The New York Road Runners announced today (12 May 2015) that its long serving President and CEO Mary Wittenberg will step down next week to take on the job of Global CEO at Virgin Sport, a new enterprise created by British tycoon Richard Branson that will focus on participatory fitness events and programs, particularly running and cycling. NYRR board chairman George Hirsch further announced that two of Ms. Wittenberg’s top assistants, Michael Capiraso and Peter Ciaccia, would replace her, dividing her duties into separate business and sport positions.
The announcement came as a surprise to many, as Wittenberg had become the face of running in New York City during her 10-year tenure as CEO and race director of the New York City Marathon. In fact, some industry insiders jokingly referred to the 50,000 person November race as the New York City Mary-thon, so prominent and vibrant was Ms. Wittenberg throughout race week.
In Mary Virgin has hired one of the most recognizable faces in the sport, a Buffalo-native who first made a name winning the Marine Corps Marathon in 1987. After graduating from Notre Dame law school Wittenberg spent several years with a firm specializing in international trade deals for U.S. banks. Then in 1998 she joined NYRR as she sought to combine avocation with vocation. Two years later she became NYRR’s first Chief Operating Officer before taking over from Allan Steinfeld as President and CEO in 2005.
With a supportive board, enterprising staff, and the NYRR portfolio in hand, Wittenberg quickly began to build on the legacy established by Fred Lebow and Allan Steinfeld. During her tenure the organization and its many events (and charities) flourished – though there were rumblings from some local club members who bridled at increased race entry fees and Mary’s focus on building a more national and international profile for the club. Yet the NYRR’s crown jewel, the New York City Marathon, grew by over 60% in Wittenberg’s time, making it the largest marathon in the world. In all over 400,000 people participate annually in NYRR activities, including tens of thousands of children via the club’s robust programs for kids.
Wittenberg was also a leader in the creation and development of the Abbott World Marathon Majors, the million dollar series formed in 2006 by six of the world’s preeminent international marathons. Only the fumbled cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon in the wake of Hurricane Sandy — after most of the runners had already flown into town — shows up as a glitch. And that was mostly on New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In early 2007 Mary was scheduled to give the keynote address at the annual Running USA conference. During that time she and I exchanged a number of messages about the state of the sport and the direction it was taking. As we wish her well on her move to her new post with Virgin Sport, I thought we might gain from some hard won understanding of the sport she has helped lead through the first decade and a half of the 21st century.
“I keep coming back to conclusion that we need a centralized, unified, cohesive national approach to promoting and marketing the sport! (and then something similar on the international level). We have often talked about a central commissioner’s office, both national and international. It is all about the money and funding the building, marketing, and promotion of pro sport, lifestyle, and youth running.
It is where I end up back at the USTA (U.S. Tennis Association) model as something to consider as the U.S. Open is the engine that drives the rest. We have that engine with the NYC Marathon and potentially a few others. The multi-race engine reality swings us back to more of a NFL teams’ model to make it all work. Whichever way, real funding to start and sustain it is going to be key.
“The identity crisis (in the sport) exists because there is no national approach, and we (NYRR) are reaching to fill the gap because it cannot go unfilled. If I and NYRR were selfish and not smart we could just go do the most we can for this generation of leaders and running at NYRR. But that won’t take the overall sport where it could go if we had a unified vision and structure that is a conscious creation like the other major leagues and sports. That is where it can be paralyzing, and why it is so important to fully evaluate the potential to make all this work now. Because if it can’t, I and we will do our best and focus on what we have, it will never be fully what this sport is capable of.
“The beauty of this is I can envision models where the national sport flourishes as well as the NY, Chicago, elites and others. Not saying it will be easy however, as each of the major organizations now believe they have success. But now is the time. I’d rather aim for ultimate success, and I think we all need to or we will fail as this current model can never fully maximize or mobilize the entire sport.
“Sorry to focus so much on NYRR here, but I’d rather be honest and upfront as to some of the challenges and the opportunities, and where I come from in it all. ”
Candid comments, for sure, from someone who has experienced the sport from its basic grassroots level to its most demanding board room negotiations. Through it all, Ms. Wittenberg has helped engineer the modern expression of the sport, and was instrumental in helping resurrect what had been a diminishing American presence in the top echelon of the sport. Hosting the Men’s Olympic Marathon Team Trials in Central Park in 2007 the day before the annual five-borough NYC Marathon was among the many highlights of Mary’s term. Here is wishing her well as she takes the next important steps along her career path.
Given Branson’s branding flare, and Mary’s dynamic leadership one can only imagine the intended scope of Virgin Sport. But watch out. This could be the next big thing.
According to the NYRR release, Ms. Wittenberg will oversee her final event as NYRR President and CEO this Saturday, May 16 at the Airbnb Brooklyn Half. Newly named NYRR President and CEO Michael Capiraso and NYRR President, Events & TCS New York City Marathon Race Director Peter Ciaccia will assume their new roles on Tuesday, 19 May following Wittenberg’s final day with the organization on May 18. Then, on Friday May 29th Mary is scheduled to deliver the keynote address at the 2015 Athletics Canada Race Director’s Summit in Calgary. Should be a talk worth hearing.