The Future of Track & Field in America: Here is how Six USATF Board Members see it, by Mark Winitz, Intro by Larry Eder

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This article originally appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of American Track & Field. That article was cut from the original 5,000 words to 3650 words. After a discussion with the writer, Mark Winitz, and editor, James Dunaway, I made the executive decision that the originally edited piece, of about 4,400 words, gave the reader a bit more insight into the people who are running your sport.

Mark Winitz is one of our longest enduring writers. The relationship between a publisher and his editor and his writers is an evolving one. Let's just say that, Mark has taught me much more than I have taught him. His obvious love of the sport is seen in all of his writing. But it more than that. Mark Winitz understands the relationship between writer and reader. It is, using my words, a sacred trust. You, the reader, in reading our publications, blogs, website, demand that our team of journalists do their very best to give you the complete story. The nuances, the subtrefuge, the complexity that makes us human can be revealed best, by someone who understands their subject and most of all observes their subject. 

Mark Winitz is a sports journalist. He has spent most of his adult life honing his craft, developing his skill. We are much the better for his devotion. 

Mark Winitz and I had several pointed discussions on this article. He felt that you the reader, should see the piece, unabridged, and in all of it's complexity. Mark was right. It took my taking some time to reread his piece in order to put it in front of you.

So, here is the approved version of Mark Winitz feature on the USATF board. Please pass it around, and remember, the board is meeting this weekend, June 25-26, in Eugene, Oregon to discuss many topics, among them, finding a new CEO.

I am only sorry I took so much time to republish this piece as Mark Winitz saw fit.  

USA Track & Field

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Version 2   February 24, 2011


The Future of Track and Field in America

Here's How Six USATF Board Members See It

by Mark Winitz




    
    What's the future of American track and field? Is it flourishing, or dying?
    According to the latest National Federation of State High School Associations survey, outdoor track and field was the number one sport among high school girls nationally in 2009-2010 with almost 470,000 participants, and the second largest for boys (572,123 participants) behind football. And outdoor track and field gained more participants in 2009-2010 than any other high school sport. On the roads, according to Running USA, in 2009 there were approximately 10 million U.S. road race finishers, a record. That sounds pretty healthy.

    But many critics contend that in the last 25 years, track and field has lost its public face as a major American sport. In addition, governance at the highest levels has faced rocky territory--and plenty of criticism--over the past several years. A 2009 USOC-mandated restructuring of USA Track & Field cut USATF's Board of Directors from 31 members to 15, leaving many of track's diverse constituencies feeling they had no voice at the sport's highest level.

    Last September, barely two years after his hiring, Doug Logan, the track federation's "new" CEO, was abruptly released by the Board amidst concerns that he was not performing up to the demands of the job. A new CEO should be named this Spring.

    Sometimes overlooked by critics is the fact that USATF has recently made some significant strides forward:
 
•    In February, 2009, a "Project 30" Task Force issued a 69-page report that analyzed Team USA performance in Beijing and set a course for programmatic change to maximize Team USA performance in future Olympic and World Championship competitions. USATF subsequently hired a Chief of Sports Performance and a Director of Coaching, and rolled out a new High Performance Action Plan.

•    A joint USATF-Nike venture is scheduled to spend approximately $8 million dollars during its 8-year term to support athletes with medal-winning potential for the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

•    In December, 2009, USATF announced a new strategic plan, outlining its mission, vision and strategies through 2012. Although the plan has been criticized for lack of detail (such as accountability and timelines for carrying out strategic objectives and programs), USATF's Board and the Board's subcommittees are using it as their guide for action (you can see the plan at: www.usatf.org/about/committees/BoardOfDirectors/strategicPlan.asp
 
•    USATF's USA Distance Project has grown to 10 distance training centers nationwide to help develop world-class American marathoners and distance stars. More than 50% of the top 100 U.S. distance runners train at these centers.

    In addition, the USA Track & Field Foundation, created in 2002 to financially support USATF programs and athletes, has become an important factor in the development of world-class athletes, annually distributing (via the generosity of a small group of passionate USATF members) almost a half a million dollars every year to important causes within our sport.

    To help American Track & Field readers get to know more about USATF's Board of Directors, we interviewed six of the 15 members--selected from a cross-section of backgrounds and experiences-- and asked each to describe their personal top three priorities for USATF, and for the sport in general.

