(Since 2005 Buffalo-born Mary Wittenberg has been president and CEO of the New York Road Runners, stagers of the ING New York City Marathon and dozens of other both world-class and local events in the five boroughs. I spoke with Mary this morning about the Competitor Group’s recent decision to eliminate its elite athlete program at its U.S. races.)
WERE YOU SURPRISED BY COMPETITOR GROUP’S (CGI) DECISION?
Initially I was surprised by the immediacy of its impact, rather than say it would begin in the year ahead. But in group dynamics sometimes you see one person say something that someone else takes as personal, but really it’s not about them at all. So I think this move may have more to do with CGI than with the sport itself. What would be a more concerning indicator is if we see World Marathon Majors or major not-for-profit events drop support for pro running. Those are the real bellwethers of the sport.
But what is clear now, and not surprising, is that Elite Racing had a core passion for the sport in Tim (Murphy), Mike (Long) and Tracy (Sundlun). But it’s likely that what the first group (Falconhead Capital) bought from Tim was the Rock `n` Roll series, not the whole of Elite Racing. We’ve been fortunate to have CGI keep some semblance of the sport going for as long as they did.
IS PRIVATE EQUITY COMPATIBLE WITH THE DEVELOPMENT OF SPORT?
Private equity has a piece of Major League Soccer. They can play a role in building ventures, but ultimately they are hard-eyed business people. And professional athletes need to have a return on investment (ROI).
What we now have is a big participation base and a pro wing to the sport. But without the sport kids don’t want to grow up to be a top yogi. Yoga is very good for you, but it doesn’t inspire. At its core running is a sport, seen as a sport, and kids grow up wanting to be what their heroes are. We have the most accessible sport in the world, but somehow the word “professional” has turned into a bad word.
SO WHAT IS THE PROPER DIRECTION MOVING FORWARD, AND COULD THE CGI DECISION BE SEEN AS A CLARIFYING MOMENT FOR THE SPORT?
Fundamentally, a tour is ultimately what’s needed. We could do it here (at NYRR) or with other groups. The World Marathon Majors are the right platform. We need to reshuffle the deck. It is hard to win, to dominate anymore. Maybe we’ve been too flexible. We work very hard to take a ten-year approach with our six pro races at NYRR. Year after year we look at when a race might work within the arc of an athletes’ career. When it does, we are here for them. But what we haven’t done is say, “if you want to be in the upper echelon of the sport, you need to run X number of races over this period of time.”
We haven’t mandated continuity, yet if you look how Tegla (Loroupe) won hearts and minds in New York or Grete (Waitz, 9X NYC Marathon champion), it’s because they were always in the public eye. If Paula (Radcliffe) had only stayed healthy…”
YOU ARE SAYING EVERYTHING WAS DONE WITH THE ATHLETES IN MIND, NOT WHAT MIGHT INTEREST FANS OR BUILD THE SPORT?
More was done from an event to event basis rather than looking at the whole picture. We have to maximize athletes on TV and increase global exposure. We need World Marathon Major global TV, and we are working on more international TV as well as webcasting six times a year with our top races here in New York. The next level is market by market in the six World Marathon Majors cities to develop these athletes into stars. Mo (Farah) is exhibit A. Now we have to take Galen (Rupp) to that level.
IN THE PAST THE TOP RUNNERS WERE RECOGNIZED BY THE BACK OF THE STARTING GRID. NOW THERE IS A DISCONNECT. YOU READ DIFFERENT FORUMS AND IT’S EVIDENT THAT THE AVERAGE RUNNER DOESN’T RELATE TO OR CONNECT WITH THE FASTEST RUNNERS.
The next piece from our perspective is the connection to kids and local runners. Our on-line platform, On The Run, is being picked up by WABC. Our next piece is getting the best athletes leveraged through racing at a series of New York races, and we believe that plan is on pace.
THE WORLD MARATHON MAJORS IS THE DOMINANT “SERIES” IN THE SPORT. DO YOU SEE LINKING MAJOR NON-MARATHONS, LIKE SEPTEMBER 15’s BUPA GREAT NORTH RUN, OR THE FALMOUTH ROAD RACE, ETC. UNDER THE AUSPICES OF WORLD MARATHON MAJORS TO INCREASE BRAND AWARENESS OF WMM WHILE ELEVATING THESE CLASSIC REGIONAL ROAD RACES INTO A WORLD ROAD MAJORS TYPE OF CIRCUIT?
Stay tuned. What we currently have is six World Marathon Majors, then a very strong number of marathons and half-marathons, and some highlight races like you mentioned. Then under that we have great local events. We need to come from both sides feeding into a larger construct. But we have to be careful. If we put out a vote asking runners which they would rather support, pro athletes or getting another tee shirt, see you later pro athletes.
The question is how do we grow the pot and benefit all elements? Sponsors are hugely important, and they do recognize the spectacle that pro athletes bring. And we do ask our athletes to work with our kids’ program. And we want to know who the public wants to see. For us it’s Meb, Kara and Ryan (Keflezighi, Goucher, and Hall) along with Shalane and others.
We require a media presence, because athletes need to provide something for us to build and focus around them. Pro athletes have to attract more media and excite runners and inspire kids. The number of kids Meb has cheered on here, or five-hour marathoners, it’s amazing. We need to tighten up the focus of athletes so they understand they have to connect.
Our campaign at this year’s marathon is 26.2 miles makes it a race, but you make it the marathon. And by that we mean the athletes, the crowds, the participants, the sponsors, everyone together. Pros exist in that universe, are a constellation shining bright. But to keep up support and build around them the real need is for storytelling. Pro runners aren’t the entire raison d’etre anymore, but they can be a shining star in the midst of it helping connect with the fitness runners.
WE DON’T NEED YOU TO BE DENNIS RODMAN, NECESSARILY, BUT WE NEED YOU TO BE MORE THAN MARCEL MARCEAU?
Ten years ago we wish we had more TV. We were a hot, hot, hot property with a massive participation base. It’s what companies want to be involved with. What we have is a phenomenon, not a pro-only sport as it was in the past on the track. But today we are much stronger in total, but the pro athletes have to be connected and be protagonists to achieve that goal.
THANKS, MARY. BEST OF LUCK.