(Today, we feature a column by guest blogger Ben Rosario)
On February 2 I had the extreme pleasure to serve as meet director for the USA Cross Country Championships in Saint Louis, and we were fortunate to have one of the most talented fields for that particular event in a long, long time. The members of our local organizing committee worked their butts off to promote the likes of Chris Derrick, Shalane Flanagan, Deena Kastor, Dathan Ritzenhein, Matt Tegenkamp and more. I’m biased, but I think we did a pretty darn good job, and though it’s difficult to give an exact number, we certainly had at least a couple thousand fans out on the course that day. That said I believe it could have been even better. I think if the thousands upon thousands of casual runners knew more about the professional side of the sport then having those athletes in their own backyard would have been an absolute can’t miss event.
Earlier this week the Bank of America Chicago Marathon announced that Dathan Ritzenhein, who owns the #3 all-time marathon in U.S. history, will be back to run the storied windy city race on October 13. That’s great news and I’m happy for the folks at Chicago and I’m happy for Dathan. They got a valuable commodity that will bring attention to their event and he will be compensated thusly, I’m sure.
My pet peeve is this; why can’t we find out how much he is getting as an appearance fee? I am a sports junkie and I’ve probably read a thousand articles about professional athletes signing their first contract, signing as a free agent or being traded, etc. and in each and every one I see something to the effect of , “The deal is reportedly worth $x,xxx,xxx.” And you know why we see that? We see it because people want to know. It is just one of the many things that makes these athletes larger than life to the rest of us. It is what puts them on a pedestal where granted, we sometimes try to knock them down, but they are up there nonetheless.
And yet we continue in our sport, even in the year 2013, to try and seem amateur. It’s leftover from the 60s and 70s and the days when runners would have to get paid under the table or risk their Olympic eligibility. News flash; we don’t have to do that anymore! I think we’ve made a huge mistake in this industry, and I was guilty of it during my days as a running store owner, of trying to make guys like Ritz seem like he’s just like “you.”
We tell people that they feel the same things he feels during a marathon and that’s what separates our sport from all those others. Well guess what…that ain’t true. What it feels like to run 2:07 is absolutely nothing like what it feels to run four hours and you know what…that’s okay. We can idolize the 2:07 guy and still admire and respect our friends, our neighbors, or our customers who run four hours. They are not mutually exclusive. The model is out there folks. Walk into any sporting goods store and go to the football section, then the basketball section, th en the soccer section, etc. All you’ll see is jersey after jersey of famous players. Look at television ratings and see how NFL football completely rules on Sundays, Monday nights and now even Thursday nights. Sure we might talk about how these guys are overpaid prima donnas but we love every minute of it.
So what are we so afraid of in our sport?
Are we afraid message boarders will tear down our beloved Ryan Hall if they find out he’s making a million dollars a year. Who cares? That’s a good thing. There are message boards like that in every major sport. Do you think Albert Pujols gives a %^&? Are we afraid as running store owners that we’ll turn off the beginning runner if we have posters of Ritz and Deena and Shalane and Rupp in our stores or post their accomplishments on our Facebook pages? That’s ridiculous. I play rec league indoor soccer for fun and I’ve never heard anyone say (in slow, bitter, condescending voice), “Did you see that Cristiano Ronaldo last night running around in his fancy uniform, scoring goals? It just makes me want to quit.”
We are a culture of celebrities. We build people up, we tear them down and then we build them up again. We love to hear about how much money they make even though we say we hate it. We love to hear who they’re dating, what they’re wearing and for the particularly obsessed, even where they eat. But we have to put them on that pedestal first. If we keep telling everyone that Dathan, Ryan, Desi, Deena, Shalane and the rest of them are just like us then they will never reach star status. Our sport will never attract the casual runners. After all, if all those guys are just like us then why would we want to go pay money to see them or choose to watch them on TV? If they’re just like us then what’s the big deal?
THEY’RE NOT LIKE US!
(Ben Rosario currently lives in Flagstaff, Ariz. where he works as the marketing director for McMillan Running Company. From 2006-2012 he co-owned Big River Running Company, a specialty-run store with three locations in his native Saint Louis. For each of the last two years he served as the meet director for the USA Cross Country Championships. As a runner he was the runner-up at the 2005 U.S. Marathon Championships and ended his career with PRs of 4:03 in the mile and 2:18:53 in the marathon.)
Thank you, Ben. I have long been an advocate for increased public displays of professionalism in running. As the song once asked: “Oh, when will they ever learn?”
To show how things haven’t changed very much over the years, here’s a story from the early years of the Chicago Marathon when the sport was getting full-page pre-race coverage in USA Today, and articles in the Wall Street Journal.
In Chicago 1982 the stories were flowing about the “Killer Bees”, athlete liason Bob Bright and sponsor Beatrice Foods who were supposedly on a spending spree luring runners to Chicago. A flamboyant front man, Bright recruited a field in 1982 which included eventual champion Greg Meyer and Craig Virgin of the U.S., and European stars like Emil Puttemans and Karel Lismont, both Olympic medalists.
“Craig Neff of Sports Illustrated heard what we were doing,” remembers Bright. “And he said, ‘I’m coming out’. After the race (a Meyer win in 2:10:59), Craig came up to my hotel suite. On the bed he saw a yellow pad with names and numbers on it.”
“What’s this?” Neff asked.
“Those are the appearance fees,” said Bright.
The highest man on the list was Greg Meyer at $5000. Neff went back home, but no story ever emerged in SI about the race. Bright called to ask why.
“‘Well, there was no story,’ Neff told me, Bright recalled. ‘You were giving out lunch money, and the story was supposed to be how much money you were spending. You never should have shown me that list’. All the talk about big money was just that, talk.”
Today, with the vast majority of athlete money still hidden in appearance fees, the sport isn’t credited with the impact that it, in fact, does have. When appearance fees remain hidden, only the athlete and his agent are rewarded. The sport is left looking second-rate.