Racing toward a new biz plan: Goals for USA Track & Field: Raise money; don’t drop the baton

Keywords Sports Business

Doug Logan’s heart sank as he watched the baton hit the ground on the final exchange of the women’s 400-meter relay. Earlier that same night at the Beijing Olympics, the U.S. men’s 400-meter relay team had done the exact same thing. Neither team would make it past the semifinal round.

Logan, who has been CEO of locally based USA Track & Field since only mid-July, could hear the e-mail box in his Indianapolis office filling up all the way from his perch at the Bird’s Nest in China.

“I knew we were going to hear about that,” Logan said. “Those are high-profile failures.”

But Logan knows the organization’s challenges aren’t limited to fixing problems on the track. It needs a business plan to attract more money and fan interest, a goal observers say is every bit as achievable as holding on to the baton.

“Track and field right now has more potential for growth than any other sport,” said David Morton, president of Sunrise Sports Group, a local sports marketing consultancy. “The athletes don’t wear helmets and they’re easily identifiable, the sport is easy to understand, and it has plenty of drama.”

Logan, a Vietnam War veteran decorated with two bronze stars, thinks he can capitalize on that potential, but first he wants to review the sport from top to bottom.

He plans to announce in the next few weeks formation of a task force that will look at everything from team training camps and the timing of the Olympic trials, to forming a series of events in the United States culminating in a series championship.

“The relay drop is symptomatic [of] a much larger problem in the way we prepare our athletes,” Logan said, from USATF’s headquarters along Washington Street downtown.

“I have received e-mails from people across the country, particularly about the relays,” Logan said. “They all say more or less the same thing: The dropped batons were reflective of a lack of preparation, lack of professionalism, and of leadership. I agree. Dropping a baton isn’t bad luck; it’s bad execution.”

In fairness, the U.S. track team’s medal count wasn’t disastrous. Track-and-field athletes scored 23 medals, including seven golds, nine silvers and seven bronzes. That compares to eight golds, 12 silvers and five bronzes in the 2004 Athens Olympics.

But observers agree the sport needs an overhaul.

Greg Harger, head coach and director of the Indiana Invaders, which counts a handful of Olympic athletes and hopefuls among its ranks, applauds Logan’s efforts.

“Bringing someone in from outside the sport is the best thing USA Track & Field could have done,” Harger said. “They need someone to shake things up.”

Bob Kennedy, a former Olympic distance runner and owner of a local chain of running stores, said it will be difficult to overhaul the U.S. system.

“Every athlete has their own coach and their own training program, and getting these individual athletes to put their own goals aside for the good of the team won’t be easy,” Kennedy said. “You’re talking about overhauling a system that’s been around a long time.”

While some corners of the U.S. track world are cheering Logan, others are still mourning the departure of his predecessor, Craig Masback, who grew USATF’s annual budget from $6.7 million to $17 million in 10 years. Masback left USATF early this year to take a post with Nike.

“In many respects, [Logan] will need to be a unifying force,” Kennedy said.

He’ll have a little more than five years to get the job done. Logan’s contract runs through the end of 2013, with a renewal option that can be exercised earlier that year. He’ll be paid approximately what Masback earned in 2006: about $375,000.

From the other side of the track

Other than his affinity for distance running, Logan has almost no experience in track and field. But the 65-year-old Cubanborn U.S. Army veteran has a history of building businesses out of pastimes.

He was an early promoter of the Arena Football League in 1985, became the commissioner and CEO of Major League Soccer from its startup in 1995 to 2001, and was a consultant in 2001 to a group that launched the National Rugby League.

In 1996, he was named sports industrialist of the year by Sports Business Daily. After he left the MLS, Logan headed to New York-based Empresario LLC, an international sports consulting firm. Just before joining MLS, Logan, who is fluent in Spanish, was the director for OCESA SA, the largest concert promoter in Mexico.

Logan studied civil engineering at Manhattan College from 1961-64 before being drafted into the military. After his stint in the military, he put himself through night classes at the University of Baltimore Law School, graduating in 1972.

One of his early tasks will be deciding which of many challenges facing the sport to conquer first.

As far as the relays go, Harger said one alternative is to allow teams of four to form themselves and compete for the Olympic relay spots. He said part of the problem of putting together an all-star relay team is that all the nation’s best sprinters are accustomed to running the final relay leg. The relay anchor is used to accepting-but not passing off-the baton.

But Harger thinks Logan’s biggest challenges are more far-reaching than fixing the relay teams.

“We have no business model and no platform for our athletes or our sport that works with American consumers,” Harger said. “To address those issues, I think you’ll have to look outside our sport to models that are working in this country.”

PGA, ATP, NASCAR offer models

The PGA and ATP Tour offer models to be emulated, Logan said. Harger also recommended taking a look at NASCAR.

“No one does a better job of promoting its stars than NASCAR,” Harger said.

Logan said he met with numerous key contacts-from potential TV and corporate partners to event promoters-during his nearly three weeks in Beijing.

“I was booked morning, noon and night,” Logan said. “I had one-on-one contact with 80 percent of the people relevant to this sport from around the world. The planning process to improve this sport in the U.S. is well under way.”

Logan said a series of four to six track and field events in the United States culminating in a championship could be launched as early as next year. But he is setting his sights on 2010 for a major series launch. Carroll Track and Soccer Stadium on the IUPUI campus has been identified as one of the possible sites for a major meet.

Visa recently sponsored a series of events with a $100,000 grand prize, but Kennedy said it never gained much traction with the U.S. audience.

“In this day and age, $100,000 is not enough to get people’s attention,” Kennedy said. “We have to bring more sponsorship and money to the table.”

To do that, Kennedy said, USATF and its athletes have to find a way to bring sponsors a bigger return on their investment.

“We have to do more than put sponsors’ name on a banner and give them a TV spot during a meet,” Kennedy said. “We have to train our athletes how to deliver better value to these companies and their shareholders.”

Kennedy said things like appearing at corporate-sponsored health fairs, youth clinics and other gatherings are a must.

“We have to retool ourselves as a sport and retool our athletes to get them to understand that they are a critical element of the financial success of this sport,” he said.

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