Track and field at a new crossroads: athletes vs. fans

April 27, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Track & Field 

LOS ANGELES, Apr. 27, 2012 – Max Siegel’s appointment as chief executive of USA Track & Field begins the latest chapter in a sport in which the United States – at the same time – is the unquestioned leader on the field and an also-ran in the stands and on television, especially in comparison to baseball, football, basketball, ice hockey and even individual sports like golf and tennis.

This circumstance was underlined all too clearly in two different forums:

(1) The USATF’s revised posting for its chief executive position, issued March 26, which included this important statement:


Knows that USATF exists because of and for the athletes.

(2) Ken Goe’s weekly track & field column of April 11 in The Oregonian:

At some point, the sport needs to decide whether it’s about the participants or the spectators. If it’s only about the participants, than it will also be about obscurity.

That’s the crossroads at which American track & field finds itself today. The U.S. will, short of some natural disaster or a third World War, dominate the medal standings and placing table at the forthcoming Olympic Games in London. Those medal winners and their teammates will return to a country which will – almost immediately after the Closing Ceremonies – return its attention to the stretch run in baseball and the start of the college football and NFL seasons with little thought about those who stood on the Olympic podium while The Star Spangled Banner was played.

Can we foresee what Siegel will do and what he might bring to the sport? It’s impossible to forecast the future with any certainty, but Siegel’s own comments and those of USATF President (and search committee chair) Stephanie Hightower were instructive:

• Hightower, in her April 23 comments announcing Siegel’s hire noted:

What [the future] looks like is having the board and the CEO aligned and working together on common goals. It is not the board and CEO engaged in a power struggle or a political battle for winning over “hearts and minds.” . . .

As of today, and as we move forward, the board and our CEO are aligned in our commitment to execute this organization’s strategic plan. We share a vision for the future and a level of trust that I don’t think I’ve seen in my almost 30 years in this sport. . . .

In short, the “old days” of board, staff and volunteers sometimes working together on the surface, but working in conflict, behind the scenes, are over.

• For his part, Siegel stated in his opening teleconference, as transcribed by Chris Lamonica of FastLifeShow.com:

I’m just really excited about serving the organization and doing everything I can to support the athlete, the constituent and the staff of the national office. . . .

[We’re] really taking a hard look at the business model that we have with respect to investing our resources in the most effective way to support our athletes. . . .

We’ve been in discussions with leadership throughout the entire athlete ranks from masters to elite athletes and one of the things that we want to do is become a resource as the national office to the athletes. . . .

So we’re trying to reach out to diversify the revenue stream in a way that makes sense to serve the programs we have here at USA Track & Field.

If we take what Hightower and Siegel are saying seriously – and although both have supporters and detractors – they are serious people, then we can look ahead to an effort that:

Will try to attract new sponsors to USATF, hopefully increasing grants and development funds for elite and emerging-elite athletes;

Will try to find more sponsors willing to support individual athletes as apparel companies such as Nike, adidas, ASICS and others are doing now;

Will try to showcase U.S. athletes in lifestyle and social media settings, perhaps with interviews or training segments on shows like “Today,” “Good Morning America,” “60 Minutes” and the late-night talk-show programs;

Will not be creating a new series of meets, or an “American Track & Field Tour” that would become a weekly fixture on national television;

Will not be fundamentally changing the meet structure in the U.S. – indoors or outdoors – to create a clear “schedule” for first-line meets on which news media would be directed to focus for coverage of the sport.

Hightower’s comment that “the board and our CEO are aligned” is the clearest assurance of the direction that USATF will take. Siegel comes from the USATF’s Board, of course; he became a member in 2009, then left in 2010 to oversee marketing and communications as a contractor and will now be the chief executive. So he’s clearly been “aligned” for some time, and I have no doubt that he will work tirelessly to achieve the objectives he has been given.

So what of the fans?

The early indications are that fan support isn’t high on the priority list. Lip service will be paid, of course, but no dramatic changes can be foreseen. This is in sharp contrast to the chief executives of sports such as baseball, the NFL, NBA, NHL, NASCAR, golf and tennis, where the emphasis is mostly on television and new events (and their sponsors) to grow the sport as a spectator attraction, out of which the participants will – of course – receive the major share of the enlarged pot.

Did USATF make a bad choice?

From the standpoint of those who would like to see a mainline “track & field tour” and track as a major sport in this country, yes.

But from the perspective of those who have been elected or appointed to positions of authority in track & field, no. Hightower, the organization’s president, was a four-time national champion hurdler; fellow search committee members Deena Kastor (marathon) and Aretha Thurmond (discus) are active athletes, and Steve Miller was a long-time coach at Kansas State. Of the five members of the search committee, only Mickey Carter, a Fox News Channel vice president, was not a track & field athlete or coach, but he was an agent for professional athletes in past years. With this type of membership, why wouldn’t they focus on the athlete instead of the fan?

