Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Death of Professional Running

I woke up today to news that, effective immediately, Competitor Group International (CGI, owners of the Rock n Roll "race" series) have discontinued their support of elite athletes. This means there will be no appearance fees, no travel/lodging, and no prize purses (although the prize purse at Rock n Roll Philadelphia will be honored in two weeks).


As I had a lengthy day in the saddle, it allowed me some time to reflect (see also: become enraged) about this decision and its ultimate impact on our sport.

CGI is a business, and they made a business decision that the nearly half a million dollars (annual) that go to the elite athlete program could be better spent elsewhere. In order to present both sides of the argument, I'll start with a reality:

Most people don't sign up for a race because of which elite athlete(s) will be there. In fact, by the time most elite fields are announced and finalized, the bigger races in which they compete have been sold out for months (NYC, Boston, Chicago Marathons, to name a few). Is it cool to be on the start line next to or near the world's fastest runners? Sure. But most people choose races for myriad reasons other than which professional runner will be there.

CGI isn't the first to make this business decision. Just this past week it was announced (although generally known for the past few months) that Under Armour would no longer be the title sponsor of the Baltimore Marathon. I believe they waited until the race had filled up to a point where widespread panic wouldn't kill their registration numbers. Nothing about the race changes, Under Armour has very little to do with the actual logistics of the race. They sponsor the race t-shirts, and their sponsorship allowed for the $150,000 prize purse ($25,000 to M/F winner).

What happens every year at Baltimore is that 10 African men and a handful of Russian and Ethiopian women come in, scoop up all the money, and leave. Besides reasonably quick times on a generally accepted slow course, they don't really bring any value to the race.

As an aside, I'd say my bigger issue with it is that Under Armour has, on two previous occasions, launched a running shoe line with little to no success. They're currently in their third iteration and desperately trying (or at least trying to seem like they're trying) to become a "running company." No longer sponsoring the biggest running event in their own city damages that credibility.

So what happened?

Wall Street happened, and if you bothered to watch the sequel, you'd know that Money Never Sleeps. Shareholders are the worst thing that could ever have happened to our sport.

I received an email this week from CGI (I deleted it without even reading it, naturally) but it had something to do with Port-a-Pottys. You can now pay a premium and have access to private (see: nicer) portable toilets prior to the race, with guaranteed shorter lines. The airlines loves this business tactic. Super cheap flights! Oh, you want food? Pay more. Oh, you want to board first and avoid the melee? Pay more. Oh, you want to fly a bike? Hand over your first born.

The sad thing is, there are people who pay for these services because they're willing to pay. And ultimately, in business, if there is a market, and demand, then it's foolish not to supply - and charge a premium.

In the end, 99% of the "competitors" won't notice the change. Probably because they'll be too busy playing with their headphones/iPhones during the race to notice (had to say it). But taking money away from the elites DOES have an impact, not just on the overall competitiveness of the race, but the entire sport.

The following is purely hypothetical, and is clearly embellished. But in its absurdity, and the current trend, who's to say it couldn't happen:

At any big race you have athletes that fit into a few buckets. Elite, who are the cream of the crop and usually make a decent living. Then you have the sub-elite, who are trying to get to that next level and often struggling to get by. Next you have regional or local elite, who are concerned with running against the best competition they can find. Then you have local competitive runners, who benefit from a big race being held near where they live, and can be assured that the race will allow them to reach their potential. Next is competitive recreational. These folks like to run, will occasionally race, but it is really a hobby. Then you have pretty much everyone else - your joggers, your race-aholics, your special interest groups, your "prove something to somebody" people, your Gallowalkers, your gimmick runners, everybody.

You could go a step further and say that now there will be just as many athletes competing for fewer dollars, which, in case you didn't already know, is part of the reason athletes turn to Performance Enhancing Drugs in the first place.

The elites are gone now, there's no incentive for them to go. The sub-elites now don't show up, because they're trying to run fast enough or finish high enough at a prestigious race to qualify for Oly Trials, or get sponsors. Local elites say forget this, why am I paying $90 for a half marathon with no competition? Local competitive people now are embarrassed that they're winning these races that once use to be icons of the sport. What are you left with?


Ay, there's the rub.

The meteoric rise of gimmick runs, where the emphasis is on anything BUT running, has clearly threatened CGI's plans. People don't want to run marathons anymore, and soon the half marathon landscape will be saturated. People consider running events as part of their entertainment budget now. (Cue Gladiator "ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?!")

Gimmick runs have somehow managed to trick people into thinking that paying $75 for a "5k" is the market efficiency, and guess what: YOU DON'T HAVE TO TRAIN for it. This is also why I believe Under Armour is dropping their support. The marathon is not growing, it's remained stagnant for a while. The Baltimore Marathon will never have a big field. They tried to make it the premier event. They took all the money out of the half as well as the other prize categories and threw it at the overall. Didn't move the needle.

