* Athletics World Cup starts in London
* Big names missing the event
* Wlodarczyk throws season's best in women's hammer (Adds details)
LONDON, July 14 (Reuters) - Poland's world record holder Anita Wlodarczyk produced the season's best women's hammer throw but many of the big names of track and field were conspicuously absent from the inaugural Athletics World Cup, the sport's new two-day team event.
A lively crowd despite swathes of empty seats in the London Stadium, to be expected given the 66,000 capacity, witnessed Wlodarczyk's throw of 78.74 metres in the opening session of the two-day meet.
The world and Olympic champion also struck gold in the same stadium at the London 2012 Games and at the 2017 world championships.
If the distance was a long way off her record 82.98m in Warsaw in 2016, it was still further than the season's best of 78.12 thrown by American DeAnna Price in Des Moines last month.
Other times in the event, which brings together men's and women's teams from the top eight nations -- United States, Britain, France, Germany, China, Jamaica, Poland and South Africa -- were well off season bests.
Jamaica's Commonwealth Games champion Janieve Russell won the 400m hurdles with ease, but her time of 55.10 was unimpressive.
China's fastest male sprinter Xie Zhenye won the men's 200m in 20.25 while Pascal Martinot-Lagarde took the men's 110m hurdles in 13.22 -- the latter time a personal season's best for the Frenchman.
There was also an upset in the women's 100 metres, with Ashley Henderson of the United States (11.07 seconds) finishing ahead of Olympic champion Elaine Thompson of Jamaica (11.09).
Henderson was runner-up in last month's USATF outdoor championships.
The absence of others was felt, however, even if organisers said they had sold approaching 30,000 tickets for Saturday's session.
There was plenty of criticism on social media, much of it directed at pay TV broadcaster Sky for focusing heavily on pre-recorded interviews rather than live action, but others questioned the format.
"Call me old-fashioned, but if you want to promote athletics, you have to make it about the athletes as individuals," said athletics writer and commentator Michelle Sammet on Twitter.
"Team events with weakened fields, only countries and not even a name on bibs won’t encourage anyone to go and follow 'that one US hurdler' further down the line."
World 100m champion Justin Gatlin, world indoor 60m record holder Christian Coleman, Diamond League 100m leader Ronnie Baker and Noah Lyles -- the cream of U.S. sprinting -- all stayed away.
So too did Britain's finest, including women's 100 metres national record holder Dina Asher-Smith.
Olympic and world champion Caster Semenya, who was originally listed by South Africa as competing in both the 800 and 1,500 metres, chose instead to race in Friday's Rabat Diamond League meeting.
Compatriots Clarence Munyai, the year's joint fastest in the 200m, and Commonwealth Games 100m champion Akani Simbine withdrew due to injuries, South African officials said.
The United States ended the first day on top of the leaderboard, with 109 points. France were second on 85 and Jamaica and Poland tied on 77. (Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ed Osmond)