, launched Hayward Field and the university into the uppermost reaches of track and field fame. They helped re-branded Eugene as TrackTown USA, and paved the way for additional Olympic Trials at Hayward in 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2021.
But even Bowerman may not have believed it if someone told him the Olympic Trials were prequels to something even bigger.
From July 15 to 24, Hayward Field will host the 2022 World Athletics Championships, the biennial track and field event that’s second only to the Olympics itself in global prestige. The event is in many ways the grand opening of the “new” Hayward Field, following the renovation of the historic century-old track and field cathedral into a state-of-the-art facility, preserving its history while expanding capacity for up to 25,000 spectators at world-class events. All previous World Athletics Championships host cities have been significantly larger than Eugene – a list that includes London, Beijing, Moscow and Berlin.
“When we talk about this event with people, they tend to associate it with the Olympic Trials, because it’s been held here in the past,” said Jessica Gabriel, Communications Director for World Athletics Championships Oregon22. “But the reality of this event is that it’s the pinnacle of the entire sport of track and field.”
Whereas the Olympic Trials brought the country’s best athletes and thousands of fans to Eugene, the upcoming event is truly global. It marks the first time the World Athletics Championships will be held in the United States, and it’s projected to bring 2,000 athletes from over 200 countries.
It also means as many as 50,000 fans from all over the world will descend on Eugene for 10 days this summer – not just to watch world-class track and field, but to take in the sights and sounds of the region. That makes it an unprecedented opportunity to showcase Eugene, the University of Oregon and the entire state of Oregon on a global scale.
“If there was anywhere these track and field championships were going to come to in the U.S., it makes sense it’s here, because of the spirit and legacy of what this community has done for track and field,” Gabriel said.
With higher-caliber competition comes greater benefits for the region. Officials estimate the 10-day World Athletics Championships will generate about $60 million in direct economic impact, with the benefit exceeding $100 million when indirect spending on food and lodging are factored in. Olympic Trials have generated roughly $40 million in economic impact, by comparison.
And then there’s the intangible impact of beaming 6,500 hours of live TV footage of Hayward Field, Eugene and the state to an estimated audience of 1 billion viewers tuning in around the world. Organizers have been working behind the scenes for years to develop advertising and marketing campaigns highlighting Oregon’s allure as a place to live, work and play.
“In a real sense the economic impact will be larger than the Olympic Trials,” said Kari Westlund, President and CEO of Travel Lane County. “The interesting thing we’ve learned through talking to convention planners over the years, not even sports related, is that the reputation we’ve gained hosting events of this magnitude really has a ripple effect across the community. So the power of the TrackTown USA reputation has been pretty tremendous.”
Since 2008, Hayward Field has hosted events generating more than $200 million in direct visitor spending, Westlund said, injecting money into the local economy each time fans go out to eat, check into a hotel or buy Oregon-branded apparel. Come July, tens of thousands of people will be heading to the region and boosting demand for business up and down the Interstate 5 corridor.
But Eugene will be the central hub of activity during the 10-day event. Organizers and city officials are taking advantage of the exposure by offering an array of resources for visitors to familiarize themselves with Oregon’s track and field legacy, as well as live events to shine a spotlight on other parts of the city.
Preeminent among them is the Eugene Riverfront Festival, planned to run each day of the championships at the new Downtown Riverfront Park. The 4.5-acre park is part of the larger downtown redevelopment that will link downtown Eugene with the Willamette River. And for all 10 days it will host activities like music and entertainment, cultural performances, vendors and more.
“When the community received the bid for this event in 2015, we knew there was not going to be adequate space for the typical, free community fan festivals that we’ve seen at the Olympic Trials,” said Stephanie Scafa, the City of Eugene liaison to the World Athletics Championships Oregon22 event. “The city stepped up at this time to say, ‘We have a new development we’re planning along the riverfront, with new park space.’ So we’re just really excited to welcome people and connect the downtown core to the river.”
For Westlund, the upcoming world championships is the culmination of more than 15 years of work by officials in Eugene, Springfield and Lane County to organize the TrackTown USA coalition. Back in 2005, volunteers marshaled the successful bid for the 2008 Olympic Trials.
“We learned a lot from that experience, and gained a lot of civic pride,” she said. “And it was very successful from a tourism point of view.” Many of those same stakeholders came back in 2012, 2016 and 2021 to organize successive trials.
The opening of the new Hayward Field marks a momentous next step in the region’s rich track and field history. And the World Athletics Championships may just be the first chapter in that new direction. Hayward is already set to host events that will generate nearly $120 million in direct visitor spending over the next six years, Westlund said, with other pending bids and the potential to host para athletics making it likely that figure will rise.
“All of this energy and effort being put forth by TrackTown USA and the University of Oregon to bring the best events in the world to a world class facility, really positions us for a positive economic impact far into the future,” Westlund said. “That’s the gift and the benefit of Hayward Field.”