Competitor Group’s decision to cut it’s elite athlete programs and redirect the funds to increasing back-of-the-pack participation has been met with the reactions you would expect. Either Competitor is an evil anti-elite runner corporation or made a sensible business decision because no one but elites and a handful of LetsRun readers care about elites, anyway. There is also the alternative view posited most notably by Josh Cox that elites deserve to be cut-off because they don’t do anything other than run fast and expect a paycheck.
As with most controversies, there’s a little truth in all sides. But the real reason that I am offended by CGI isn’t because they cut funding to their elite programs, it’s their justification for doing it that really bugs me and it should bug you too.
It’s Just Business.
Sure, Competitor Group (CGI) is a business. If the elite support program wasn’t a good investment, then they should get rid of it to be more profitable … if profit is the only metric. But come on! is that all that matters? Should that be the end of the discussion? Will any other motivation change CGI’s decision other than where the dollars come from? Probably not, but that doesn’t mean we should quit talking about whether the decision was good for the sport of running or what the decision means about the current state of and the future of the sport of running.
It’s the Athletes’ Fault Because Athletes Have Nothing Better to Do Than Corporate Marketing.
As for whether the majority of current and future customers of CGI races care about elites, well they likely don’t. Josh Cox and some others argue that some of the fault for that lays at the feet of the elites themselves. From CGI’s perspective, elites are a tool to promote their races, so what were they doing with the elites? Elites are a great resource to have at your disposal. How was CGI using this resource? Expecting them to just show-up and somehow that would return a profit on the investment?
Would the elites who benefited from the CGI programs have done more than just show up if CGI asked them to? If they asked elite athletes to do something and the athletes refused to do it, then that’s a different story, but let’s face it, if someone was going to pay you to run as long as you wore a dumb sandwich board or a purple bunny suit at the expo, I bet you’d do it.
This leads to the question: whose job is it to determine what athletes need to do to earn their money? Who has the advantage of a marketing department filled with trained marketing professionals, CGI or the athletes? Who knows how to sell the product: the seller or the hired help? Isn’t it CGI’s job to use the tools it has to market its product? Why is it the athletes’ job to figure out how to hustle for CGI? Is a marketing degree a prerequisite for being an elite runner?
Sure, elites could otherwise do something to promote themselves to the masses and they should. Perhaps elite runners need an association to promote their value to the masses. Hey, USATF! I’m talking to you. Maybe USATF is dropping the ball here (although they seem to be trying to improve), or maybe there needs to be a separate association dedicated to this purpose, I don’t know. But asking individual athletes to figure this out and blaming them when they are trying to financially get by and train at an elite level is a bit rich.
Why This Sucks for All Runners.
What really bothers me the most about this–and the real reason I believe every runner should be outraged–comes from CGI’s justification for its decision. But first, let’s think about this:
CGI puts on running races. It’s name is Competitor Group. Yet its CEO, Scott Dickey, when asked about the decision to cut funding to elite athlete programs, had this to say (emphasis added):
Competitor Group is at it’s core a health and wellness company dedicated to promoting and enhancing an active lifestyle. Lifestyle is the key word, not Sport. Rock n’ Roll marathons have always been about the journey, the commitment, the personal dedication required to train and finish a half or full marathon. We’re not about how fast you complete the race, we’re about the fact that you showed up on the start line and the commitment one has made to complete the journey.
Wait. WHAT?! A company called Competitor that is one of the biggest promoter of running races is all about lifestyle and not sport? Come again?
The Carlsbad 5000, which is owned by CGI, is about having the courage to show up and not about how fast you run? Then why the hell does it bill itself as the WORLDS FASTEST 5K? Why do Rock N Roll races boast about fast flat courses and Boston qualifiers if it’s never been about that? Why EVER support elites who are athletes engaged in a sport if your company has always been about feel-good lifestyle activities rather than about a sporting event?
This absurd justification tells me that CGI doesn’t give two…er…’hoots’ about health and wellness. This goes back to point one: this is all about the money. From CGI’s perspective, that’s all that matters: how they can make the most money with investing the least. Whatever the fallout of that decision is, who cares as long as the money keeps rolling in?
And what is CGI purportedly going to do with the money it used to spend on elite programs? Good Question! Dickey explains:
We’re going to reinvest those dollars into entertainment, the experience, more staff to execute more flawlessly, and in our continued efforts to increase participation.
And okay, so you might still be thinking “so what?” What’s the big problem?
The problem is that our sport suffers. Yes, our sport. My sport and your sport and that guy who just started running’s sport. Yes, the elites suffer, but we all suffer when the one of the biggest promoter of running races in North America caters to the lowest common denominator, betting that more people believe that “just showing up” is the achievement rather than the hard work and personal boundary pushing that have historically been the draw of races and the sport of running. Why are people drawn to run half and full marathons? To hear bands play? For the bag of chips and warm beer at the finish line? For the chintzy medal and a couple of photo ops? If that’s the only reason, why would we keep coming back?
When people attend a race, they expect a race. (Just guessing, but I do, and I imagine you do as well.) I checked the dictionary to see what it says a race or to race is (I figure the common definition is probably what people expect when they sign up for a race, right?) Here’s what it said:
1. a competition between runners, horses, vehicles, boats, etc., to see which is the fastest in covering a set course.
1. move or progress swiftly or at full speed.
Scott Dickey, it does not say this:
1. a group of people covering a set distance while being entertained and doing it as comfortably as possible.
1. to show up and be entertained.
Even the least naturally or historically athletic among us runners are attracted to running as a way of becoming more athletic. The whole purpose of taking up running is because it’s a sport and people want a more athletic lifestyle, whether to lose weight, increase health and fitness or for the sake of it. Why can’t a race be about sport and fun? Aren’t sports fun? Isn’t running a lifestyle? Does anyone really sign up for a race for the “entertainment” and are appalled when people are actually racing (trying to get from start to finish as fast as possible – why do I feel like I have to keep explaining what a race is?)
Ah. Do you think someone at CGI saw the rise of mud runs, color runs and other “fun runs” and thought that this is where the future of the running craze is going and therefore the running dollars are going? Instead of separating themselves as “real races,” CGI and its Rock N Roll series will now join the “fun runs” in the race to the bottom – whoever completely unsports and unathletes and uncompetitors running and races first wins! CGI takes the lead in the sport of running’s race to the bottom. Bravo.
See, the real insult isn’t that CGI is going to stop paying appearance fees and accommodating elites at its races. The real insult is that they think if they remove the concepts of “sport” or “athlete” from their events that they will somehow attract more participants. That color run and mud run participants will suddenly be interested in half and full marathons because now they’re not sports. What is with the insinuation that vast numbers of people are turned off by the notion of sport, but turned on by gimmicks, entertainment and shiny shiny medals and worse, insta-achievement?
It assumes that even our back-of-the-pack brothers and sisters aren’t working their tails off on race day or that couch potatoes will be motivated to get away from the tv set and hit the starting line if there’s a better band playing than because they’re inspired to better themselves through athletics. It’s assuming that more of us marching through the streets of every major and minor American city in the spring and fall are there just ‘cuz and not because we want to push our personal limits and see our training put to the test. It’s assuming that a competitive front-of-the-mid-packer like me who has never once run one of their races isn’t a potential paying customer. Which is fine, because I’m not paying all that money to be “entertained.” I pay my racing money to, well, be a competitor and race (see dictionary).