USATF Aims at New Heights
Max Siegel, USATF Chief Executive Officer and Jill Geer, USATF Chief Public Affairs Officer
(Part 2 in a multi-part series)
Max Siegel became the fourth CEO of USA Track & Field on May 1, 2012–just three months before the Olympic Games in London–after serving on the organization’s board from 2009 to 2011 and as a marketing consultant for the federation. The board voted unanimously to hire Siegel after two CEO searches that took place over a period of 16 months.
Siegel has worked in various executive capacities in the sports and entertainment fields for more than 20 years, with a record of innovation, consistent financial growth, and competitive success. His additional Olympic-family experience includes sitting on the board of the USA Swimming Foundation, work with USA Gymnastics, USA Skiing, and the Goodwill Games while he was an attorney with Indianapolis-based Baker & Daniels in the 1990s. He is a cum laude graduate of the University of Notre Dame School of Law.
Last November, at USATF’s Annual Meeting, Siegel announced nine “Smart Goals” upon which the federation will direct its focus (see sidebar). In May, we discussed several of these goals, among other topics, in an interview with the CEO. Jill Geer, USATF’s Chief Public Affairs Officer, sat in on the discussion and provided background information and further insights. Geer, who joined USATF’s national office in 2000, oversees USATF’s integrated marketing and communications department, with responsibility over communications, marketing, broadcasting and membership marketing. She serves as the organization’s spokesperson and adviser to the CEO and Board of Directors. Here’s the interview.
Q: Max, can we begin by discussing some of the details of your ‘Smart Goals’ for USATF that you rolled out at the organization’s 2012 annual meeting? Your first goal?
To increase USATF’s membership in 2013 by 20 percent.
Q: From your perspective, what benefits can USATF can offer – now or in the future – to attract new members? Participation in high school track and field and in road racing has steadily been on the rise. How can you encourage these participants to want to become members?
Max Siegel: We found in our research that the majority of members we have now are members because they have to be. There’s a big segment of the population that are general participants in our sport that don’t make a connection between the sport and USATF as its national governing body. We also know that the vast majority of our members are youth.
So, the first thing we did was look at the value proposition of membership. You have to create value so people really want to be members. In addition to things that add value from a commercial standout–such as lifestyle discounts for the different age demographics–we will be offering things like training and nutrition tips, and content that is exclusive to members to enhance their active lifestyle.
Jill Geer: Also, we hired (in March, 2013) an Associate Director of Constituent Services. Her name is Desiree Friedman. She previously worked for the CIF (California Interscholastic Federation, the governing body for high school sports in the state) and has an impressive marketing background. Right now, she and her team are essentially tearing down and rebuilding our member benefits: who they’re for, what would attract people who don’t need to have membership, and how we encourage people to want a membership. We’re in the process of building these benefits based on the data that USATF gathered in a grassroots study that went to ten cities around the country where we polled people who know the sport and who don’t know the sport. Also, we’re looking at where our biggest areas for membership growth are. Obviously, we’ve been talking about the LDR community for years. First, we have to put the right membership package together, and then we have to market it to people, which we’ve never really done.
Q: With the diverse constituents in our sport, putting together a membership benefits package that has appeal to all seems like quite a challenge.
Siegel: We’re looking a different categories of membership to address that challenge. Things like a fan membership for people who want so support our national teams, age-group memberships, affinity group/corporate memberships. Even in the area of diversity and inclusion, there are groups like Black Girls Run, which has 100,000 members of African-American females. So, rather than put together an arbitrary set of benefits, we’re listening to our current members and potential members about the things of interest to them.
Actually, we have a 50 percent attrition rate every year. It’s pretty amazing that we sustain 115,000 members when there’s that much turnover. So. we’re also looking at the things we can do to retain our existing members.
Q: Your second Smart Goal is?
To generate $1 million in new revenue each year over the next five years
Q: How do you propose to do this? Through new sponsors? How do you create new commercial opportunities and sell the sport to new sponsors?
Siegel: No, it’s not primarily through new sponsorship, although that’s an important component. USATF’s Bylaws state five purposes of the federation: development, management, performance, marketing, and diversity. Using these purposes as a foundation from a grassroots level, if we market, promote, and develop interest in the sport, drive new participation and membership, then that incremental revenue is significant. It can help our Associations and our (national) federation.