Jack Wickens
USATF Board Vice Chairman, Board Business Development Committee Chair
    Jack Wickens, is a retired executive of a $20 billion health care services and insurance company. In 2005 he joined the USA Track & Field Foundation board. Today Wickens leads the Foundation's elite athlete and grant programs and recently launched a career-mentoring and job-search assistance program for athletes as they transition out of track and field. He has a B.A. in Economics from Bucknell University, where he ran track and cross country.

Wickens' Comments
    I'll confidently go on record and say that we'll look back on 2011 as the beginning of a breakthrough era for our sport, for fans, and for athletes.
    Priority A:  Find common ground among track and field's many constituent groups. Our sport is complex with many constituencies and different events; there is a lot of fragmentation. If we can bring people together--particularly key constituents such as volunteer leaders, etc.--and create new forums to exchange ideas, and listen better, then our new CEO will be able to simplify the focus that is created by common ground. My guess is that the "noise" our organization tends to have is mostly about the fact that there aren't avenues for folks to express what I think are very common goals that we can all get behind. I have confidence in the pervasive spirit of "let's lock arms and work together to advance this sport" that can come from the many talented volunteers and business people in our sport.
    Priority B:  Give the presentation of our sport a dramatic face-lift. I have friends who I ran with in college who have drifted away from the sport. They could be lifelong devotees, but they don't know when it's on TV, or who the stars are. We haven't made it easy for people who, I think, are fairly easy fan opportunities. They should be our initial target: bring back the former passionate fans. Winning general sports is a tougher goal. It will take longer.
    In 2011 and thereafter, fans can anticipate upgrades in how our major meets are depicted on TV, as well as much more promotion of when meets will be televised. This also means exploration of new ways to engage our fans (and create new fans) via TV such as new shows that profile our athletes, their fascinating life stories, and their quest to become Olympians.
    Fans can also anticipate experimentation with new ways to bring the sport to the public--adding single-event "festival" formats, such as a family-friendly "Festival of Titans" that would showcase our strength and throwing events, and engage kids in creative ways. In another area, the leaders of Road Runners Club of America, Running USA, USATF, and the USATF Foundation are working together on a nation-wide project we're calling "Discover Running" to promote and expand our sport's impact on youth fitness in America.
    Priority C:  Turn on corporate America to track and field. Acquire more business partners and more revenue to fully act on the many actions and ideas that have been developed. Our sport presents a compelling value proposition for companies seeking to attach their brand to (1) health and fitness role models, (2) inspiring quests of maximum human performance, (3) the purity of competitions between the world's fastest, strongest, and most gutsy athletes, and (4) the beauty and maturity of our athletes. We are a very cool sport that up to this point has been weakly packaged and marketed.
    In 2011, major corporations and their brand managers will get a deep education about what our sport has to offer. We've started these conversations with at least 25 companies from many industry sectors--not just shoe companies--about potential sponsorship, and we're just getting started.
        For example, the health care industry is a multi-trillion dollar sector in our economy, but there is little penetration into our sport by health care companies. Yet, track and field is a perfect match for them. I see this as our biggest opportunity. Coming from the health care industry, I can get appointments with the right people, and I plan to.

Dr. Evie Dennis
USATF Board Member, Member USATF Board's Audit Committee and Personnel Committee
    Dr. Evie Dennis is a former Superintendent of Denver Public Schools, and a member of the USATF National Track & Field Hall of Fame. She has served USATF in numerous capacities over the past four decades. In 1980, she played a key role in organizing The Athletics Congress (now USATF), and served as TAC's acting president. She was chef de mission for the USOC delegation at the 1988 Olympic Games, and currently serves as a USATF delegate to the IAAF and as Chair of USATF's Diversity and Leadership Committee.

Dennis' Comments
    Priority A:  Continue to grow the sport and involve more grassroots constituents. This is particularly important as schools cut back physical education programs. I envision USATF filling this void-- if we could have active age-group programs in every USATF Association, which we don't have right now. I haven't figured out how we can do this yet. I need help from our members to think this through. When I was Superintendent of Schools in Denver, the Board wanted to explore cutting Physical Education. Of course, I said "no way." We need to get kids away from the TV because we're growing a bunch of couch potatoes. I see USATF getting involved at the elementary and high school levels to fix this. Again, I don't have specific ideas on how to do this. I feel that it would be helpful if we had a presence in Washington, D.C. so we could talk to government officials about our track and field programs that benefit people from cradle to grave. We need to spread the word, and I don't think we do it well enough.
    Priority B:  Build our base of USATF certified officials. Our current officials are aging and younger people don't seem to want, or have the time, to get involved. Our officials are tremendously dedicated volunteers. We need to look at ways to keep our officials' programs going and entice new people to come in. We can do this with creative thinking.
    Priority C:  Cultivate a common goal, or goals, for our sport that transcend our various constituent groups. We've documented some of these goals in our strategic plan, but we need to focus on these goals all the way down to the USATF Associations. Some Associations are doing a great job with superb programs, while others are doing almost nothing. We need to somehow transfer the knowledge, enthusiasm, and activism cultivated by the active Associations to the Associations that don't have it. Perhaps, we could do more through our current Association workshops.

