In what must be seen as a harbinger of hope, USA Track & Field announced yesterday that it has signed a new sponsor for a new event to bolster what has previously been little more than a nominal national road race series. Called the .US National Road Racing Championships, the new 12-kilometer event will feature a $100,000 purse — $20,000 to each gender champion — while putting a jaunty cap atop a currently quite bland USA Running Circuit — nine locally controlled unaffiliated events which run from February through October over distances from one-mile to the marathon.
The new event and sponsorship was announced yesterday as part of a three-year deal with Neustar, a Virginia-based domain-name registration company. No specific date or location for the new race was disclosed as details are still being worked out. However, the time and place announcement is said to be coming in March.
The signing of Neustar was ushered through by the still-dewy USATF CEO Max Siegel who took office last May. The deal represents the single largest event sponsorship signed by USATF in a decade (which is telling in itself). What’s more, the event will be the first road race wholly owned and operated by USATF.
With hundreds of road races and millions of road racers nationwide, and only several thousand adult track and field athletes, the imbalance in USATF membership and focus has been a festering challenge since road racing was first lumped in with track and race walking when Congress broke up the old AAU with the enactment of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978.
“…the vast majority (of runners) are running for something other than prize money or Olympic medals,” Siegel said in the announcement. “This race is their race, and USATF is their organization. With the support of Neustar, we will be able to reach out to a full cross-section of runners like never before.”
That statement underscored USATF’s desire for their new event not just to be a professional competition, but a people’s race, as well.
With its mandate to win Olympic and World Championship medals, and road racing’s lack of Olympic inclusion, the roads have long been the red-headed stepchild of USATF. However, with this announcement, and the move of USATF National Road Running Office Liason Jim Estes to the home office in Indianapolis, there is little doubt that we have seen a turn for the better.
Recall that many years ago in order to compete in the Boston, New York or Columbus Marathons all U.S. entrants had to be members of USATF (then called The Athletics Congress, or TAC). After that membership proved without value, however, the large marathons discontinued the policy. If the rewards for USATF membership could be proven of value, it would be a win-win situation for all concerned, and might induce road races to reintroduce the practice — a practice that USA Triathlon has long employed to its and its sport’s benefit. Time will tell if this is the road Mr. Siegel wishes to see his organization head down.
Not that there aren’t noticeable challenges ahead. It has long been said that without calendar protection, or a collective bargaining agreement between events and athletes, road racing will remain what it has always been, the Wild West.
As presently constituted, the USA Running Circuit’s final event is the Metronic Twin Cities Marathon scheduled on October 6th. The fact that USATF has already awarded the 2013 & 2014 national marathon championship to Twin Cities — for which the USA Running Circuit already awards double points – means the new 12Km championship event – at which triple points will be awarded – will place marathoners at a distinct disadvantage in the new championship event and the drive toward circuit bonuses.
This is the problem with having a circuit trying to be all things to all people, much less without top-down control. Marathons are one-off events which require longer preparation and recovery periods. They simply don’t logically fit in with races of shorter length. The same is true for the shortest race on the circuit, the one-mile road championship. It, too, is an outlier, as the milers do not participate in any of the circuit’s longer events, much less the marathon. That is why we have seen such lack of continuity in the race fields for the USA Running Circuit.
There are also issues like the imbalance in prize purse sizes, which are not big enough to draw the very top American runners, but large enough to lure steely-eyed, but unknown foreign-based talent. The new $100,000 12K purse hopes to address the issue of top American participation, though that would still seem a long-shot given the outsized appearance fees and prize purses available at the major marathons.
In fact, the USA Running Circuit has never really been a circuit, as such, rather a nominal circuit which has glommed on to existing, non-affiliated events. The individual prize purses aren’t generated or awarded by USATF, except for a year-end circuit payout of $25,000. The individual races set and distribute the purses and invite the pro fields.
WHO SPEKS FOR THE FANS?
So far Mr. Siegel has addressed sponsorship, participation, both mass and professional, but what of the fans? This, too, has been a prime problem with modern road racing, which has witnessed a plunge in fan interest as 20+ years of anonymous, interchangeable champions who come and go at their own whim without any responsibilities, other than running fast from start to finish, has lead to fewer and fewer mass-participation runners paying any attention whatsoever to the outcome of these competitions.
Just look at the way the Competitor Group dropped pro racing from its series of Rock `n` Roll events since purchasing Elite Racing in 2008. That alone gives evidence of the cold calculation the marketplace has made as to the value of this unregulated aspect of the sport. In order to make road racing a quality spectator sport, there needs to be some continuity, some familiarity with and rooting interest for the pro participants, and, of course national coverage. With Mr. Siegel’s background in NASCAR, the ultimate fan-based American sport, one would think he is the perfect marksman to hit this target.
What would truly be revolutionary would be for USATF to partner with its new sponsor Neustar to take over the pro races at each tour stop, and bring the tour to the town, thereby controlling all aspects of pro eligibility, entry, participation, media coordination, sponsor fulfillment, and prize purse distribution. This would free up local promoters to focus attention and assets on mass participation. The possibilities are manifest. We await further announcements with increased hope that road racing will finally emerge as a true partner and asset to the governing body. Yesterday’s announcement was a good start.