First, let me apologize for the continuing rants about the state of the sport. But when you’ve put in 30+ years, and see a lessening of interest in the very thing you’ve spend a lifetime trying to build, it can drive you to excess in one form or another. For sanity and health I’ve chosen to confront my demons through writing.
That said, after the initial surge of emotions that followed the Competitor Group’s elimination of its elite athlete program last week, the time for solutions should now take up the baton. I’ve had several conversations this week along those lines, but it is to the constituent stakeholders of the sport we look first, as it is they who are best positioned to take heed of CGI’s decision and then move the sport ahead in its wake.
At the head of the pack of interest groups are the IAAF and its 200+ national governing bodies like USATF. And though they have shown recent signs of embracing road running, rather than merely tolerating the previous redheaded step-child of their organizations, governing bodies remain labyrinths of competing committees and regional associations ill-suited to the task of efficient and decisive executive leadership within a professional mandate.
Governing bodies were not instituted to control or administer a professional sport. So rather than offering opportunities for professional athletes as a primary concern, they orient more toward the development of grass roots interest and the collection of Olympic and World Championship medals, as such is their charter. But professionalism has a much different, more narrow focus.
As we have seen in the recent past, governing bodies can end up being competitors of the athletes for sponsorship platforms. Hence, the argument about USATF’s restriction on the number of sponsor logos an athlete can display on his/her competition jersey that came to a head at the USATF convention in St. Louis in 2011 reinforced how that restriction is primarily a means to protect the governing body’s own exclusivity rights in selling race number sponsorship. And there is nothing wrong with that, but it should move professional athletes away from an expectation of unalloyed advocacy from their governing bodies.
At the same time, while most pro runners are represented by agents and managers, those advocates are accredited by the federations, while in other sports a players’ associations does the accrediting. Since running doesn’t have a viable athletes union or association, we can readily see the potential conflict that creates.
In road running the next most organized constituency is the World Marathon Majors, made up of six of the world’s most prestigious marathons in Tokyo, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago and New York City. And though the WMM has anteed up a single significant prize at the end of its two-year cycle, the events still compete against one another for the same athletes each spring and fall, even while funding their top WMM prize directly from their six members alone, as sponsorship opportunities have been sold-out across almost all sponsor categories at the individual event level.
I always joke that the only categories not already sold seem to be alcohol, tobacco and firearms, and I can’t see the “ATF World Marathon Majors” coming anytime soon. But again, we see an impediment toward true coherence in the form of a viable league or tour as runners can’t run enough marathons in a calendar year to remain in the public eye. At the same time, each event wants both a men’s and women’s race, and a men’s and women’s wheelchair race, to the point where the public can’t follow it all.
While runners can’t compete in enough marathons per year to register on the sporting radar — especially with no global TV spotlight — nor is the payoff large enough to attract the casual sports fan for whom a high stakes payout might be intriguing, what they could do is compete at a number of the myriad major non-marathon events that dot the calendar around the world. I speak of events like this weekend’s Bupa Great North Run in Newcastle, England featuring a highly anticipated showdown between Ethiopia’s tiny terrors, Olympic and World Champions Tirunesh Dibaba and Meseret Defar.
But these events, excellent though they may be individually, remain universally separate and distinct from one another. They have never been tied together into a coherent tour structure. As a consequence, it has been all but impossible to advance interest in the sport of running via a cohesive marketing or media strategy on a national or global basis. Even the World Marathon Majors are not televised in all six member cities much less nations. It is a quick leap from ‘out of sight’ to ‘out of mind’ as kids choose up their favorite sports’ stars to follow.
At the same time the money difference between the major marathons and lesser distance events is so striking that the system has driven top competitors away from racing altogether, and instead has encouraged them to remain sequestered in their training camps preparing for one or two major efforts in the spring or fall. While such a system might work for pay-per-view boxing, ala the Floyd Mayweather — Canelo Alvarez bout September 14th — which is expected to generate up to two million PPV buys at $75 each, leading some to speculate that “Money” Mayweather’s $41.5 million guarantee could swell to as much as $100 million — the same one or two races per year system with little to no public payoff to generate interest — as with the Mo Farah, Haile Gebrselassie, Keninise Bekele showdown at the Bupa Great North Run one day later– constricts an athlete’s ability to build his or her brand, as athletes did in the past by racing more frequently.
In January 1982 I asked American marathon great Bill Rodgers what he had learned from his 1981 campaign, since it was the first year in seven years he hadn’t won either the Boston or New York City Marathons.
“I learned I can’t run 35 races a year anymore,” he told me.
Well, nobody expects today’s runners to race that often, but perhaps something more than five or six times might be possible, if every other competitor was signed for the same number of races, and was , therefore, on the same page as his opposition. In today’s marketplace, except for the Olympics or World Championships, it is very difficult to get all the athletes to come to a race from the same vantage point. Accordingly, this system kills athlete branding, because its all about maintaining a peak and avoiding losses to protect year-end rankings to preserve shoe contracts, rather than marketing a sport.