Steve Miller
USATF Board Member, Board Competition Committee Chair
    Steve Miller is CEO of Agassi Graf Holdings and Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, and also the Executive Chairman of the Board for Power Plate International. He previously served as President and CEO of the Professional Bowlers Association, Director of Global Sports Marketing (among other capacities) for Nike, adjunct professor at the University of Oregon Warsaw School of Sports Marketing, and Director of Athletics for Kansas State University. He has more than two decades' experience as a high school and collegiate track and cross country coach, and is a five-time NCAA Coach of the Year.

Miller's Comments
    Priority A:  Run our sport in a more businesslike fashion. Over the years track and field has lost the ability to understand the business ramifications of its decisions related to events, how you communicate with the public, sponsorships, and internal communication--important business functions that we've lost. Without the appropriate communication platforms, we can't be a successful business.
    Running our sport more efficiently doesn't mean that business has to be cold and hard. If done properly, it can be done effectively and humanely. We have a diverse group of individuals in track and field that is not convinced that we share a common goal. Over the years, our constituent groups have grown farther apart because they see their mission and objectives as singular to their entity. The result is a lack of unanimity and bad clarity about what we're trying to accomplish. In any good business there are a few absolute goals and objectives that each of the constituent groups are looking to fulfill as best they can.
    Priority B:  Have strong, communicative, and intelligent leadership. Without this leadership you can't communicate effectively, and you certainly can't get constituents to join together. The only time we bring our diverse people together is at USATF's annual national conventions. We don't find ways to vest these people in the process, and the only way that you can do this is through strong leadership--collaborative rather than dictatorial. Through collaboration, you can run a more effective business. If you don't have collaboration, you have all the separate parts, but are missing a common goal--which we desperately need in track and field because of its diversity. If our leaders can coalesce and amalgamate our constituents, and provide a clear and common message, then we have a chance at being successful.
    Priority C:  Achieve economic stability. This lack of economic stability forces us to make short-term decisions that are not good for the business. To achieve economic stability, we must create a value proposition. Other sports, most recently the NFL, do things in a particular way (to achieve economic stability) because they have very specific goals and objectives in this area. In track and field, we have a large membership base. Economically, this membership base alone isn't going to get us the money we want. However, it does give us a national imprint. It means that we have a bunch of people that say 'I want to be part of this and I'm a consumer.' So, you make this consumption valuable to sponsors.
    We need a consistent TV presence. Today, you don't know what meets are on TV, or what channel they're on. You have no consistent programming, no "appointment television." Appointment television means that every Tuesday night with my family I'm going to watch a specific show that I know will be aired at a specific time.
    We have no valuable, major global events. As a result, we have very little aspirational value in our overall program to engage sponsors or the general public. Does everybody know who America's top sprinters or distance runners are? Each of our sport's individual groups understand it, and a small cadre of others understand, but we have not invested in the platforms--the showcases--that give us opportunities to talk about what we do. When is the last time the U.S. hosted a world championship? When is the last time the U.S. hosted other kinds of major championships that brought together global and national stars? When is the last time we created a value proposition that, collectively, we've been able to take to prospective sponsors--and tell them that we have X number of consumers, access to X number of event opportunities, and we want you to participate?
    So, the bottom line for creating economic stability is not just based on simply visiting prospective sponsors. It's creating a value proposition. What is the value of our membership? What is the value of our constituent groups? What is the value from events? What is the value of our young athletes going out and speaking in front of crowds? Without a strong value proposition that includes TV, on-site spectators, athlete success, commercialization, etc., you can never gain economic stability. You can't count on major sponsors every year to bail you out.
    So, get the constituent groups together so they recognize that collectively they have more power and more value than they do individually. The beauty of track and field is that it has a world-class side, a competitive non-world-class side, a recreational side, and a lifelong health side. But we don't promote this collectively. As a result, our value proposition is too broken up and no one sees it in total.

