USATF TAKES OWNERSHIP OF ROAD RACING

.US National Road Racing Championships    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.

Max Siegel, USATF CEO

Max Siegel, USATF CEO

“…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.

CHALLENGES AWAIT

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.

END

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7 thoughts on “USATF TAKES OWNERSHIP OF ROAD RACING

  1. Pingback: Mary Cain, Alysia Montano, Robby Andrews, and Much More Including Can the USA Win World Cross Country |

  2. Toni, would you advocate dropping both the marathon and mile events from the circuit? In the current schedule, one can read an intent to have an event each non-Winter month (save August). Personally, I would think that dropping the mile event and “skipping” a month might not damage the circuit’s continuity too much, if you already have 30 days between some events to begin with. One of running’s major problems has been the lack of a clear-cut competition season/off-season. (A point mentioned, I believe, on Runnerville once upon a time, and made again by “atlas coached” in the comments on Ben Rosario’s piece.) Trimming things down could help address that.

    Make the season just 7 events, and resources can be consolidated. If there was a willingness to drop Gate River — or make it a preseason event somehow — USATF could have a compact and focused 6-month road season, that should attract many of the same faces city-to-city.

    I do recognize the attraction to having a championship in the best-understood distance running event — the marathon — but one wonders if it might be counterproductive on some level to have a championship that the very, very best athletes don’t attend. Perhaps you make that championship a “points” driven “chase” that looks at every American elite performance at any domestic marathon in a given year, and names a champion accordingly. It would DEFINITELY provoke conversation within the fan-base…

    • Jeremy,

      You begin any exercise by understanding the training and recovery requirements of the athletes themselves. Under that umbrella the marathon and mile make no sense in a 5K to 25K circuit of races. Milers don’t race any of the other events as contenders, and the serious marathoners need too much focused time prepping and recovering to go out and ramp up for a series of, relatively speaking, less well paying competitions. It isn’t rocket science. You could still have a marathon national championship, it just wouldn’t be part of the USA Running Circuit. And the mile should be part of its own series of road and track miles that Ryan Lamppa and his Bring Back the Mile campaign should organize. Apples v. Apples. Systems create realities, and the current USA Running Circuit is a poorly designed system. Accordingly, it doesn’t grab the attention of the public, just the local market it happens to be in on a particular weekend.

      • Alternatively, I would be curious to see a road-based stage-race ala cycling. Maybe 4-5 days of competition, at various lengths… the milers get their day to shine in a Friday-night downtown mile, before playing domestique for a teammate who is a bona-fide contender. Giving the public in a host city (or cities) several days to get to know the athletes would really help name recognition, IMO.

        I can already hear the cackles of any and every big-time coach in the country at the thought of a program of consecutive days of racing… but athletes already do that on the track when they run multiple rounds, albeit for shorter distances. And in cycling, one picks one’s spots to really attack and when to lay back, and this would be no different. No sense killing it in the 5k stage, when the 20k is coming up tomorrow.

        Certainly, the lack of true teams in athletics makes this an unlikely model to ever see coming to life… but we clearly aren’t attracting fans in droves, so why not try to shake things up?

  3. From my May 19, 2011 blog BLAME ENOUGH TO GO AROUND about the death of Olympic Marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru
    https://tonireavis.com/2011/05/19/blame-enough-to-go-around/

    No Rules, Just Wrong

    Yet it must be said that the total lack of rules and regulations in this sport, this laissez-faire system that requires nothing more than speed and tolerates indulgent, petulant behavior without consequence or penalty must, in some small measure, be added to the blame for this story’s tragic outcome.

    Don’t get me wrong, athletes in every other sport are just as, if not even more, petulant and pampered than runners. They certainly get paid a hell of a lot more. But there are also union by-laws, sponsor requirements, and contractual obligations in place to help protect and ameliorate the damage while bolstering the health and image of the sport. If an athlete wants to act the fool in public while being paid vast sums, that’s fine. But there are penalties for such behavior. Miss a Super Bowl press conference? You get fined. Not so in running.

    I remember one year at the Boston Marathon when defending women’s champion Fatuma Roba of Ethiopia didn’t even show up for the press conference where she was to be given her #1 race number! Yet no one ever said to Fatuma Roba, “Show up!” or to Sammy Wanjiru, ”Sit up straight! You carry a responsibility. And if you don’t, just so you know, it will cost you one-third your fee. But you make the call.”

    There is a hard lesson inherent in our event fragmentation and lack of regulations. For the last 20 years our sport has allowed an unending string of speedy, but unseasoned young men and women to migrate to our events without any semblance of a Roberts Rules of Order to regulate conduct or engage media training. Run fast from point A to point B, we’ve said, that’s all you need to do. Furthermore, the emphasis on times rather than on competition, rivalries or personality has broken the lead pack off from its historic fan base, the throngs running/jogging/walking in its wake. And, of course, we have lost our outside audience altogether.

    • “There is a hard lesson inherent in our event fragmentation and lack of regulations. For the last 20 years our sport has allowed an unending string of speedy, but unseasoned young men and women to migrate to our events without any semblance of a Roberts Rules of Order to regulate conduct or engage media training. Run fast from point A to point B, we’ve said, that’s all you need to do.”

      Yup.

      I can’t even remember a Galen Rupp press conference.

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