Then you have 25,000 people on a Saturday running around the stadiums having paint thrown at them. Cool story bro.

Let's fast forward to the 2036 Olympics. Because there is no feasible way to be a professional athlete in an Olympic sport, your Olympic Marathon team will be captained by Ron Willard, a 1:54 half marathoner with bad knees, and Nancy Vasquez, who recently achieved her goal of breaking 3 hours for 13.1 miles - but only according to her GPS, because the course must have been long.

CGI, like any solid American company, is centered around greed. It's important to remember that they are actually for-profit, so every dollar we give them aids in fattening the pockets of their awesome CEO. Think that $500,000 savings is going to go to lowering registration fees? Ha, right. If anything, they'll go up at a rate exponentially higher than inflation.

CGI is forgetting one thing - they didn't invent the sport, we did. Guess what else we, as runners, do? We determine the market efficiency of a good or service. CGI is not composed of runners, they're made up of business people that know little to nothing about our sport. Do you really want to support an organization that sees us merely as dollar signs? With this announcement, they have effectively said they do not care about the sport of running. They do not care to advance it. They do not care to see it progress.

The power of our community is great. We can start by encouraging people not to race in their events. Do you really want to hear shitty bands anyway? Perhaps the most unfortunate thing is that at the rate they keep snatching up existing races, there won't be anything but Rock n Roll events. So then we just don't do them. We hold our own races. We make them free. We make them awesome.

There are more people running now, but there are fewer competing.

Races are supposed to be exactly that - a race. Races didn't start so that we could feel good about walking 13.1 miles and putting a sticker on our car. They started to fuel our innate desire for competition. All you need for a race is a start and finish line, and someone to compete against. Otherwise, just go out with some friends on a weekend, run 13.1 miles together (probably all wearing headphones), take a picture of your GPS saying how far and how fast, Instagram it, and poof. If you want a medal, email me, I have some to spare.

CGI is lazy. They don't invent, they don't innovate. They take other people's ideas and incorporate them and try to pass them off as theirs. AND WE KEEP BUYING IT!

And while I've always had a problem with CGI, it's not just them. It's also World Triathlon Corporation, the folks that own the Ironman brand. They've taken out so much money from the sport - a sport that has athletes with a lot of disposable income. What motivation does WTC have to treat their professionals well? Pay them a livable wage? They have these pros in a vice.

For instance, did you know 50 professional men and only 35 professional women are allowed into Kona now? And you have to race a ton to accumulate points to qualify. Oh, and they don't pay most pros' travel expenses. And if you don't make it to Kona this year, it's infinitely harder to make it the following year because of the points system. Without Kona, it's almost impossible to make it as an Ironman pro.

Realistically, there are only a handful of men or women that can actually win at Kona. But that's not the point - the point is advancing the sport and competing. If there are more competitors, it encourages more people to compete and amazing things can happen.

So what can we do to create change? We can start by supporting the sponsors of events and athletes that are doing good. Take Oiselle, for instance. They are sponsoring elite and sub-elite athletes, trying to help them get to the next level. Zap Fitness, Hansons-Brooks, these are little enclaves that provide help to athletes as they try to fulfill their goal of being a professional athlete. Companies like New Balance, Saucony, they're doing it too by sponsoring at local levels and really being in the streets. If you have some favorite athletes, support their sponsors, and be sure to let them know WHY you're supporting them. I do that all the time. It lets the company know that their sponsorship is effective, and they'll keep doing it. Together we can start a revolution. If we don't do something, soon CGI won't be the only ones not paying elites. And if CGI continues their aggressive expansion model, there won't be any races left.

Next it's a trickle-down economy effect. Today, Nissan might be at an expo because they sponsor Ryan Hall. If he's there, people come to the booth. If he's not there, Nissan might have no reason to be there. Soon there's less sponsorship money coming into the race, and registration fees have to go up. Then when people realize doing a half marathon isn't as cool anymore, registration numbers decline. This isn't good for any of us!

With this announcement, CGI has just confirmed what we already knew: that they consider their events a parade.

If you agree with what this, spread the word. If they aren't going to support professionals, we can't support them.

Oh, and the whole "Rock n Roll" business, that's got to go. Nobody is interested in bands that are on the course. For the people racing it's loud and obnoxious. And everybody else is wearing headphones - what does that say about how much they want to hear bands?


Ancient Chinese Secret said...

I ran RnR San Antonio Marathon in 2008 and I knew back then those people are up to no good in our sport. I been boycotted them ever since. Never too late for y’all follow me!

pepperjackb said...

Rock 'n' Roll St. Pete cancelled.

RM said...

It's really a shame because Philly Distance Run was the best half marathon on the planet, and since they took over it's never been the same. I'm sad that this will be the last year I'll run it, mostly because it's a fun weekend I always look forward to getting to race with my friends.