We are doing the same thing with our sanctioned events. Event sanctions are another revenue stream and a huge opportunity. What benefits can we offer sanctioned events and what value can USATF offer them, from the standpoint of the presentation of the event, being part of a national marketing pool, and budget relief for race promoters?
The Neustar, Inc. sponsorship that we sold for the .US National Road Racing Championships–a high six figure multi-year sponsorship–is an example of how we are creating and selling sponsorships to event properties. It’s the most significant sponsorship that we’ve sold in the last 10 years in a brand new sponsor category.
Editor’s Note: The U.S. National Road Racing Championships is USATF’s first wholly owned-and-operated road race. The 12K race will be held for the first time on October 31, 2013 and will serve as the season-capping race for the USA Running Circuit, a series of races that annually provides nearly $1 million in prize money to American runners.
Q: What do you think about Hy-Vee’s sponsorship of the Drake Relays–nearly $1 million–that was rolled out this year? What can USATF do to help facilitate sponsorships on this level for other events?
Siegel: Hy-Vee is the perfect example. I won’t say that USATF was instrumental in selling the sponsorship, but definitely we were involved on the (sponsor) fulfillment side. Drake became a part of our USATF Championship series. We provided TV, which added value to the sponsorship.
Irrespective of the type of event and where it is, all event organizers and promoters look to put people in seats, get as much exposure as possible, have budget relief, and underwrite it. Often, when you
go to a national sponsor, they’re looking for ways to stitch together major events across the country. So, as the federation and national governing body–who, as a partner, collaborates in both the promotion and competitive opportunities for events–we look at attracting high level sponsors across (a series of) events. Also, we’re becoming extremely active in creating commercial opportunities for our athletes and working with them to build their brand while reinforcing the partnerships that USA Track & Field has with events, and frankly, with everyone in the industry.
Geer: Hy-Vee is a great example of how sponsors work, especially with individual meets. The local meet works with, and for, their local corporate partner to get them on board (as a sponsor). Hy-Vee is a Des Moines, IA- based company. (Note: The Drake Relays are held at Drake University in Des Moines.) Then, USATF can help deliver a national platform. In Drake’s case it’s via television and branding, and being part of the USATF national championship series. We were talking to Drake going back to the late Fall (2012).
Q: Tying athlete visibility into these partnerships and branding makes a lot of sense. I’m not sure that USATF has ever done this before in a consistently meaningful way.
Siegel: In fact, Adam Schmenk (USATF’s Associate Director of Broadcasting) and I just got back from Los Angeles, meeting with a lot of cable networks and other production companies and partners. We’re about to start producing a television series called “USATF 36” which follows athletes 36 hours before, during, and after they compete. We’re going to do a number of these television shows and use them as half-hour specials to really educate people about the sport, the athletes, and personalities. We’ll take some of this content and use it before and after track and field broadcasts, on our web site, etc. We’ll be building a brand to the athletes, creating an emotional connection between the fans and the profiled athletes, and then driving viewers to our events. So, we’ve begun to be very active in the media space beyond our live events. This allows us to put the sport’s various assets on different marketing platforms.
Editor’s Note: USATF launched its first “USATF 36” episode, featuring Sanya Richards-Ross, on NBC Sports Network last June during the 2013 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, leading into the ESPN2 broadcast of the meet.
Q: This ties directly into another one of your Smart Goals.
To identify partners to engage in efforts for direct event promotion. In these partnerships, we share risk, control commercial rights and share efforts.
Q: Can you tell me more?
Siegel: Yes, three examples are the Millrose Games, adidas Grand Prix (New York), and Drake. Since I’ve been here we’ve changed the business model from underwriting the entire event and taking no upside to jointly selling sponsorships together. We may cover television and event promotion costs. We help enhance the fan experience and try to drive ticket revenue. This past year has been a really great one for moving into this new model. We not only share risk, but everybody is excited and is committed to make sure the event is successful.
Another reason for partnering with our different major events across the country is to coordinate calendars to ensure that the best athletes–both competitively and commercially–show up. We’re committed to a win-win for everybody. So, in my opinion, we have some unprecedented communication with stakeholders in all these individual events.
