Toni Reavis, one of the most thoughtful and humorous commentators on our sport gave a keynote talk at the 2008 Road Race Management Convention last weekend in Florida. I asked Toni to send his notes and please read and re read.
I see Toni Reavis as the Demosthenes of road running. He writes too infrequently, and his opinions are so honest one sometimes needs to take a deep breath to soak it all in. His humor, his observations create an under painting of someone who truly loves the sport and is walking the finish lines across the globe, looking for honest men and women to share his passion and help change the sport he loves….
ROAD RACE MANAGEMENT RACE DIRECTORâ€™S MEETING
HOLLYWOOD, FLORIDA â€“ NOVEMBER 8, 2008
KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY TONI REAVIS
â€œKIDS AND HEROES: A CALL TO INSPIREâ€
I have been fortunate to have been involved in the sport of running for over 30 years. A sport that is so basic and grounding that no matter what we donâ€™t have in common, this one thing transcends all that may divide us, linking us in our common humanity.
I moved to Boston in August of 1974. Then saw my first Boston Marathon the following spring when Bill Rodgers ran his first American record 2:09:55. For someone from St. Louis, Missouri the Boston Marathon was beyond anything I had ever experienced, and it made an enormous impression on me.
By that time I had gotten into the broadcast business as a newsman – because everyone told me â€œyou sound like you are on the radioâ€, and in 1976 I met Bill Rodgers socially when friends of mine began running. A year later I convinced my news director to let me cover the Boston Marathon, because I knew Bill, and he was going to win.
Well, Bill didnâ€™t win. It was a hot year, and he dropped out as Canadaâ€™s Jerome Drayton captured the olive wreath. But afterwards I realized I liked being around those runners â€“ even Drayton – a lot more than I enjoyed interviewing politicians, crooks, cops, and business people. So I borrowed some money from my father – a task in itself since his usual reply to a monetary request was, â€œWhen we fly from the nest, we fly aloneâ€. Notwithstanding, I bought time on a local radio station and on May 24, 1977 the Runnerâ€™s Digest hit the airwaves, the first radio show in the country devoted exclusively to distance running.
This was at the time of what came to be known as the first Running Boom, after the
idealism of the Sixties had crashed beneath the accumulated weight of Vietnam,
Watergate, and the onset of adult responsibilities. So my generation, perhaps
unconsciously, turned inward toward changing what we could, ourselves, rather than
trying to alter society at large. Yet, over time, our combined efforts have indeed done
much to change the world as the fitness revolution continues to spread to every corner of
Today, running has never been healthier, from the number of events, to the size of
fields, to the level of charity fund raising. Yet within that healthy body their exists an
overlooked, chronic problem, what Cellcom Green Bay Marathon race director Sean
Ryan called the paradigm shift away from competition to participation. Ironic, too,
because it was a competition that inspired the fitness movement in the first place, Frank Shorterâ€™s gold medal run at the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich. Then with Bill Rodgersâ€™ pied piper performances at the Boston and New York City Marathons from 1975 to 1980 the running movement boomed out across the land. Alberto Salazar and Joan Benoit came next in the early 1980s. But following Joanâ€™s American record at the 1985 Chicago Marathon we had unknowingly hit our apogee.
As the open era began and money came into the sport in the early 1980s ending once and for all our shamateur past – amateurism, after all, had been conceived in the Victorian era to segregate sport along social and economic lines â€“ so, too, did the worldâ€™s athletes begin migrating to the American roads. At first the infusion of foreign athletes was a welcome spice to the American-dominated fields. But when our first professional race circuit, ARRA (the Association of Road Race Athletes) turned from an athlete-founded organization to a race director led body, appearance money â€“ a needed deception in the amateur era – was replaced by prize money, and in the exchange events lost control of their fields.
Rather than orchestrating fields for competitive balance, and media attraction, race
directors simply put the prize purse on the line and waited to see who showed up. It
certainly removed a big responsibility, but it also made advancing an event to the media and sponsors impossible. At the same time athletes were under no requirement to do anything other than run fast. There was no contractual obligation to assist in the promotion of the events.
The end result has been an increasingly stagnant racing environment geared toward local events and the developing world athletes for whom the meager paydays in an American market translated into life-transforming financial success back home.