The industry models of success that come first to mind when considering what direction road running might take are golf and tennis, both of which are in the midst of season-ending major tournaments right now. Like running, both tennis and golf are individual sports that cross national borders on a fixed calendar. In Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, home to the PGA Tour, commissioner Tim Finchem works with a string of professionals who sell sponsorships and TV in a regulated, predictable, wide-ranging manner on behalf of its year-long Tour and member athletes — again the athletes are at the center of the enterprise, not simply hired hands.
For its part, tennis is currently showcasing the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, New York, but has brought fans to the big tourney with a series of well-established feeder tournaments on the Emirates Airlines U.S. Open Series. Running, in contrast, remains broken up into its constituent parts that can’t seem to find the glue gun.
Yes, I know running isn’t like golf or tennis in that you can’t race as often as you play golf or tennis. But that is true only in the way we currently stage our competitions, trying to hit what I call the perilous peak of perfection. I recall speaking with a famous horse trainer years ago after some nag had broken the world record for the mile. The previous record had stood for decades, and I wondered why there were so few records broken in horse racing. The answer, he said, was because you couldn’t interval train a horse, because you couldn’t talk to it and get enough feedback. Plus, a 1500-pound animal perched on such thin ankles was in constant fear of breaking down. So you trained the horse to compete only against other horses, not against the clock. In fact, an overly fast time scares most horsemen, as it most likely means the track is too hard-packed.
Perhaps because so many people came into running on a volunteer basis, and so many remain affiliated that way, there has been a long-standing negative association to the word “professional”. Rather than connoting excellence, it has come to stand for greed. Accordingly, everyone is leery of sacrificing anything at the local level to build a national entity. Instead at industry conclaves like the annual Running USA conference, event managers continue to focus on tightening their individual events rather than fashioning a regulated marketplace on a national scale.
The fact that we as a sport couldn’t do something about Devine Racing’s non-payment to athletes and vendors during their death spiral in 2006 is a perfect example of how our lack of a centralized focus allows for us to come off as totally unprofessional.
Perhaps in the wake of the Competitor Group’s departure from the ranks of elite competition, the leaders of the sport will finally see both the challenge and opportunity before them. They might even feel a little ashamed. The analogy, as always, is the race – it always comes back to the athletic endeavor. Follow the dictates of the athletes themselves, and you will be on the right track, no matter what your role in the game may be. Success in running is inexorably tied to “what I do today has no value outside the context what I did yesterday, and what I must do again tomorrow.”
That’s where we are today, challenged. The biggest race manager in the game has said, ‘there is no value to elite competition in terms of a return on investment’. It wasn’t an emotional decision, rather a hard-headed one. And at present it would be difficult for the elite athlete community to argue the CGI point. But the ongoing laissez-faire, every race for itself model, with a cadre of elite athletes who provide very little beyond speed, isn’t set in stone. The time has come to be bold while there are still events out there willing to have any association with elite competition at all. And truth be told, not much has to change, only the way we organize and present ourselves to the outside world.
Though organically grown from the local level up, running has become an international phenomenon, even as it continues to promote and market itself as hundreds of isolated, local events. Rather than being seen and sold as part of mainstream sporting culture conducting a single business, running has always been the Reno, Nevada of sport, willing to accept it’s status as the “biggest little thing” in town. Former Houston Marathon director David Hannah had a perfect line about this acceptance saying, “Running made an unconscious decision a long time ago to be a closely held secret.”
Yes, big enough to get on the front page of the local sports page one weekend a year, but not big enough to be mentioned in any other paper in the country, much less get on ESPN’s SportsCenter. Thus running retains a national image as a big, charity-based version of the Rose Parade instead of a serious sport. The cart is before the horse, you might say.
Throughout the years all we hear is how running isn’t golf, as if golf didn’t create the reality we see today. And how much more charity fundraising is golf now generating compared to 20-30 years ago? The PGA Tour even initiated a new FEDEX CUP series in 2007 to generate even more interest in the sport by an end-of-the-year mini-tournament among the top points leader to determine the year’s top golfer.
Running, too, has all the elements in place. It just hasn’t dedicated itself to going for the next level. Whether it’s too many chiefs, not enough Indians, big fish in small ponds, however you want to put it, the next step has to be as a cohesive pack determined to move forward at pace. The time has come to be brave, but even more so to recognize that the institutions we have in running exist as neither fully amateur, nor fully professional. And so the sport languishes in the nether regions between the two.
