SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Competitor Group, Inc. (CGI), the San Diego based company that owns and operates 53 events around the world, including its flagship Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series, today announced that its board of directors has named David Abeles as Chief Executive Officer.
For the past several months CGI chairman Paul Walsh has been serving as interim CEO after Scott Dickey and Steve Gintowt left the company as CEO and CFO in December 2013. The change in leadership followed a strong industry reaction against CGI’s precipitous reduction in its elite athlete program just two weeks prior to the Rock `n` Roll Philadelphia Half Marathon last September after appearance agreements had been made by CGI’s elite athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull. Later, following Dickey and Gintowt’s departure,CGI reversed course, and in January reconstituted its commitment to elite competition.
Now, 42 year-old David Abeles joins the firm, bringing 20 years of executive experience in the sports industry to CGI. He was most recently the Executive Vice President and General Manager at TaylorMade-Adidas Golf Company, where over the past six years he led the commercial operations of a $1.8 billion global equipment and apparel division. Prior to TaylorMade, Abeles served as Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Cobra Golf. I spoke with Abeles by telephone today from his office at CGI headquarters in San Diego.
So why CGI? Why you? Why now?
“I feel very fortunate as an avid runner to step into this category of our sport,” he began. “I have a passion for the sport. Second, I believe this organization has demonstrated itself as an industry leader, and if you look at the history of the company the consumer experience we provide and the media content has been best in class. The final piece is the tremendous opportunity to grow events and media to both the avid and recreational athletes.”
With his long background in golf, I asked Abeles if he saw any parallels in the two sports?
“Running and golf are both individual sports,” said Abeles who is originally from New York and lives in Del Mar, CA with his wife and three sons. “Whether it’s your golf score or your PR in a race there is a high degree of individuality to both. And if you look at the demographics, you can lay one on top of the other and not know the difference. Whether in household income or the demographic profile, it’s the same. Also with behavioral aspects, they are the same. What drives decision making in both sports is the passion and commitment. So there are a lot of parallels. One other thing is true, both running and golf are aspirational sports. Having the chance to play on the same course and experience the same environment as the pros for an average golfer is the same as running the same course with elite athletes.”
While it was never directly presented as the cause for the departure of former CEO Dickey and CFO Gintowt, the industry backlash that erupted following CGI’s decision to significantly scale back its elite athlete program just two weeks prior to RnR Philadelphia last September was an evident turning point for the organization.
“I did read about it,” said Mr. Abeles. “But I can’t comment, nor do I know what it meant for the previous management. However, I do believe in the authenticity of our sport, and having elite athletes is an absolute must. Having a chance to line up side-by-side with top athletes can be the thrill of a lifetime, and lends to the aspirational aspect of the sport. From my vantage point, I think it (cutting elite athlete funding) was a wrong decision, and that CGI re-thought that decision was a positive outcome.”
Having come from the world of golf where the stars of the sport are among the highest paid and most well-recognized athletes in the world, I wondered how Mr. Abeles felt about entering a sport that is dominated by East African athletes who are among the lowest paid and least recognized elite athletes in the world. Last weekend Patrick Reed, 23, became the youngest winner of a World Golf Championship event. For his one-stroke victory in the WGC– Cadillac Championship Reed won $1.5 million. I also asked Mr. Abeles if he could foresee a time when running would brand, not just its events, ala Rock `n` Roll, but brand its competitions, ala the PGA TOUR.
“That’s a good question, and I don’t know. But it is central to our success to see the continued growth of the Rock `n’ Roll series. And I would like to think that eventually running would have a tour like golf. We are closer to that than anyone with 29 RnR marathons and half-marathons around the world, and expanding quickly. We are, in fact, trying to create a league of our own where people feel a commitment to our events. So we like to think we can take this platform and expand it and make it more appealing. But also the beauty of running is that it’s a global sport. So we can have Kenyan, European, and American champions, and that bodes well for the future, too.”
When Falconhead Capital purchased Elite Racing from Tim Murphy in late 2007, there were seven Rock `n` Roll properties in the USA. Today, within the portfolio of Calera Capital Competitor Group stages 25 RnR events in North America and four in Europe. Where might we expect to see future growth happen?
“We are diligently looking in the USA,” Abeles told me, “but I can’t quantify that yet. But we are working hard to build out our platform in Europe. And there will be considerable attention paid to Mexico and Latin America. We will also pursue the dynamic markets in Asia and the Pacific Rim. In three to five years you will see a truly global platform.”
While elite sport has once again been revived as part of the CGI future, the average runner, understandably, remains at the center of the company’s focus. With its Rock `n` Roll Series, KiDS Rock Series, TriRock Triathlon Series and Women’s Running Series, CGI is poised to collectively welcome more than 500,000 professional and amateur participants in 2014.
“I think it is critical for our company to focus on the active lifestyle segment,” said Abeles who earned a BS in marketing from University of Connecticut. “The way people lead their lives is of critical importance. So I see the sport growing exponentially. In 1976 there were only 25,000 marathon finishers in the country. Now there are 25,000 in each race. But I think we can also find the right personalities so that we will also see runners on the cover of Sports Illustrated again, too. And we don’t have to model ourselves on golf. Running has its own authenticity.
“I want to create a shared vision as it relates to our company and our industry. It’s not just one man. I want to see a true group effort. So this is truly a dream job for me.”