At the 1981 Cascade Run-Off 15K in Portland, Oregon, the first prize money race of the open era, Greg Meyer and Anne Audain (New Zealand) won $10,000 for their respective victories. In todayâ€™s dollars, that $10,000 represents $27,000. Ask yourself how many races today other than marathons pay $25,000 for first place? In remunerative terms our sport has diminished in stature even as the rest of professional sports have continued upping their paydays. Accordingly, the media stopped paying close attention, and instead shifted to stories of cancer patients, and outside stars like Oprah, P. Diddy, and Lance Armstrong.
Presently, we offer just enough money to encourage a cheap labor pool from the
developing world to attend in mass profusion, as they strive to turn their lives and those of their family around. Yet, it isnâ€™t enough money to lure any of the top Americans who more than ever compete on a very limited, selective basis. Even at the marathon level the prize purses descend very quickly after the top prize. This leads to athletes protecting their positions rather than taking chances to bridge up or surge ahead.
As in any market where cheap labor is abundant, costs have remained low. But at what cost to the sport? As long as each race controls its own elite fields once a year, it all seems well and good. But taken together there is no cogency, no coherence, and no attraction from a media or fan standpoint. While we continue to exist in splendid isolation we have created a sport that is considered utterly boring. But it didnâ€™t used to be.
We were once featured on network television. CBS covered the Chicago Marathon in the mid-1980s, and a week later ABC covered New York City with Jim McKay. At the same time Boston was on ESPN live, and I even saw the 1983 Rotterdam Marathon air on CBS with Jack Whitaker, because Alberto Salazar was competing against Carlos Lopes of Portugal.
We used to have runners grace the cover of Sports Illustrated. Bill Rodgers made the
cover twice, Alberto Salazar, Frank Shorter, and of course a host of track and field
athletes like Bruce Jenner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mary Decker-Slaney, Edwin Moses,
Carl Lewis, Dwight Stones, and on. The last time any runner was on the SI cover was
October 4, 2000 when Marion Jones was featured, although it was because her then-
husband C.J. Hunter had been popped for drugs in Sydney. So it wasnâ€™t even
competitively oriented story.
The final insult came this summer when NBC lobbied the IOC to alter the Olympic
schedule in Beijing so gymnastics could be shown live in primetime in the USA, which
required that track and field, the centerpiece of the Olympics, be moved into the morning session where it could be shown on tape delay.
We do have the World Marathon Majors, Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, and New
York City, having just finished their second cycle. But to date they have yet to sell a
single sponsorship. And you have to ask why?
Well, you canâ€™t have a financial services company, not with ING in New York, John
Hancock in Boston, and Bank of America in Chicago. And each event has its own water, shoe, energy bar, pace car, and timing deals, whatâ€™s left? Alcohol, tobacco, and firearms?
â€œGood morning, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the ATF World Marathon Majors.â€
Every sponsorship category has been sold out at the local level. There is no inventory for national or international sales. Accordingly, each of the five World Marathon Majors is still putting up $200,000 of its own money to create the million-dollar bonus pool.
We also still have the PRRO (Professional Road Race Organization) Circuit, the last
vestige of the original ARRA Tour from the 1980s. But with the Worldâ€™s Best 10K run
in February, then the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in April, Lilac Bloomsday 12K in May,
and Peachtree 10K and Utica Boilermaker 15K both in July, there is no calendar
coherence. The same athletes donâ€™t run the circuitâ€™s events, and therefore PRRO has
been unable to award their grand prize for several years.
A generation after competition kick-started the Running Boom, we have allowed a
stagnant competitive model to become so entrenched we have lost contact with the
American sporting public. David Hannah of Houston Marathon fame said it well:
â€œRunning has made an unconscious decision to be a closely held secret.â€
Without anyone tasked to oversee the best interests of the sport at large we are left with Sean Ryanâ€™s paradigm shift from competition to participation. Everything is one-and- done, important enough to be the front-page story in the local newspaper, but not important enough to be mentioned in any other newspaper in the country.
Now let me try to explain why this is not such a good thing, and why we should be trying to do something about it.
I am not proposing change simply because I like competition. I am proposing change to address a growing problem that our sport is uniquely positioned to take on, and in fact has begun to address at the individual event level.
The number of kids taking pills for Type 2 diabetes, the kind most closely linked to
obesity, more than doubled from 2002 to 2005. There has been smaller growth in
depression and high blood pressure. Type 2 diabetes used to be considered adult-onset, but records show kids as young as five being treated with prescription drugs. Experts say that unless kids make major changes in diet and exercise they will be facing lifetimes of illness. And that, in turn, will eventually become a factor in our countryâ€™s competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Studies have shown there is no drug that confers as many benefits as physical exercise, but kids are not compelled by health studies in peer review papers.