To those who wish it were otherwise, the time to start politicking for placement on USATF committees and elective offices is now. It’s not a hopeless cause, either: a once-vocal, non-athlete critic of the U.S. track & field establishment is now the highest-ranking American in IAAF history: Senior Vice President Bob Hersh.

I have never met Max Siegel, but I wish him well. After being strongly encouraged by friends, I applied for the USATF CEO position, hoping only to get a meeting with the search committee; I had no illusions of being seriously considered. My goal was to demonstrate what the possibilities for professional track & field could be in the U.S.; I’ll offer my plan in this space next time.

(Thanks to Bob Hersh for correcting an error on Hightower’s career; she won four national titles and the 1980 Olympic Trials in the 100-meter Hurdles, but was not an Olympic medal winner.)

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

Show Me the Money, Max

October 19, 2011 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Track & Field 

LOS ANGELES, Oct. 19, 2011 – Alan Abrahamson is one of the world’s most respected columnists on Olympic sports, especially in the U.S. So when he wrote on Monday that USA Track & Field “maybe getting something not just right but possibly taking an ambitious step to profoundly reshape the future direction of the sport in the United States and even worldwide,” you read on with interest.

The development was this:

USA Track & Field (USATF) has engaged the services of Indianapolis-based Max Siegel Inc. (MSI) in a broad, fully integrated service agreement that will unite USATF’s commercial ventures. The move is part of a USATF plan that streamlines its internal staff structure in marketing and communications.

MSI will work with USATF staff to integrate and vastly expand USATF’s commercial efforts in marketing, sponsorship, publicity, membership and broadcasting. The company is charged with six goals: to increase sponsor revenue and the stable of USATF’s corporate partners; enhance relationships with current USATF sponsors; manage the USATF brand; increase membership; develop and produce custom broadcast and new media content; and manage USATF’s broadcast relationships for event coverage.

For the sake of track & field in our country, I hope Abrahamson is right. But I’m from Missouri on this one – with no disrespect intended to Mr. Siegel and his team – since I also know the history of these kinds of endeavors:

February 1988: From Advertising Age, “The Athletics Congress, the Indianapolis-based governing body for U.S. track and field, plans to develop a national series of televised indoor and outdoor meets starting next year. TAC has hired Advantage International, a Washington sports-management company, to line up corporate sponsors and a TV deal for the TAC Circuit of Track & Field.”

April 2007: From a USATF news release, “Wasserman Media Group has entered into long-term exclusive partnerships with USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming and USA Track & Field to represent the trio in the marketplace for sponsorship, events and marketing opportunities, and develop digital platforms to broaden distribution and original programming.”

Both deals were with major players in the media and sponsorship markets; neither amounted to much. And well-thought-out plans along similar lines called “Atlanta and Beyond” and “Atlanta and Beyond II” were developed for USATF by Washington, D.C.-based D.M.C. in 1992 and 1993, and didn’t change the underlying weakness in the sport’s profile in this country, either.

In the meantime, the best sponsor track & field ever had in this country – Mobil – left in the 1990s after sponsoring its own indoor and outdoor circuit for many years.

I hope that Max Siegel is able to work some magic where others have failed, because the product can be appealing . . . if anyone can find it. To that end, the IAAF has missed again with the release of the 2012 Diamond League schedule. American sports fans know that they can find baseball, basketball and hockey games on almost every day of the week, with college football on Thursdays and Saturdays and pro football on Sundays and Mondays. Track fans, what day is your Diamond League meet on this week . . . if there is one:

• May 11 (Fri.): Doha
• May 19 (Sat.): Shanghai
• May 31 (Thu.): Rome
• Jun. 02 (Sat.): Eugene
• Jun. 07 (Thu.): Oslo
• Jun. 09 (Sat.): New York
• Jul. 06 (Fri.): Paris
• Jul. 13-14 (Fri.-Sat.): London
• Jul. 20 (Fri.): Monaco
• Aug. 17 (Fri.): Stockholm
• Aug. 23 (Thu.): Lausanne
• Aug. 26 (Sun.): Birmingham
• Aug. 30 (Thu.): Zurich
• Sep. 07 (Fri.): Brussels

That’s a total of 14 meets covering 15 days on four different days of the week:

• 6 on Fridays;
• 4 on Thursdays;
• 4 on Saturdays;
• 1 on a Sunday.

And, of course, there are month-long breaks for the U.S. Olympic Trials and Olympic Games. Track used to be a game of “catch me if you can.” Now, trying to enjoy the sport is more a matter of “catch me if you can find me.”

Only two of these meets are in the U.S., of course; we no longer have an indoor circuit and putting on a quality, one-day outdoor meet – I was the meet director for the 2003 and 2004 Home Depot Invitationals at The Home Depot Center in Carson, California – costs from $500,000-750,000 in cash for athletes, facility rent, promotion and advertising, officials and staff, television production and the rest..

I firmly believe that someone will crack the code someday and create a reasonably successful U.S. track circuit. Abrahamson is right to wish Siegel well; we all should. But the bottom line is, as they say, “show me the money.” Good luck, Mr. Siegel; you’re going to need it.

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)