Geer: Also, by restructuring the way we partner with events, and by reducing broadcasting costs through our negotiations with the network and our broadcasting company, this year we will reduce our annual costs related to the USATF championship series by $1 million.
Q: Max, your next Smart Goal reads, in part:
To enhance popular engagement through a 15 percent gate increase for events over comparable events from 2011
Q: The popular view is that the general public’s interest in track and field comes primarily in Olympic years. How can we change this perception? What can we do in the presentation of the events that will attract larger attendance?
Siegel: For the last five years I’ve listened to a number of people talk about changing the way we present events, and upgrading their production value. While maintaining the integrity of the competition you need to present it in a way that’s fan friendly, and not necessarily athlete or purist friendly–such as doing some entertaining things related to event broadcasts. Again, I can’t stress enough that shoulder programming, (such as the “USATF 36” episodes I’ve already mentioned) is a great way to attract fans. We talk all the time about how to produce a live event in a way that keeps it efficient from the competition standpoint, and shooting and presenting it in a way that’s easy to follow, engaging, and attracts core fans as well as casual fans.
Geer: There are no easy answers. We’ve been involved in trying to do this for the last few years. I think this question really applies to invitational events because in our championship events you can’t mess with the number of rounds and that kind of thing. Max comes from an entertainment background, so (building the fan base and viewership) is very important to him.
Q: The next Smart Goal is:
To develop a comprehensive event strategy that includes, rather than segments off, youth, long distance running, masters, and administrative events
Q: What’s your rationale behind this goal? Do you feel that some of these sport groups are currently being under-served?
Siegel: No. But the way we’ve been structured as an organization is that youth oversaw youth events, LDR oversaw LDR events, etc. Jim Estes (formerly USATF’s Associate Director of Marketing and Long Distance Running Programs) has been promoted to Director of Events. We want to have some continuity and uniformity (across all events) with respect to the fan experience, all the elements of how they’re presented, maximizing the commercial value of the event for the LOC and USATF as a partner. So, we want everything–such as the merchandise experience, fan experience, the competition–to have as much continuity as we can (across events), and accountability with one person. Frankly, sometimes we get efficiencies by combining things. We’ve had some positive dialogues with gymnastics, for example, about doing some combined events in the Junior area.
We really want to reach out to develop relations with markets across the country. When people want to support our events, they look for economic impact studies and demographic data. When I tell people that 8,000 athletes and their families come to the USATF National Junior Olympic Track & Field Championships for ten days, it raises their eyebrows. It’s economic impact for the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. In the media space, whether it’s broadcast or webcast, perhaps it’s packaging the broadcast rights and getting a partner on board that will start to expose the sport on a wider basis,
Geer: It’s really providing more administrative support across the board for events, which we haven’t done consistently in the past. Now, all USATF’s oversight (of championships and USATF-owned properties) is within our Events Department instead of (individual USATF sport committees). Our Events staff people then bring in other people on our staff to work with the committees, the local organizing committees, and everything else. So, it’s all more centralized than in the past, and we’re more consistent across events. This also helps us to better market the events to potential
Q: A couple of more questions: What additional things can the federation be doing to support our elite and emerging elite athletes whose basic needs are to pay the bills and have a good coach? Also, what can USATF do to get coaches more involved in USATF affairs?
Siegel: Let me give you the top view answer. It’s crystal clear that we’ve gotten better, more efficient, and effective with taking our resources and investing them in the development of our elite athletes, resulting in better performance. We’ll continue to go down the path in terms of economic support, sport science, and investments in high performance training centers. We’re also launching efforts to create commercial opportunities for our athletes. These things should benefit not only our top tier, high visibility, elite athletes, but also our emerging elite athletes where a few thousand dollars really matters in their lives. In fact, I’ve just signed off on some high performance grants to some of our most visible coaches. I don’t know that the world knows that the Bobby Kersees, John Smiths, and Dennis Mitchells of the world get the kind of support [they need] to train their athletes.
Q: Can you comment on USATF’s current relationship with the USOC and how USATF might be able to facilitate better relationships with them?