At the same time our sport continues to age. In 1980 the average male runner was 34, today he is 40+, and women who once averaged 31 years of age are now 36+. And with our events staged almost exclusively for participation and not for watching or competition, we have zero attraction to the young or the media. And in our country being on TV validates a sport. These days we are seen as no more than a lifestyle for middle- aged people.
Last year one of my best friends, Mike Long, died suddenly of a heart attack. Many of
you knew Mike, the elite athlete coordinator for Elite Racing. I was lucky enough to
travel the world with Mike and witness the love he engendered wherever he went. An
invitation from Mike could change an athleteâ€™s life in a heartbeat.
Mikeâ€™s son, Scott, and his family live in Carlsbad, California just north of San Diego.
Mikeâ€™s two grandsons, Jack and Mike, wanted to run this yearâ€™s Junior Carlsbad while
doing something in honor of their granddad by raising money for the Entoto Foundation, a 501c3 charity Mike helped start two years ago with Elite Racing TV producer Rich Jayne after our many trips to Ethiopia to recruit athletes and film stories for our TV shows. The Entoto Foundation helps bring medical care to Ethiopians who canâ€™t afford it, or have access to it.
Last spring Rich Jayne and I went to the Openheim Pioneer School in Carlsbad with
videos of our trips to Ethiopia to show the kids where past Carlsbad 5000 champions
Tirunesh Dibaba, Meseret Defar, Dejene Birhanu, and Berhane Adere lived and trained.
We also showed them how difficult Ethiopian kids their own age had it terms of
education and health care. Then we challenged them to help raise funds for Entoto
Foundation as they prepped for the Junior Carlsbad.
Also with us that day was former American record holder in the mile, Steve Scott, who
came to talk to the kids about running and training. Two weeks later we returned for an afternoon clinic. This time we came with Steve, Meb Keflizighi, Josh Cox, and Monique Henderson, the 4 X 400 gold medallist. All the kids got tee shirts, we took pictures, signed autographs, and put them through a five-station workout. Then the night before Carlsbad we staged a pasta party at the school.
The kids from OPE school raised over $13,000 for the Entoto Foundation, and we
awarded each of the children who participated certificates of appreciation with an
Ethiopian coin glued to it. When I interviewed them afterwards, asking what they
wanted to be when they grew up, I heard variations on a similar theme form any number of the youngsters.
â€œI want to be a baseball player, because you make a lot of money. Or, I want to be an
Olympic runner, because everyone wants your autograph.â€
And on that playground, those two were of equal value.
We have more and more kids participating in running programs tied to our events
nationwide. But they are all an â€œeveryoneâ€™s a winnerâ€ format. And when everyone is a winner, nobody is winner. You cannot sell kids running as a health issue. That has no soul. But â€œI want to be him!â€ or â€œI want to be her!â€ That does. Think of the effect of Barack Obamaâ€™s victory November 4th, not just to African American children, but to people around the world. That is what a hero can represent.
It is part of our job as an industry to create the hims and her heroes that our kids will want to be like. To do that we need to be a sport, not just an activity.
Challenge yourselves. Donâ€™t take the easy road waiting for the 35 and 40 year-olds to come to you, as they will. Create competitions, even if it is among your local track clubs. Dedicate yourself to getting a sports reporter in your city to cover your race. Go to your regional USATF officials and take on a regional level championship. Contact the RRCA, they, too, have regional and national championships.
We turned the Los Angeles Marathon around five years ago by instituting a Gender
Challenge to offset what had traditionally been very weak elite fields. By having the elite men chase the elite women against a course record differential for a $100,000 bonus, we not only tripled our TV ratings (using the very same second level Kenyan and Russian
athletes, by the way), but lured the first new sponsor to the event in ten years as title to the Challenge.
First, you must define your league. If you are not a World Marathon Major, donâ€™t try to be. Contact events in your region who fit into a coherent schedule with your event, then sign regional level teams to a mini tour that will become a story in your city and theirs as well.
We all know there are de facto race tours out there. In the summer we have Peachtree, Utica Boilermaker, Bix 7, Beach to Beacon 10K, and Falmouth as a natural tour. But each race has itâ€™s own elite athlete coordinator, and we lose the synergy of what would be a mini-tour that followed the exploits of the fields which naturally compete in each of these glamour events. And it has nothing to do with Americans. We just need to get to know whichever athletes are there, and either root for or against them. But we have to get to know them first over an extended period of time.
