Rich Kenah on the challenges of Marketing Track & Field: the RBR Interview

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Rich Kenah and Mark Wetmore play key elements in their company, Global Athletics & Marketing. First of all, without Kenah and Wetmore, and their team, we would have one indoor elite meet and the same outdoors. The dynamism of GAM has helped the sport get back on its feet in North America.

Kenah and Wetmore are our sports' version of the odd couple. Kenah is a pretty centered individual. A former athlete and student of the sport, Kenah fills the time when he is not with his lovely wife Cheryl (former world class 1,500m/5k runner) and their twins, with selling our sport. Wetmore, the man who started GAM, is agent, lawyer, a keen observer of the sport. A strong businessman, Wetmore is one of the most generous people I have ever met. With the support that GAM gave the Millrose 100th, I am not sure the event would have even happened. They are willing to make an investment in a sport they love--GAM is looking long term. Quite frankly, this is something new in our sport.

In this interview, Rich Kenah shares with us his views on the sport, his starts in the sport, and where he imagines our sport in the future. Be aware, gentle readers, that for groups such as GAM to be successful, they must a) love the sport, b) never give up. There are alot more lucrative and faster ways to make a living that being involved in track & field or running.

It is Kenah's job to find marketing partners for the GAM properties: Reebok Boston indoor, Reebok Grand Prix NY, adidas Track classic, MIllrose Games, Tyson Indoor Games ( at this time GAM manage Tyson and MIllrose). He also has been quite successful in finding sponsors for their premier athletes-Tyson Gay, Jenn Stuczynski, Mesert Defar and Tirunesh Dibaba, among others.

It is obvious Rich Kenah loves his job and wants to make our sport grow. And now, a few questions from us and a few answers from Mr. Kenah:

RBR: Tell us about your first experience in athletics?

Rich: My first experience with running was not on the track, it was on the roads. When I was 9, I ran the Newark Distance Run (4 milers I believe) with my cousin. I don’t remember much of it. Suffice to say, there was no hint of future success. I was so far back that my dad drove the streets of Newark in a police car searching for me. I did come back for more though. As I got a little older, my dad would bring me to area road races on the weekends. I never ran fast but I did get a taste for the sport.

In fact, I have a funny story about my how I perceived the sport at a young age. My mother was cleaning out my parents’ garage right before the 2000 Olympic Games. She found an art project that I had done in the first grade. It was a collage. The assignment must have been something along the lines of “paste pictures of things you like or like to do.” My mom carried this project to Sydney when she traveled to watch the Games in Australia. She gave it to me there. Just above a photo of an oreo cookie and next to a picture of a dog is a magazine cutout of Bruce Jenner after winning the Olympic Gold in the Decathlon at the 1976 Games. In my first grader’s handwriting, I had written the words ”I want to be an Olympian when I grow up.”


RBR: When did you get interested in sports marketing?

Rich: I was an international marketing major in college and, for as long as I can remember have been fascinated by the challenges that culture and geography create in marketing. After college, I interned at one of the industry’s original sports marketing firms, ProServ. From there, I was lucky enough to work for David Falk, manager for some of the NBA’s most famous athletes, including some guy named Michael Jordan. Both of these experiences further intrigued me about the business and gave me the opportunity to marry two interests, sports and international marketing.


RBR: Does your experience with athletics help you in your sales efforts?

Rich: I think so. Let me be clear though, I don’t think the sport has even begun to scratch the surface in terms of selling itself to non-endemic sports marketing spenders. By non-endemic, I mean companies that do not have a vested interest in the sport’s success. There are basically two playing fields. The mainstream sports marketing world, which is driven by a real need for ROI on every dime spent, and the running world. To date, the two rarely overlap. Shoe companies continue to keep the sport healthy and visible. They need help though, and can’t be relied upon to shoulder the entire burden.

RBR: How did you get involved in Global Athletics & Marketing?

Rich: I was a journeyman athlete in 1995, not good enough to be a full-time athlete yet just stubborn enough not to retire. I approached Mark Wetmore and asked if he could find me a lane in some races. At a time when most managers wouldn’t return my phone call (and as I look back, I don’t blame them), Mark said OK. He found me a spot in the B race in Oslo’s Bislett Games. I was (am) a track geek, so as you might imagine this was a thrill of a lifetime. I raced well there and have been with GA&M, Inc., in one capacity or another ever since.


