When applied to American politics the theory of Perverse Incentives shows how gerrymandering congressional districts has led to gridlock rather than problem-solving – ostensibly the purpose of Congress – because gerrymandering incentivizes congress people NOT to work with the opposition party. When applied to today’s running world, the theory of Perverse Incentives shows how the focus on the individual-event management, while improving the quality of events, has constricted the potential growth and development of The Sport, which would necessitate a unity of purpose across multiple event platforms.
Today, a decade and a half into the 21st century, The Sport of racing has been subsumed by The Activity of jogging. The tail, we might say, is wagging the dog. And regardless of what Lord Sebastian Coe, the embattled IAAF president told viewers on the Standard Charter Dubai Marathon telecast recently — “when people see elite performances you can see how it pulls them into competition. It’s almost a perfect storm” — the opposite, in fact, is true.
There has been a total break between the front of the pack and the back of the pack. There is an almost complete lack of interest in the sport of foot racing by the experiential runners, much less by the general sports fans. And now with the devastating accounts of drug abuse and institutional corruption haunting the IAAF, the sport is in even more desperate condition than ever.
“Fast times once meant something,” says Patrick Lynch former elite athlete coordinator for the Boston Marathon and long-time observer of the sport. “There used to be a slew of running writers who could contextualize those times, people like Bert Rosenthal of Associated Press, Joe Concannon of the Boston Globe, Neil Amdur of the New York Times, Dick Patrick at USA Today. They’re all gone now. There are no running beat writers left anymore in the mainstream press.
“Just as the three-point line came in to play through the American Basketball Association to differentiate it from the established NBA – along with the red, white, and blue ball – when the NBA absorbed the ABA, NBA executives saw that their same old brand of basketball needed to adapt to grow. In the same sense running has become stagnant, well past due for a change. Events are successful but their races are not.”
Though he built the elite fields at the Boston Marathon from 1986 to 2012, and before that was very active in the Boston running community, Pat Lynch has always cultivated an opaque public persona (you can’t even find a picture of him on Google!). That he is willing to speak openly now only underscores the seriousness of the case he makes.
“The leadership in the sport failed to draw people’s attention to the professional side of the sport,” Lynch continues. “People see the event as the sport, but it’s not, the race is. I couldn’t tell you who won Boston last year. We know Meb won in 2014, because it was so unusual. But in general, the race makes no impact at all, because the focus is on the event. The race has become perfunctory, an after-thought.
“And it’s not just about the East African domination. There’s no hook to it. When Fred Lebow first gave a Mercedes-Benz to the New York City Marathon champion, people said, “Oh, my! That guy won a car!” Today you have to raise the stakes once again, find a way to professionalize the sport in the public mind, because now there is no structure to it at all. We are still dealing with appearance fees, which is a total holdover from the old amateur days. All that does is keep the stakes invisible to the public. But you can’t tell me people wouldn’t watch $1 million prize race!”
Since the second-wave running boom began with the 1998 Rock `n` Roll Marathon in San Diego, all the energy and creativity in running has been focused on the back end activity of jogging. Events evolved with bands, cheerleaders, universal finisher’s medals and a robust charity component. But perversely, though the front end of the sport became faster and faster, it simultaneously stagnated completely in terms of public interest.
Presently, the closest thing road running has to a league is the Abbott World Marathon Majors. With its six events, title sponsor, and a year-end million-dollar prize, it has managed to brand itself to a degree.
“You would have thought they would have created the Abbott Cup by now at the end of the year,” says Lynch, reflecting golf’s Fedex Cup or NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. “But it doesn’t happen. The big prize has yet to be branded. Why isn’t that a no-brainer?”
As the IAAF struggles to deal with its drug and corruption scandals, the environment is primed for a new model. From my reading of how other sports transformed into a fully professional status separate from, yet supportive of, their amateur side, it was through their events establishing a new protocol.
