Next to the London Olympics, perhaps America's biggest track-and-field news story of 2012 has come from Iowa.
The 104-year-old Drake Relays, long a major feature of the early outdoor track season, has signed a new major sponsor, Hy-Vee supermarkets. According to a spokesperson, Hy-Vee has made a five-year commitment, which for 2013 involves approximately $500,000 for prize money in track-and-field events, plus a 90-minute ESPN telecast, $120,000 in road-race prize money, and other activities. The meet, which shares the last weekend of April with the Penn Relays, has signed an impressive lineup of elite athletes, including 16 London medalists so far and more expected.
The new presenting sponsor, Hy-Vee, is an employee-owned eight-state grocery chain headquartered in West Des Moines, Iowa, with 235 stores in Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Its 60,000 employees and more than $17 billion in annual sales make it one of the 50 largest privately owned companies in the United States.
Perhaps the most eye-catching feature of this year's Hy-Vee Relays sponsorship is a series of "London Games Rematch" events which will pit 2012 Olympic gold medalists against the finalists they defeated in London. They will compete for prize money of $50,000 for each Rematch track event ($25,000, $15,000 and $10,000), and $25,000 ($12,000, $8,000 and $5,000) for each Rematch field event, with as many as 10 events possibly involved (compared with the U. S.Olympic Trials payouts of $4,000 for each winner and a total of $12,000 per event).
One top Rematch race will be the men's 110-meter hurdles, with gold medalist and world record holder Aries Merritt, silver medalist Jerome Richardson and Jamaica's bronze medalist Hansle Parchment - all confirmed entrants -- plus five other top hurdlers, all eligible to win the money if they finish in the top three on Drake's fast blue track.
The full list of Rematch events has not been announced, but among other London gold medalists confirmed are pole vaulters Jenn Suhr and Renaud Lavillenie, long jumper Brittney Reese, and men's 400 hurdler Felix Sanchez. And probably many other stars and their agents will be calling up meet director Brian Brown to ask if there's an open lane. In fact, says Brown, "That's already happening, and it's very refreshing."
The 90-minute tape-delayed telecast is scheduled for Saturday evening prime time, April 27, 8-9:30 p.m. Eastern, 7-8:30 Central, etc. on ESPN2.
Hy-Vee has long used sports as an advertising and promotional tool in its eight-state marketing area. The company's current activities include sponsorship of both of Kansas City's major league teams, the Royals in baseball and the Chiefs in football, the annual Hy-Vee Triathlon in Des Moines, which features the world's highest prize money, and "Iron Kids" Triathlons in more than a dozen Midwestern markets, to name just a few.
"It'll elevate everything we do in terms of the types of elite athletes we draw," Brown said. "So far the commitments we're already garnered suggest the elite stars will come and compete for what we're offering."
Brown added, "To have a local company as strong as Hy-Vee take interest in this community event is win-win for them and win-win for us. We're really proud of the partnership."
The Relays sponsorship reportedly grew out of an ongoing relationship between Drake and Hy-Vee, which for example donated $300,000 last spring for a student learning commons, and which has already sponsored some of the road races which are a part of the Relays.
USATF, which has worked for several years with the Penn Relays to produce the USA vs. the World relay series, sees the sponsorship as a plus.
"It's great news for the sport," said spokesperson Jill Geer. "We need more companies devoting resources and overall support to advance and elevate the sport and our athletes. Drake and Penn have long coexisted, and both meets will continue to thrive and grow."