To get there we have to control our fields by creating requirements of the runners beyond running between point A and point B as fast as they can. If athletes want to take something from the endeavor, i.e. money, then they have to put something into the endeavor, their presence. Linking races creates storylines in all the markets
simultaneously. This is the model for every professional sport in America, all but ours.
By signing athletes to a tour of races, you create rights and responsibilities like pre and post-race interviews, and entrees that arrive in time to allow for promotion. Running fast is only one of the necessities of a modern day professional runner.
This year the LPGA instituted an English speaking requirement for its players, because it understood that it is putting on a show, and they needed athletes who could articulate the nature of their competition before and after the fact. But English speaking really isnâ€™t even the point. There simply has to be an understanding that we live in a competitive marketplace where athletes have media and promotional contributions to make. If we never ask, they will never comply. I donâ€™t blame them for not having done anything to date. I blame the absence of the any requirement.
We also have so many great charities in our sport these days who use running events to raise funds and awareness for their causes. In 2006 charities raised $714 million through running events in the USA, up $49 million from the previous year. But, ask yourself, what do any of these charities have to do with running? Where is the connection other than they see our stages as perfect vehicles for their purposes?
Stop being passive. Become pro-active. I believe childhood obesity should become the running industryâ€™s own cause, because running speaks directly to that issue. But we need heroes to accomplish that. See how the NFL uses its athletes for the United Way its designated cause.
E pluribus unum, out of many one, a credo that says there is strength and advancement in a unified purpose. Yet here we sit as a sport with our multitude of events, entrants, sponsors, and affiliations, and after my 30 years E unibus plurum: out of one we remain many different things.
This decentralization was our strength in our emergence and growth stages, weaving us deeply within the communities we serve. But in these current times I say we can do more together than we can alone. And not to come together would, in fact, we an abrogation of a responsibility we share. Look, we understand from the sport itself that we run better in a pack than we do alone. These industry conferences are valuable because of the critical mass we achieve working with one another. Iâ€™m simply suggesting we take that same synergy and apply it to our events.
A friend of mineâ€™s husband used to be the ad buyer for Coca Cola. And he told me,
â€œToni, running is great. It has a wonderful demographic. But we donâ€™t buy things in
bundles of 5000, 10,000, or 40,000. We buy in the millions. We canâ€™t be taking calls
from 400 individual race directors. Group yourselves together and sell me one thing.â€
The latest NSGA statistics show there are 24 million people who run 50+ days a year. 11 million who run 100 days per year, and nine million who compete in races. USATF is our governing body, and they sell USATF membership at $30 each. My wife is still a competitive masterâ€™s runner, and she has to buy a USATF card each year, for which she receives very little in return. Now look at the AARP. As anyone who has turned 50 knows AARP sends you a temporary card in the mail, then offers you the opportunity to buy in to higher levels of membership for a greater string of benefits.
Why canâ€™t running do something similar? It would require hiring a professional staff to
create then oversee a membership benefits division. But the membership potential is in clear sight, and would be very attractive to a host of businesses looking to tap into this attractive demographic. Then we could offer bronze, silver, and gold membership levels with corresponding benefits and discounts. At present our fragmentation wastes our potential to create opportunities of scale.
As I said before, we have several childrenâ€™s programs in our sport at present. But the one that is most comprehensive is the New York Road Runners Foundation with its Mighty Milers. The program currently serves 50,000 children in 24 states, and in South Africa.
It offers specific class plans for grades 1- 6 which use running to study geography, math, literacy, and English. Tens of thousands of schools in the U.S. would qualify for the free program by filling out an application (http://www.nyrrfoundation.org), and learning immediately if they qualify.
The point is, it makes no sense to reinvent the wheel at every individual event. Use the
foundations that have already been laid to maximize the leverage of our true strength. In
all our industry conferences we constantly try to strengthen the individual event rather
than joining events together.
Heroes inspiring kids is the way our sport can not only create the wellspring for our own
next generation of road runners, but it can pick up the mantel so many school districts
have had to drop due to the shortage of funds for phys ed classes.
I know that real change cannot happen without unity, and that change does not come
from the top down, but from the bottom up. Running as an industry is widespread
enough and mature enough. And we have before us this great challenge, but a wonderful opportunity, as well.
I am here because we have already sold the 35 to 50 year-olds. We believe! Helping
save the next generation is the task before us. I ask that you join together, then join in the fight.
Special thanks to Toni Reavis for his permission to use his speech.
For more on road race management, check http://www.rrm.com
For more on our sport, please check http://www.runningnetwork.com