Events are the spine of the sport, the linking elements with the sponsorship, the civic connections, the roots – and at present, the integrity – to pull it all together. Athletes come and go too quickly to be the linking element; they flow through the event architecture. For its part, governance was created to serve as a regulator, but not as the conductor of the enterprise (beyond National and World Championships and the Olympics). Somehow that got turned around and the government crowd got to be in charge of what should be a private, event-driven enterprise. And, of course, look what the IAAF has done with the privilege.
“The sport never separated to become truly professional,” Lynch says. “It confused the public as the sport never left amateurism. It’s like the athletes and events never grew up and left home. They wanted Daddy to handle it. And now look what they got.”
The old-line races like the Abbott World Marathon Majors are no longer the Mom-and-Pop shops of running’s original boom years that used to take in $5 entry fees and handle paper entry blanks. They are significant operations with full-time staffs. They just need to put the elements together. It is all sitting there, with the sport calling out for it desperately.
“The first generation of running leaders is gone,” concludes Pat Lynch. “What has risen up in their place is the bureaucracy beneath them, and multiple boards of directors. What’s been lost is true creative leadership. The original running boom leaders had to be creative just to get noticed, consider the five-borough New York City Marathon in 1976. The current crowd doesn’t have to be creative. They just keep repeating the same old story over and over again. Everyone is satisfied with the status quo. There’s no electricity in the racing anymore. It’s just reshuffling the deck every year. There’s no impact, no juice.
“They have done a great job improving their overall events with charities and increased participation, etc. But the sport of foot-racing, which used to be the focus of the event, is now just an afterthought. They bring in a bunch of anonymous athletes, shoot the gun and let them run. People used to say, “I’m running with the best in the world”. Today, that doesn’t resonate anymore. “I’m running with Mary Lou, because our daughters are waiting at the finish line”.
“But racing is different than jogging. Events have the jogging element down pat. What’s past due is the turn toward improving the structure of the sporting element, because that’s where the need is most critical. Today the sport is suffering from myriad problems and indignities. A professional structure is what would give the public an avenue to once again follow the great sport of running. And you can’t tell me there aren’t minds out there to do it. They just need to take a brick out of the dam and let the creativity flow.”
You might say that the whole thing is just downright perverse.
21 thoughts on “THEORY OF PERVERSE INCENTIVES IN RUNNING”
Another great article ! Unless you are a ‘old school’ runner like myself, you have really no interest in who took the top spots in Boston, New York, or whever. On one hand, it’s great the see the numbers of people doing marathons and the like, but it’s now how fast you do it, rather it’s how good you look doing it. The baby boomers that comprised the heart and sole of serious racing back then, are fading away one by one. Consider me as an Old Schooler. I don’t race at the level of the Mutai’s, etc, but I still follow the top races with keen interest. as I mentioned in a reply to you previous blogs, I enjoy your commentary of the NYC Marathon elite men’s race. Have a great 2017!
Thanks, Tony…Hopefully the the boards of the big marathons will begin to see some sense and the pointlessness of what has evolved……(chasing WR’s and mass groups of Africans)
On another issue, take a look at this: http://www.run4yourlife.co.uk/super-1-athletics-pathway-to-the-olympic-games/ I dsigned it as an alternative to the failing established system in the UK.
My scheme would drive serious grass roots participation right through to elite and I believe is the only way in the modern age to attract and keep talent in the sport. It’s ‘owt for ‘nowt’ (as they say up North) but commitment to training and competing against the rest of the best as you go up in standard category can provide very worthwhile rewards. ….It also financial helps organising clubs.
Of course my scheme is produced for the the British athletics set up but can easily be adopted and modified to suit any country where they want athletics to thrive and be a worthwhile sport for anyone intent on achieving their potential and not dropping out once they get past 16, as over 90% in this country, do…………It costs money but when you compare the overall annual cost/payout at around just 20-30% of what any single world class footballer earns, it’s not much at all, especially for what it produces overall.
