WSJ outs USATF and the upcoming battle with TFAA, what we should learn from this crisis, by Larry Eder

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Jordan Hasay, Gabe Grunewald, Carlsbad 5000m, photo by PhotoRun.net

The Wall Street Journal's Sara Germano did a thoughtful piece on the recent TFAA request for support from athlete sponsors regarding their possible actions in response to what TFAA sees is the lack of genuine interest from USA Track & Field to respond to, among other things, the disqualification of Andy Bumbalough. 

The Albuquerque weekend, where Gabe Grunewald was DQed, then reinstated, after a huge swell of support, and Jordan Hasay, showing her class, gave up her place for Sopot and the World Champs, so that Gabe could race. Max Siegel's resolution of the matter showed that the USATF CEO could rise to the occasion, and sooth ruffled feathers and, if the need be. 

The resolution was bittersweet. No feel good resolution happened for Andy Bumbalough who was DQed in the men's 3,000 meters. The DQ, which, upon observation of the event video,  seems to have been done in error, has not been resolved. The race was rough, that is true, but go to a race in Europe, any weekend of the year, and you will see much worse. 

TFAA demanded a response. Bumbalough's agent demanded a response. USATF responded that they were studying the situation, after canceling a conference call between TFAA and USATF. Then, President Stephanie Hightower responded that there was a need to study the situation and see how to change protocols so that the ABQ fiasco would not happen again. 

TFAA took that, as a snub. I think it might have been a bit imperious, but not sure if it was a snub. It was not, playing well with others, as Sister Edward Mary, my first grade teacher would have noted. 

With that seeming lack of response, TFAA has become incensed and wrote a letter asking sponsors to support an organized action against USA Track & Field.

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Andrew Bumbalough, 2014 USA Indoor, photo by PhotoRun.net 




In the WSJ story, Ms. Germano notes that Brooks Running Shoe, owned by Bershire Hathaway and Saucony Running, owned by Wolverine Worldwide have come out in support of the TFAA, while Nike has not responded. (It should be noted that, if Nike employees speak to media on any subjects without a public relations team member there, it is grounds for dismissal.)

Ms. Germano quotes Jim Weber of Brooks and Mark Bossardet of Saucony. Both make points about the athletes and the need for changes in the sport. I bet, if you were able to speak to Nike, ASICS, adidas, New Balance sports marketers, they would say much the same. For a sport so many love, there is a lot of frustration over its current predicaments. 

The theme is this: there have been issues rising between TFAA and USA Track & Field for some time. The Albuquerque fiasco was just the icing on the cake. No wonder most global observers think the sport in the US is the poor step child of the global sport. Truth is, we have more meets, more athletes, more top performances, but also much of it is poorly run, poorly organized and poorly funded. In a sport that should be the center piece of the cutting health costs through running, jumping and throwing, we are battling for time and sponsors with professional walleye fishing.  

The sport is fighting with every other sport for marketing dollars, fans' eyeballs and television money and most of all time. If your sport is not on TV, and web TV, and streaming TV are wonderful, but they are not terrestrial, huge access TV, then, in the sports world, one does not exist. Truth is, most fight better for dollars than we do. Sad thing is, our athletes are fantastic, articulate and have great stories. But, without advertiser interest, outside of the vertical media (that means pubs, sites and social media like RunBlogRun, FloTrack, Track & Field News, RunningNetwork, Runners World), there is little interest from local media. 

Do me a favor. 

If you have a pro Golf event, NASCAR, pro sporting event in town, go through the sports section and see how many pagers are covered with those stats and stories. Now, also look at the advertisers: wow, some companies actually support their sports sponsorships? One of the biggest weaknesses is that, in our sport, most events rely on free promotions or just expect people to show up. 

Part of what killed the Millrose Games in Madison Square Gardens was not the length of the meets, it was not the less than 200 meter track, but the ending of advance promotion of the meet, such as ticket sales. Up until the mid 1980s, Millrose Game tickets were promoted and sold nearly a year out from the meet. It was a tradition. Events such as Millrose, in order to save money, just put off those direct mailings, and relied on last minute ticket sales. Doing everything one could to discourage attendance, like moving established events from a Friday to a Saturday night, and not promoting events with large lead times, has killed events in our sport. Break forty year traditions and you can kill an event almost overnight. 

So, play along with me. Let's play, if Larry were track czar for a week. Here is what I would do: 

1. If I were approaching this conundrum, I would operate a bit differently. I would host a cocktail party, and invite one representative of EVERY footwear brand and major Olympic sponsor, as well as TFAA key players, managers and agents, and USATF. While Nike is the major sponsor of our sport, and should be respected for that, the other brands, who spend money and significant to their sales and sizes, need a seat at the table as well. Get to know the players, that is key. 

2. The next day, three sessions, morning, afternoon, and evening. Morning Session: What does the sport have?  Break up time for Track & Field and the time up for Road Running. Afternoon session: What does the sport not have? and third session, What does the sport need, and how do we get it? Get Bill Schmidt, former impessario of Gatorade, to sit down, and explain what you need to do to play the global game. Schmidt put Gatorade on the map, and as an Olympic medalist (bronze, 1972, javelin) and former college coach, Bill gets it. 

3. I would also invite key print (yes, print), web, TV, and social media players, not only our sport, but also Deadspin, WSJ, Rolling Stone, CNN, among others and give them, one day with our ten top men and women stars, all in one place. Fifteen minutes with each athlete, and we will provide video, audio, text support. Get the word out, show our talents. 

4. I would work a deal with the IAAF and USATF to give the rights of all IAAF champs to a network, for a piece of the ad pie. Get them on, consistently. Promote the series six months out, not days or hours. . I would find a place to do second showings of the events, so that, whatever device you have, you can watch our sport 24/7. Creating a habit, behavioral scientists will tell you, takes 28 days. Build a series over two to three months, at the very least. If we can not get all rights, then build a thirty minute show, once a week, with highlights of great performances, interviews, historic geek moments. Promote it, everywhere. 

5. My final play for the hearts and minds of marketers is goofy, but , I believe, terribly effective. I would ask three top women athletes and three top men, to take a day and sign 20 tshirts each. I would send them to our 20 key marketing targets with a personalized t-shirt, video and note, asking them to consider sponsoring our sport. George Hirsch, former publisher of Runners' World, once told me a story about how he closed a key advertiser by getting the guy, a millionaire, a simple Runner magazine t-shirt.  It is the simple things, those that we can actually do, that are the most effective. 

6. And then, at our nationals, I would invite the top reps from footwear companies, and our 20 marketing targets, and wine and dine them for three days. We ask them one thing, to give us thirty minutes to hear a pitch on the sport. Not from USA Track & Field, but from the shoe representatives, on why they are bullish about the sport. 

The funny thing is, we have all of the assets. We have great athletes, we have a historic and exciting sport. We are all fighting for crumbs, when, with some forethought and cooperation, we could be sharing a much bigger pie. 


Last weekend, I was in Copenhagen for the 2014 IAAF AL-Bank World Half Marathon Championship. The IAAF has the message loud and clear. Put their championships in situations where major road events can be held as well. Road Racing and Track & Field can support each other and thrive with each other. If planned well. 

Until we get USATF, TFAA, key sponsors on same table, however, nothing will change. 

And that is what scares me about the sport I love. 

Here is the story by Sara Germano of the Wall Street Journal: 

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