Siegel: I’ve been around the Olympic movement since 1989. I’ve served on the USA Swimming foundation board and had a great relationship with the USOC. I’ve also served on the board for USATF. I don’t know how it’s been in the past, but we have a fantastic relationship with the USOC. Without giving you any hype, I think they’ve been a extremely collaborative and supportive partner of ours. They’ve certainly supported me and my administration. We don’t have any issues.
Geer: Last March, Scott Blackmun (USOC CEO), Lisa Beard (USOC Chief Marketing Officer), and Kelly Skinner (USOC Sport Performance Team Leader) met with us and several key athlete team leaders about athlete commercial marketing opportunities. They were thrilled with our performance in London.
Q: I understand from conversations with other USATF administrators that the USOC provides its funding to sports federations for their elite athlete programs based on medal earnings in Olympic Games. Do you think there’s room for USATF to expand upon support from the USOC so it’s not tied so closely to medals?
Siegel: We’re already having these discussions. I don’t know that it’s completely based on medal earnings. Their philosophy is to invest in ways so they see a return on their investment. And, a big part of it is medals. The USOC has increased their support of USATF’s high performance programs. The purpose of the USOC’s meeting when they came to meet with us in Indianapolis was to talk about ways that we can collaborate to expand the resource pool–whether we were selling sponsors together, or going after new sponsors. I feel that there are creative things that USATF can do in this arena–as one of the most diverse sports in the Olympic movement with some of the most celebrated and diverse athletes.
Q: What can USATF do to facilitate more coordination and cooperation with the NCAA and collegiate athletic departments and programs to help transition collegiate athletes to the post-collegiate ranks?
Siegel: At the time the USOC was in town there was a lot of discussion about how the Olympic family and the NCAA can more closely align with one another to make each other’s jobs easier and be more integrated. Jill and our staff have had a number of meetings with different leaders at the NCAA about things. We’ve taken a proactive approach to figure out how to make this happen. On the coaches’ side of things, I’ve talked to our staff as recently as two weeks ago about constantly refining what we’re doing in coaches’ education.
Philosophically, we’re trying to be the organization that adds value to our relationships, not what we get out of it. I talk regularly to college coaches about their interest in having access to information, elite coaches, resources, and tools that they need to help them with their athletes. In the last three or four years, I’ve seen improvement.
Geer: Last year, at the U.S. Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Des Moines we conducted a grassroots study in the athlete area and specifically gathered data from collegiate athletes to see what USATF can do to help them. For instance, would a post-collegiate scholarship program make USATF membership useful and appealing for them? We’ve also had meetings with the NCAA and athletes this year about us helping to promote them.
Q: Last question, Max. Your predecessor set a goal of 30 U.S. medals in track and field for the 2012 Olympic Games, and you stuck to that goal. (The U.S. took home 29 medals. – Editor) Are you set on exceeding that count in 2016?
Siegel: I’m certainly not going to lower the expectation of how we perform in the 2016 Games. I think this has given us a good baseline. We’re looking at the programs that we think make us effective. We have a great (administrative) team in place in the high performance area. My expectation as the CEO of the federation is that we do that well or better in the next Olympic Games.
Geer: Also, we had nine fourth place finishes in London. I point this out because there are two things that are coupled: One is the medal goal. The other is: what defines success and failure? We won 29 medals and not 30. No one viewed that as a failure. Instead, it was viewed as a success.
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.
SIEGEL’S SMART GOALS FOR USATF
1. To increase membership in 2013 by 20 percent with no decrease from 2011 in net income.
2. To generate $1 million in new revenue each year for the next five years.
3. To identify ways to make existing opportunities more efficient resulting in financial savings between one and three percent.
4. To identify partners to engage in efforts for direct event promotion. In these partnerships, we share risk, control commercial rights and share profits.
5. To enhance popular engagement through a 15 percent gate increase for events over comparable events from 2011. Then increasing TV ratings by 20 percent and social media by 50 percent.
6. To develop a comprehensive event strategy that includes, rather than segments off, youth, long distance running, masters and administrative events.
7. To establish goals for operating reserves with a five-year goal to have nine months of operating reserves.
8. and 9. Working in tandem to raise $20 million over the next five years to create an endowment with proceeds going to support USATF operations.