John Bicourt ..As we all know, this “sceptred isle” has produce many of the world’s finest runners, male and female and of course I include the marathon..Just look at the all-time list of British male and female marathoners performances and the big marathons and championship medals they have won or placed highly in……….why don’t we have them today? Because, race organisers are so besotted with trying to have the fasted times in their race they have no interest in British runners when they can have any number of Africans (according to the race budget) as they want and are guaranteed “world class” times………so British athletes, not able to earn a penny and not on funding, having to work for a living (as most did in the past…but at least those knew they could still win or place highly) just don’t have the incentive nor more importantly the time and freedom to train as hard as necessary to even begin to have a chance against all the Africans who are invited to every race with any money. Added to that, of course is now the evidence that so many Africans/Russians/North Africans, et al, are doping on EPO and getting away with it……So what’s the solution? Easy:….. All of today’s big events and in fact any open event is mainly populated by fun and fitness runners all paying (in some cases) exorbitant entry fees. And if they didn’t turn up, the event would be dead…Imagine London, Boston, Chicago, NY and even Brighton with only elite runners. Those events would soon disappear. But, take out the “elite” or rather stop paying ridiculous appearance fees and prize money to the “overseas” elite and guess what? The event carries on happily……..In fact three of the biggest mass running events in the world that I know of, do precisely that. City to Surf in Sydney; Bay to Breakers in San Francisco and one (the name of which escapes me) in NZ.. ….As I have said in an article posted above, would London suffer any financial loss or publicity if it scraped appearance fees and paid out prize money only to British runners? Would NY, Boston, Berlin or Chicago or any other “money” marathon? No definitely not. But what it would do is create the incentive and excitement for nationals of those countries to get out there and try to win………it’s also far better for the public, too, who would rather see their own up there than the ever more common sight of a mass African walk over………….just in my opinion, of course.
Absolutely true what you propose. The tail is wagging the dog, and the dog better do something about it.
In fact, we saw this happen at the Rite-Aid Cleveland Marathon and 10K (then branded as Revco). You may recall the 10K always featured top Brits like Western Ky. guys Nick Rose, Tony Staynings, and Dave Long. Then in 1982 Dave Moorcroft beat Mike Musyoki in Cleveland with a course record 28:09 just three weeks before his 13:00.41 5000 WR. Anyway, several years later the event got rid of the prize money in the marathon, while still offering it for the 10K
Well, some graduate student from Cleveland State University won the thing in 2:28, and got more press than the endless flow of anonymous East Africans did while winning the race in much faster times.
Another potential solution is to adopt the system utilized in golf and horse racing whereby the athletes have to post an entry fee to be eligible for the prize money. This is the way the World Series of Poker works, too. You have to put up $10,000 or whatever just to get entry. Now we will see who’s ready to roll when there is skin in the game.
The way it is now athletes get invited with their entourages, get put up and fed, and then decline (nicely) to do anything to help support the enterprise which supports them. I don’t blame them. That’s the system they’ve come up in. All that’s asked of them is to run fast from point A to point B, which is only 80% of their job. But it’s the other 20% which is needed to help generate the funds that goes into forming their pay envelopes.
Thanks for reading and replying.
Thanks Toni–you make some good points and I admire your passion for the sport.
I guess you know who the winner is if you care who the winner is…
Couple of thoughts:
“Anonymous packs” might be a better caption for the first group photo….Maybe a swap–
L-R: Wesley Korir, Kenyan Member of Parliament and Boston champ; Geoffrey Mutai, 2x NYC, Berlin and Boston champ; Gebre Gebremariam, two-time Olympian and NYC champ.
Ask BZ for the household impressions of the 2015 elite finish–you’ll be pleasantly surprised that the reach was better than MLB World Series, NBA Championship, Masters Final, Daytona 500, NFC Regular Season, AFC Regular season……Someone’s watching the elite portion of the ‘race’ -even if it’s a one day, Monday morning event.
