ASICS Los Angeles Marathon CEO Tracey Russell is still settling into her new position out west, having moved from her leadership of the Atlanta Track Club last June to take the reins at L.A.’s premier endurance event. But as often happens on the roads of L.A., Ms. Russell has found herself nudging from one lane of responsibility to the next as the rush hour of marathon season begins to take hold.
So even as the Cleveland, Ohio native tries to figure out which of her things she had shipped out from Atlanta will work in the home she just purchased in L.A., she and her staff continue gearing up for the 29th running of the marathon on March 9th while anxiously awaiting the final decision by USATF whether L.A. or Houston will host the U. S. Olympic Marathon Trials in 2016.
“I had to unplug from work for about 24-hours,” she laughed during a phone call from her office near downtown L.A. “All my stuff was coming from Atlanta in boxes, and it was a little crazy. But I’m back at work now, and registration for the marathon is tracking well ahead of last year, so we will have a sell-out. We are working on our pro field now and the Olympic Trials. We also hired a new brand strategy VP, and he and Nick (Curl, race director) are working on TV.”
While previous rights owners of the L.A. Marathon were content with staging a national-quality event in their world-class city, current rights owner Frank McCourt, and the city itself, has an eye cast toward a larger target.
“Our Stadium to the Sea course is one of the most iconic and beautiful in the world,” said McCourt Group executive Howard Sunkin in announcing Ms. Russell’s hiring last summer. “And we’re ready to take the ASICS LA Marathon to a new level that attracts more international runners and race partners.”
“Hosting the Trials (in 2016) would be a catalyst to help get us to our destination that much sooner,” believes Russell as she awaits word from USATF offices in Indianapolis about the Trial selection. “Initially they wanted the decision to be made around the time of the (USATF) convention in December, but they are trying to be mindful of the process.”
By process she means conflict – though in the two-good-shortstops sense.
What bubbled up at the USATF convention last December was tension between the volunteer Long Distance Running committees and the salaried national staff in Indianapolis. While the LDRs wanted to maintain their voices as Olympic Trials site selectors, the national staff — under a new, but vaguely worded regulation adopted during the organization’s restructuring several years ago — wanted to make the final call themselves after input from the LDRs. Since from previous reporting it was understood that the LDR Committees were unanimous in voting for a return to Houston, and the national office saw distinct advantages in awarding the Trials to L.A., we, and the two sites, find ourselves awaiting a resolution.
This is a classic governing body conundrum: How to balance the wishes and responsibilities of a largely bottom-up volunteer based organization with the vision and more streamlined decision making desires (some would say necessity) of a strong executive? See Phil Stewart’s December 2013 Road Race Management newsletter for a full explication of the new rule and its on-going aftermath in the Trials selection.
But in a sporting and business world divided into distinct amateur and professional wings — think golf with its USGA and PGA — track & field and running continue to languish in the border region of neither-nor where efficiencies are diminished and opportunities lost.
“So we sort of got caught in the middle of how the organization is going to play that out,” said Ms. Russell in explaining the Trials announcement delay.
Today I spoke with USATF Director of Events Jim Estes who had just returned from Edinburgh, Scotland where he saw Americans Garrett Heath and Chris Derrick win their respective 4km and 8km cross country events against international fields at the Bupa Great Edinburgh X Country last Saturday.
“We would have made the decision already,” he said in regards the Trials announcement, “if it had been abundantly clear where to go. But we needed to do follow up with both Houston and L.A. and get some additional questions answered. So we have all that, and are now circling up coming to the final decision.”
It makes perfect sense that athletes and their representatives would prefer a return to Houston. After all, they know that drill well, having gone through it in 2012. Plus, Houston will have learned from 2012, and tightened up their operation even more for 2016. And, as we know, athletes are slaves to their routines. But Los Angeles is not just America’s second largest market and the entertainment capital of the country. With its new mayor (Eric Garcetti), new marathon CEO (Russell), and a unified civic drive toward a 2024 Olympic bid, the timing couldn’t be better for USATF to partner with L.A. as it ramps up for the promising decade ahead.
“This city has serious five-ring fever,” Ms. Russell confirmed. “Our new mayor has thrown his hat into the Olympic ring for 2024, and it’s made my job easier because we have fanfare from both corporate and the political arenas anxious to be part of the bid process.”
With two such fine candidates in the running to host the 2016 Marathon Trials, some suggest returning to the previous system of splitting the two marathon trials as was last successfully done in 2008 in New York City and Boston. In essence, reward a past partner for their valued service, while developing a new partner for future opportunities.
“But TV is a big component,” Russell reminded me. “NBC liked having the same-day focus from a resources standpoint. The synergy was very good staging the Trials on the same day in the same city. And if you talk to someone like David Simon, president of the L.A. Sports Council, it’s just more exciting to have both genders together. It makes a very strong statement.”
“We are still working it out,” USATF Men’s Long Distance Running Committee chairman Ed Torres said when asked about when the decision could be expected. “We are trying to figure out what direction we want to go with the (Trials) events down the road. We are in a great position with either city for 2016, but it’s about how to best build for the future. That’s what we’re working on. But if you would have told me at the (USATF) convention we still wouldn’t know — I’m surprised a decision hasn’t been made by now, and I wonder when we will finally just let it go and make the final decision. We should have had it done.”
“There is some misinterpretation about the decision process,” Jim Estes explained when asked about the delay. “It’s not necessarily the (LDR) committees saying this, and Max (Siegel, USATF CEO) saying, ‘No this is what I want’. No one is getting beaten over the head. We are trying to look at all sides. It’s not an easy decision. There is a lot on the table for everyone, from the athletes, to the event, to the property holder (USOC). And we’ve come a long way from when we held the Trials in St. Louis and Birmingham in 2004.
“You know, our business is small. There is a lot of passion involved. But we all have the same goal, to grow media attention and public awareness of the sport. But we are pretty close to closure. Remember, we didn’t announce the decision for the 2012 Trials until March 2010. So we are still ahead of that schedule now. But it should come in the next couple of weeks.”
Perhaps just enough time for Tracey Russell to get her things arranged in her new home.