For those newer to the sport, please realize that this is a long-standing issue. In the early 1980s the top runners of the day, mostly American, formed ARRA, the Association of Road Race Athletes. Together they challenged the restrictions that long held athletes hostage to an antiquated system of amateurism. Though ARRA broke that system, it acted like Catholic girls of old and didn’t go all the way. Instead of pushing for full, open professionalism, it threaded the needle between amateurism (read Olympic eligibility) and professionalism via a trust system that Olympic Marathon champion Frank Shorter discovered in the IOC rules. This TACTRUST allowed athletes to set up a trust account to help defray training expenses. Once the U.S. federation executive director Ollan Cassell accepted this solution and sold the idea to the IAAF, the international governing body, the ARRA athletes returned to their primary job of training and racing, even as the sport was left as neither fish nor fowl.
But by 1994 the sport was still languishing. Shoe company contracts had cherry-picked the top stars from the traditional track clubs, which ended the large training groups out of which the stars had emerged, while the lack of a regulatory body allowed the herd of African runners to descend on the market unimpeded. In January `94 ninety members of the road running community met in Washington D.C. at what was offered as a Road Summit to discuss these same faults and opportunities. At the end of the two-day meeting a Running Task Force was assembled and challenged to come up with a plan to present to the running community and USATF executive director Ollan Cassel six months later.
While many people said Ollan wouldn’t meet with the Task Force, in fact he did several times, and was even ready to take Task Force Report to the USATF Executive Committee and back it with the $700,000 which road running generated (in `94 dollars) for the national office. The idea was to put that $700k to use in an autonomous road running division within USATF. The office would coordinate a road tour, institute qualifying standards for athlete eligibility, open an altitude-based training center, etc.
But when the USATF Executive Committee met in Knoxville at the national championships, the Women’s Long Distance Running Committee chair at the time, Julia Emmons of the Atlanta Track Club, who was on the Running Task Force that engineered the proposal that Cassell was prepared to recommend to the Executive Committee, stood up against Ollan and the proposal, saying she wouldn’t support the move because it removed control from the LDR committees while giving even more power to Cassell.
When one of the Task Force members, someone who helped write then sign the document, turned on it at crunch time, that killed it. The sport had expended a great deal of energy and political capital nurturing that effort and trying to overcome past antipathies. But after Julia shot it down, people threw up their hands. They had had enough sniping, and went back to making a living while the sport settled back into its old regime of local, unaffiliated races with open prize purses that lured season after season of Third World, often second-tier athletes which eventually stupefied the public into catatonic disinterest.
Well, here we are once again nearly 20 years later, not much better off, and still waiting. But the subject won’t die, either. It keeps coming back around like a sore Achilles tendon.
As has been mentioned, the organizational flow chart and mandate of USATF all but precludes it from taking control of professional road running. For its part, Running USA is about to name its new CEO. But while Running USA may have begun as an advocacy group for the betterment of the sport in 1999, it has since morphed into an inward oriented advocacy group for the running business industry.
What the sport requires is an autonomous road running unit working with USATF for national championships and Olympic Marathon Trials that can control dates, adjudicate conflicts, decide qualification requirements for prize money eligibility, institute circuits (both feeder and primary), and sell sponsorship, TV and media packages.
The unavoidable reality is that it must be the athletes themselves, or their advocates, who must step into the breach. As with other sports, it is the athletes who are the product being sold, and the group with the most to gain or lose by the lack of a system. But as long as they keep waiting for some outside agency to do what only they can, the same barriers to success will remain.
I still think the athletes (agents) should form up, then go find the top man or woman at the PGA Tour office who isn’t ever going to get the top job there, and bring him / her into road running unencumbered of all political baggage others within running carry. There is simply too much spite, envy, and venality in running, always has been. We need someone who hasn’t shared in all that, and make them Commissioner of Running who would then bring The Tour to member events.
Running is nothing more than another widget, not a group of religious icons. We don’t need a college of cardinals, we need sports MBA’s with integrity and drive. We are looking for someone to sell widgets, while representing the best demographic of any sport in the nation. It’s crazy this can’t be done.
So it’s a PGA Tour model at the professional level, and AARP at the grassroots. In the PGA, once a golfer has earned his playing privileges, he must play in a minimum of 15 tournaments per year so that the public can get to know who he is. As for the AARP model, every man, woman, and child who enters a member race is sent a temporary membership card. Now we have millions of people in a data-base to whom we can market goods and services, and with whom we can go into the market and generate sponsorship. Then we offer them gold, silver, and bronze level memberships which attach to hotel and car discounts, meals, frequent racing miles, guaranteed entry into ING NYC Marathon and the like.
It’s a matter of taking all the elements which are in full view to any who chooses to look, and molding them into something particular. The question, as always, is who feels they’ll be left out, and will fight it? As the former road racing great Anne Audain of New Zealand once told me at the Crim 10 Miler in 1991, “Toni, if this sport truly went professional, most of the people running it would lose their positions.” That is what has to be overcome. Or do we allow Competitor Group to have the last word?