Many races fold in appearances into marathon contracts and these are used for events throughout the year….has been happening for quite a while.
Thanks for the reply. But Boston is special, and had developed a deep tradition over 120 years that is reflected in the local BZ coverage numbers.
But recall that Boston used to be shown on all three local network affiliates until one by one channel 7 and channel 5 left. So what used to be three is now one. That also indicates a trend.
As far as anonymous packs, go to th Northshore Mall and show shoppers that photo without the names on bibs, and ask anyone to name any one of those athletes. Or just ask anyone to name a Boston Marathon champion. Just a guess, but don’t think you’ll hear a lot of “Mutai and Korir”.
The sport is only in the public consciousness one time a year notwithstanding the BAA 10K and Half-Marathon. Those events aren’t shown live on BZ.
Toni: As always, an interesting blog and equally interesting comments. I do take issue with a few of your comments; the one that leapt out at me is: “People used to say: I’m running with the best in the world.” I totally disagree. I began running in 1981, was a member of the Motor City Striders for many years (my first big recognition as a runner was being named the Striders Sub-Masters Female Champion in ’81); all of my friends were runners: we ran, we worked, we partied, we ran, we worked, we partied…That’s what people did back then, at the height of the running boom. Not once did I ever hear anyone say that they were so excited to be running the Free Press Marathon, for instance, because they’d be running with the best in the world. We were competing, we were racing because we loved it, because we were running against ourselves and people in our age-group. Those were, as they say, “heady times.”
Back in those days there were charity events: they were walks. The March of Dimes for instance used to put on walks, there was a big one in Detroit every year. I decided to walk it in ’82 with a team from work, but because I had been running for a year by that time, I ended up running most of it. There was no charity component to running. Emily Gail used to put on a huge race with thousands of runners in downtown Detroit, that featured a big party afterwards. There were no bands along the course, no entertainment to keep us distracted, because we were running. And then when the race was over we partied like crazy.
And, as you all know, back in those days, there was one qualifying time standard for both men and women: one, that was it. You either ran that time and got your ticket to Boston or you didn’t. The race was revered and respected and people knew that when you qualified for Boston, you were a runner.
But then Jeff Galloway (I know I’ll get blowback from this, but I stand by what I believe) came along and convinced people that they could walk/jog, walk/run a marathon as fast as they could run without slowing their pace; races decided to partner with charities so that a lot of people were getting involved in road racing whose primary goal was to raise money, not to compete, and because people were running much slower, it became necessary to provide entertainment along the course so the walkers and joggers would have something to keep their mind off the fact that they were on their feet for hours.
I don’t know how you will ever get the people who are walking and jogging now to care one iota about the “best in the world”, and that’s particularly true when you consider that many of the runners who are “the best” are people that it’s difficult for someone, especially a non-runner to relate to. As others have mentioned, some of the top runners barely speak English. And then there’s the reality that racing on the road, the marathon in particular, does not translate well to TV, it never has and I doubt it ever will. I’ve been so frustrated over the years watching say Boston for instance, where a runner who has been in the lead pack suddenly disappears when the coverage returns after a commercial break and you have no idea what happened.
My take on all this is that those of us who have been involved in this sport, in one fashion or another, for a majority of our lives should consider ourselves lucky to have, in many cases, made a living in the running world. I don’t want to come off as a silly Pollyanna dancing with rainbows over my head and unicorns running around me, but the reality is that things change, that’s the way life is. Things aren’t going back to the way they used to be.
The professional side of the sport is just a bunch of elites who, as far as the public AND the mass of amateur runners are concerned, seem like figures seen through a fog while gazing steadfastly at their own navels. It’s been proven over and over that TEAM COMPETITION attracts viewers, nothing else. Hence the Olympics are track and runing’s only big draw. At the high school and college levels, dual meets and scored multi-meets that are efficiently managed (WITHOUT endless meaningless heats) are the only events that consistently draw interest and even, if held regularly and properly promoted, actual enthusiasm. Nothing else works. Why are we surprised? To expect otherwise is ridiculous.