    Max Siegel
USATF Board Member, Board Operations Committee Chair
    Max Siegel is the CEO of The 909 Group LLC, a sports, entertainment and lifestyle marketing firm. He also practices law with Baker & Daniels in Indianapolis, with clients such as the Seattle Mariners, USA Gymnastics, USA Swimming, and NCAA. A leading NASCAR consultant, Max is the former President of Global Operations for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., a former executive with the Sony BMG/ Zomba Label Group, and a cum laude graduate of the University of Notre Dame School of Law.

Siegel's Comments
    Priority A:  Position the brand and the sport to create value and attract commercial targets. Creating value isn't just about marketing and visibility. It's really about return on an investment. One thing we've been doing is an assessment of our assets and coming up with campaigns that resonate with audiences. Track is a diverse sport. You can hit the health care sector, the female/minority demographic, etc. There are so many constituencies that are part of my idea of how we present the brand. In addition, track and field is a lifestyle sport. It's an international brand that is integrated in our lifestyle. It doesn't matter if you're an elite athlete, a race walker, or a youngster. Everything that you do has a health benefit and everyone can participate in it. So, I'm passionate about making sure that USATF develops grass-roots programs that resonate in communities, and that we develop media properties so sponsors can get returns by being involved.
    Besides doing this type of type of programming, USATF also needs to closely look at how it presents competitions on TV. Today's economy dictates that programming be directed at the grassroots devotees. This is the kind of programming that makes sense to appropriate commercial sponsors because it has the potential for a large viewer audience. Much of what I do with NASCAR relates to youth education--science, math, technology, and engineering as it relates to race cars. We also have a fitness program. These are the kinds of things that corporations and government agencies can get behind while adding value to their brand, and sending a message to the community.
        Priority B:  Increase USATF's available resources by bringing in new commercial partners and sponsors. But we need to do the first piece (position the brand) right before we can do this one. Human resources, program partners, and financial resources are all critically important. Part of my goal for the Board's Operations Committee is that we have the necessary resources in place to execute our business objectives in our strategic plan.
        Priority C:  Improve our service to the sport's constituency base. Galvanize this base, set some obtainable goals, and figure out what is needed to achieve them. At the grassroots level, whether it's masters or youth, we need to hear what the constituents want to accomplish. This constituent base needs to be unified in voicing the goals they want to achieve. In the end, the ability to achieve these goals will come down to financial resources and the manpower to execute them. If you have fragmented grass-roots programs that aren't tied into a broad, well-defined return on investment, it becomes even harder to secure financial resources.
    I believe in our constituents' creativity and autonomy in their respective areas, but they need to be tied into the support of a national resource to assist with finances. People and organizations have responsibilities in their own communities and they are passionate about making their programs in their home space successful. I've found that you can show these organizations that working together collectively moves their individual agendas forward in a very effective manner. And, if constituents feel like they are adding value to the table, the more they will seek out the national office and try to bring them into the process.

Robert Hersh
USATF Board Member, IAAF Representative, and Member of Board's Audit and Competition Subcommittees
    Robert Hersh is one of the most recognized names, and voices, in international track and field. In 2007, he was elected as one of four Vice Presidents of the IAAF and was also appointed as Chairman of the IAAF Competition Commission. Mr. Hersh is a retired attorney who has worked as the English-speaking announcer at the Olympic Games and IAAF World Championships. Mr. Hersh served as a member of the IAAF Technical Committee from 1984 until 1999, when he was elected to the Council. He has served on the board of USATF and its predecessor organization, TAC, in various capacities since its formation in 1980. He also volunteered his services as General Counsel of the federation from 1989 to 1997.