RBR: What is the biggest challenge in marketing our sport of track and field?

The biggest challenge is the sport’s reach, or lack thereof.

The good news is that almost without exception, new fans of the sport love what they see. I cite one example. I invited a publisher of a major New York media outlet to last year’s Reebok Grand Prix. This gentleman is well traveled in entertainment and athletic circles. He has attended just about every major “event” in the entertainment, culture and sports world. This guy called me the day after the Reebok Grand Prix and told me the event was the most exciting night of sports he has ever experienced. He said his son was running around the house saying, “Look dad, I’m Tyson Gay.”

The bad news is that for many reasons, we typically get little help from mainstream media in pre-event event coverage. This is related in part to newspapers cutting staff. Most have lost their track writers, the reporters who followed the sport day to day and year to year. Now, a media outlet parachutes in to cover a meet here, an issue there … and the issues aren’t always positive. So not only is there less coverage overall, but the coverage that exists tilts more often toward the sensational. Therefore our growth becomes dependent on direct contact with potential ticket buyers/fans, advertising and other creative promotions: a herculean grass roots approach for any organization. It is an expensive undertaking and one that most people can’t begin to understand. It is a classic chicken vs. the egg problem. The best way to illustrate it is to throw some numbers at you. The US Open in tennis has an advertising budget that is larger than the entire operating budget of track and field’s national governing body. Think about that, one event in New York City has more money to promote itself than the entire operating budget of the sport of track and field.


How do we increase our budgets? Filling stadiums is a first step of many and one, which I am proud to say, we’ve managed to do better than most. With limited resources, GA&M has found ways to bring casual fans of the sport into track and field stadiums. The feedback we get from these fans is overwhelmingly positive.


RBR: You market four major properties a year, Reebok Boston Indoor, Reebok Gran Prix New York, adidas track classic and Millrose, is it
more of a challenge to sell the group or does it help?

Rich: For sponsorship sales, it helps to have more properties. Most sponsors need value on multiple days, across multiple platforms, across multiple cities to make it work their while. The key is delivering real value to sponsors through turn-key integration into every area of the event. We do this successfully for our sponsors because we own and operate our events, so we have the ability to build value for sponsors at many levels.

For ticket sales, it is more of a challenge because we promote multiple days and multiple cities. In 2008, when there are many more options for entertainment activities (movies, internet, sports, etc) and more clutter than a decade ago, it requires a lot of man hours to sell a track meet as something bigger and better than all the other options out there. It can be done, but it requires a significant commitment of resources.


RGR: You also market a sizable group of athletes, what challenge do you see there? What can athletes do to make themselves more
marketable?

Rich: This is a fun time to be talking to corporate America about Olympic athletes. The challenge comes next year…When the hype surrounding Beijing has gone, the winners have had their 15 minutes and sports marketers begin to look at off-year marketing platforms. I didn’t win many races myself, so I hate to say it, but corporations want winners. So, athletes need to do two things: 1. Win 2. Be willing to share their story, their life and their insights into their talents in an articulate, interesting but honest way. The challenge for GA&M and other agents is to keep these corporations engaged with our athletes in non-Olympic years.


RBR: In your meeting last weekend (Reebok Grand Prix), you overcame a rain storm with hysterical commentary from your announcers over a) a squirrel and b) American idol, and then produced a world record at the very end of the meet? Was this your most successful NY ever?

Rich: Yes it was. There aren’t too many track meets in the USA that add additional seats and then have to improvise even further and sell lawn seats just to accommodate the walk-up interest. A packed stadium, great athlete performances and great local, national and international media coverage is as much as we could have hoped for.


I wish we had gotten some footage of the squirrel running down the homestretch during the thunderstorm. The crowd enjoyed it. I think the in-stadium’s reaction to the squirrel and the storm was indicative of the general feeling in the stadium the entire night. People were simply there to have fun. If the measure of an event’s success is how many people stay around during a rain delay, then we’ve done as well as we ever can. Despite the storm and the delayed start, I don’t think anyone left until that final race was run. If anyone did leave, I am sure they learned their lesson and won’t do so next year. The men’s 100m was something special.


RBR: Where do you see the sport in five years?

Rich: In general, I am bullish on track and field. But sports today are much like the internet. I am not sure anyone could/should make predictions in anything more than one-year increments. I will say this, running as a participatory event has never been healthier. If track and field can capture even a small percentage of those who run for fun, then I think we have a very bright future.

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