All good stuff, Toni. This is two straight blogs where the comments are as good as the original blog. You and Pat Lynch make some excellent and mainly accurate points. But, so does our old friend, Jack Fultz. I do partially agree with him that Pat and John Hancock were in a position to have helped push the sport in the “right direction” but once they got entrenched into a position to really be a major power player in the sport…. thru both their large budget/activities and their flagship event… they tended to just keep the “status quo” because they were in a relatively good position to prosper once they got all set up in a powerful position w/in that system. Pat and Hancock were in a great position to shape the future of the sport…and to some degree they did…. but not to the degree that they could have. I will always be grateful to them for “saving” the “grand old American marathon that Boston was/is” because I remember when the very existence of the Boston Marathon was pretty much in doubt back in 1984-85 and you do, too! Lastly, I detect your bias about doing away with “athlete appearance money” completely. But, how about calling it a “spokesperson/promotional fee” for certain athletes who take the time to do a media tours or media interviews or public appearances on behalf of the sport or take a run with sponsors employees the way certain golfers and tennis players play a “pro-am” or exhibition with sponsor employees, etc. I agree that most athletes just want to stay in their hotel room or run or eat or sleep before a big race…and not all speak well (or even speak English?!) that can do this. But, for the ones who can…. and are willing to take the time… for the good of both the event and the sport…. then they deserve to be compensated for that work/skill set. Golf and tennis do this with certain of their players… no reason running can’t as well… and not violate what you are proposing… but enhance it in the long run. May see you in LA after all now……
I’m in agreement with you about appearance money. As a tool to invite the entire field it’s not effective, because it hides the money from a public which equates money with prestige. But as we’ve heard before and I have written before on this blog you need the combination of prize money, appearance money and bonus money to properly invite, incentivize, and develop the field, both in terms of the quality of the field and in its presentation to the public.
Hancock did indeed save Boston, and further extended its reach, for a while, into NYC and L.A. But once it moved into top-tier Olympic sponsorship, the focus on road racing fell back to just Boston.
But the sport can’t expect a sponsor to do the work that it should be doing itself. Events and the city-states which control them simply can’t or won’t create meaningful links between and among themselves. Much of that, as I see it, stems from the fact that every sponsorship category has been sold-out at the local level. Look how long it took World Marathon Majors to secure a title sponsor. And why? In part because they had to find a sponsor category that none of the events individually had already signed.
There is no doubt Boston was a closed shop back then, and not particularly friendly to naysayers. I had people at the Herald tell me to “watch your back” after Mr. D’Alessandro called complaining about columns I wrote questioning their extravagant payments to some, but not even a phone call to others approach. I particularly remember Phil Coppess who had won the Twin Cities Marathon in `85 when it was the U.S. Championship. He ran a course record 2:10:05, too, but couldn’t even get a nibble at Boston. It wasn’t about Phil, per se, but his position as National Marathon champion in the year Boston was resurrecting it’s elite field. Remember Boston was originally called The American Marathon.
Anyway, since the BAA wasn’t going to do any more than Mayor Flynn forced them to do by putting up $300k in prize money, Hancock had to protect its investment by putting up the appearance/Clinic fees to ensure a quality field. No way they were going to just dump all that dough into the BAA coffers to be used as prize money, and the sponsor couldn’t offer it on the side, anyway. That’s why the appearance system kept going.
That said, I think everyone, including Pat, is surprised that the sport never got beyond that old, broken system. But if now’s not the time, when the hell would it be?
Burgers and beers on me!
Another interesting post. But I’ll reply off the grid here. And while this is topic fodder for an entire evening over brews and burgers, I’ll be brief.