Hersh's Comments
        It's difficult to isolate three priorities. We have our strategic plan, which has six major visions, and they are all important. We need to continue what we've been doing, and do some things better. We've created a federation that has great strengths, and we can be proud of it in many ways. Let me give you several of my priorities, none of which are in priority order.
    Priority A:  Support our high school and college communities as they undergo economy-related challenges. The great strength of this country is that we have over a million high school kids doing track and field and cross country annually. For the sport's participation base and competitive orientation, this is where it starts--with USATF's youth programs and the nation's school programs. Today, there are school districts that are asking: Do we keep our track coach or keep our chemistry lab open? Do we buy a discus or do we buy a flute? All these things are important. We need to make sure that our educational communities and governments are aware of the importance of track and field--not because we want to produce medals, but because it is good for kids, and the general population, to be participating in sports. We have a childhood obesity crisis and cultural elements that are centered on sedentary activities.
    Traditionally, this hasn't been something that the federation has had to think about much. We need to organize our USATF national office and Association resources so that when an economic crisis related to track and field happens at a school or university we are in a position to assist. I think we have the resources within the organization to form a task force or committee that can figure out what we can do to accomplish this.
    Priority B:  Grow USATF's revenue base. This might be our number one priority. One of the problems we've had in recent years has been a lack of growth of our sponsorship base. We have very good relations with our existing sponsors, but we have lost a couple. There are whole sponsor categories, some of which we've had in the past, that we don't have now. We're not alone in this. The IAAF has lost sponsors, too, over a long period of years. Today's sports marketing is challenging, and today's economy doesn't make it any easier. I believe in the value of our sport, and I believe we ought to be able to present a good value proposition to prospective sponsors more successfully than we have recently.
    On the plus side: Historically, the federation never conducted serious fund raising among individual, private donors, but we're doing it now through the USATF Foundation.
    Priority C:  Restore confidence in USATF that has been lost by some of our constituents--coaches, athletes, and volunteers. We have some great support programs, but we haven't always carried them out, or communicated them, as well as we could. We have an opportunity now, with new leadership, to restore this confidence, and build on our record of success. We have the organizational structure and culture that is right for supporting athletes and coaches. We've developed valuable programs for athletes and coaches, and we need to continue to fine tune them.
    Priority D:  Be our very best when presenting the sport to the public. Back in the 1980's, I was on a task force charged with examining the way the sport was presented on television and to make recommendations. The presentation of the sport on television still needs improvement. We need to look at it and do what we can to improve it.
    Also, we need to understand the new media and use them optimally. I'm not sure that we are doing that right now. How do we reach the kids and teens who are growing up with these new media? We need to be on top of this to get the young generation engaged. It's difficult, because emerging media is a moving target. We can also do a better job about the way events are presented in the stadium.
    We also need to sell our sport to the people who can sell it to others--to print and online media, bloggers, etc. This is a challenge. I'll give you an example: When USA Today runs a track and field story, it's under the subject "Olympic Sports." Do they do this with boxing, basketball, or tennis stories? No. Also, there are newspapers who aren't covering track and field at all, or not covering it the way they used to.

Deena Kastor
USATF Board Member, Member of Board's Budget & Finance and Business Development Committees
    Deena Kastor is one of only two American women ever to medal in the Olympic marathon. She was the 2004 Olympic Games bronze medalist, and is the American record holder, at this distance. Deena is a three-time Olympian, two-time World Cross Country Championships silver medalist, a five-time USA 10,000m champion and the former American record holder in that event, a six-time USA 15 km champion, and seven-time national cross country champion.

Kastor's Comments
    There are so many facets of this sport, and so many pieces are being moved simultaneously, that to narrow our strategy down to the top three priorities is almost impossible. Since I'm on the Budget Committee and Business Development Committee within the Board of Directors I can very briefly share a few of the visions we have for the coming year and the next quadrennial
    Priority A:  Create more revenue for USATF.
    Priority B:  Create more events. We look forward to working with our CEO to create new flagship events for our athletes, but also to include youth and disabled athletes.
    Priority C:  Broaden our fan and participation bases.
    Our present media model isn't packaged in a flattering way, so we'll look to recreate a brand that excites our fans and entices new viewers. The national office has restructured the USATF website so it's more user-friendly. We'll also look at using innovative media outlets to attract more fans to our sport.
    There is no reason USA Track & Field shouldn't be at the forefront of the health and wellness movement in our country. We need to make running, jumping and throwing easily accessible to all of our youth so that we not only have greater participation in high school, college and on a professional level, but also so we can reverse the current epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Since our sport doesn't have socio-economic barriers, it should be the most relatable and fan-friendly sport in our country and have the most participation.

MARK WINITZ is a longtime writer for AMERICAN TRACK & FIELD. He sits on USATF's national Men's Long Distance Running Executive Committee and Law & Legislation Committee. He also sits on Pacific Association/USATF's Board of Athletics and is a Certified USATF Master Level Official/Referee.


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