Some of what you and Pat said ring true – few beat writers for example. But with the “race” being an afterthought to the “event” now, again while there is certainly more media attention around a race/event on the non-elite field element (charity teams in particular and also human interest stories like the Hoyts), pre-race media is still all about the elite fields and broadcasts, as you certainly know, focus primarily on the “race” with the back of the pack stories taking up the sideline.
Power and money have ALWAYS corrupted the governance – Olan Cassell and Avery Brundage to name only two high-powered scoundrels. There’s more money now than ever, times are faster than ever and more runners are achieving ridiculous times (tell me the majority of them are not juiced). So while that is the old model, so to speak, to use your term of “perverse incentives” – John Hancock (w/Pat) were in a great position to do what he now proposes – to take appearance fees out of it and lay it all on the public table, available to whomever is willing/able to come and win/earn it. Instead, D’Alessandro’s coup to do an end run around the BAA’s dictum that no appearance fees be paid, you know as well as anyone the creative solution to that – “Clinician Fees” – mostly to the Kenyans and a few recognizable top-tier American with Billy, Greg, Joannie – who of course should be front and center of the race and JH’s sponsorship. They could have turned the tide by putting up $million as prize money, going $250K to the winner and 25 – 30 deep in prize money. Provide a travel/accommodation structure for qualified athletes and let them pay – then reimburse them if they perform. PGA is the perfect model for that. You miss the cut, you go home with less money in your pocket and the “race/event” pays only by performance (with a few post-season exceptions to that).
And that the East African presences plays little or no roll in all this is absurd. American sports fans simply can’t identify with these athletes – not to they seem to care to now. When it was Ibrahim Hussain and Juma Ikangaa, there was tremendous interest. They were appealing individuals to who’s stories the average fan could somewhat relate…and there was the simple interest factor of these guys from East Africa doing amazing things on the roads – matching and beating our best. And our best still had off-road life stories that were of interest to the general public.
And of course now all the drug corruption and money/power corruption – is it any wonder? The race is still the race – but the world has changed. Until they actually follow races like the Marine Corp Marathon – no prize money, there will be PED infestations. Indeed, “Power tends to corrupt…….” – Lord Acton. As I commented on your post last week – Pogo’s words ring loud and clear.
Anyway – just my 2 cents…..
Hope you’re well – and regards to Pat. Haven’t seen him in years. (BTW, took me six years as the BAA Elite Athlete Liaison to get Pat to take or return my phone calls. When you had me on Runner’s Digest the week my position was announced, I made a comment about meeting with Pat at some point because you were wondering how all this would work. Pat hear that and tried to rip me an new asshole on the phone. “Get this straight. You and I don’t have meetings”. Trust me, I remember that one well.
But eventually we ended on a high note and I finally took him at his word when Hancock first came on the scene and Pat was doling out the contracts (publicly stated to past champions and others who can help spread the message on the health benefits of running, yadda, yadda). When I was not offered anything and then declined when I requested to be invited to the party in some manner….”No” was the answer. “It’s just business Jack, it’s just business”. And so it was.
Ciao – Jack >
Once again, a brilliant article. The comment by Pat Lynch (” I couldn’t tell you who won Boston last year. We know Meb won in 2014, because it was so unusual”) resonated with me. ‘Back in the day’, I could name every winner of Boston from the late 60’s to the early 90’s with little trouble, and was at least educated about the Demar’s, Kelly’s,, Cote’s, etc. from earlier eras. Even into the mid-90’s, Ndeti/Pippig brought some excitement. Ditto for the NYC Marathon. But the last 15 years? Even as a follower of the sport, I can only recall 1 or 2 winners of Boston, same for NYC in the 2000’s. I watch the race, and by 15 miles, I just stop caring. 2015 was the first year EVER that I didn’t watch the NYC marathon on TV, since the first broadcast on ABC in 1981. I just didn’t care. If running (RACING) is losing fans like me–who used to live for this stuff–it’s a bad/sad day for the sport.
Makes sense to me.