Elite Running is Hard, and Competitor’s Corpo BS Just Made it Harder

Rock & Roll Is Dead
Dozens of running events all over the nation have been bought up by CGI’s Rock n’ Roll race series, and now they’re cancelling financial incentives for pro runners. There’s more to the story than meets the eye, but what are the implications here? img. via Wikipedia

As was first reported on RunBlogRun, this weekend Competitor Group, Inc. (CGI), owner of the Rock and Roll race series, the Carlsbad 5000 and numerous running, cycling and triathlon-related publications (including Women’s Running Magazine) announced they are cancelling their elite athlete program for the North American races in their series, effective immediately.  Meaning right now.  Meaning athletes who were all set to race in Philly in two weeks have had their appearance and travel fees pulled.

A Race Results Weekly article quoted CGI’s elite athlete coordinator Matt Turnbull: “Competitor Group has made a strategic business decision to shift resources in the business. As a consequence the Elite Athlete Program in all North American events has been cancelled with immediate effect.” Essentially, CGI will no longer be paying appearance fees or travel and accommodation costs to elite and professional athletes who compete in their races. Prize money, which has already been slashed over the recent years, will remain … for now.

It’s no surprise that this seemingly abrupt change of policy has sent the running media into a bit of a frenzy. Some, including commenters on this LetsRun thread felt it was a prudent decision, that the money spent on the few speediest runners is better spent providing more perks to the majority of the participants. Others, like American 50k record holder Josh Cox, see it as a statement about the overall state of elite running in the U.S. and a wake up call to the elite and pro ranks to work harder to market themselves. Many agree with part of Cox’s statement, saying that this is emblematic of the overall decline in the support and quality of elite and professional running in the U.S.

Personally, I have a different take.

Before I give my opinions, a little background. As with all controversies there is more to the story than the headlines.

For the Love of Benji
It’s all about the Benjis, baby. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First, CGI has actually been reducing prize purses for its races over the past 5 years while at the same time significantly increasing the number of races in its portfolio. According to running commentator Toni Reavis, when Elite Racing became CGI in 2007 the total prize purse for 6 Rock and Roll events was $1.6 million, or $267,000 per race. Last year the total prize purse for 30 RNR events was just under $1 million, or $33,000 per race. Second, in 2007 Elite Racing was sold to a private equity firm (which used it as the cornerstone of CGI) and in late 2012 it was sold again, this time to another firm called Calera Capital.

When a company is acquired by a private equity firm the focus of the corporation shifts from being about the spirit of the product or the mission of the founders to, quite simply, the bottom line. If an aspect of the business isn’t maximizing potential profit then it must be reconsidered, restructured or eliminated. I am sure that is a simplification of the situation; it is also an overwhelming accurate generalization.

As I have pondered this announcement and done research, I have become a bit perturbed with Josh Cox and Toni Reavis’ suggestion that much of the blame lays with the pro athletes themselves for not doing more to market themselves. What they fail to acknowledge is that the majority of the elite American runners simply do not have the luxury to support themselves by selling products for sponsors. USATF employs strict rules governing an athlete’s ability to accept and market sponsorship that severely limit American athletes’ abilities to secure sponsorship income sufficient to provide them with a living wage.

To suggest that the decision of Calera and CGI to eliminate the elite support is due to athletes’ laziness in self-marketing completely ignores USATF’s role in perpetuating this problem. Until USATF provides the athletes with more access to resources by making it more desirable for companies to sponsor them we ought not blame the runners for not doing more to sell themselves. If I was a company I wouldn’t want to financially support a runner who could only wear a certain number of logos, all small, often in muted colors on their teeny tiny uniforms! This video by Oiselle provides a wonderful real-life illustration of this dilemma:

Watch more video of To The Core on flotrack.org

I must add that I may have some secondhand experience that makes me biased. A good friend of mine spent a number of years as an elite professional road cyclist; we’re talking national champion, World Cup winner, winner of stages in European tours, member of multiple national teams…you get the picture. Despite those accomplishments she still worked part time during many seasons and full time in her off-season to supplement her “lucrative” contract, which topped out at in the low 5 figures per year.

It was an exhausting existence but one that she maintained, as do many pro runners, for the simple love of the sport. At the end of the day these elite athletes train and compete for the same reason that you and I do:  they just love it. The elites and pros run to test themselves, to push and improve, for the runner’s high, for the sense of accomplishment that comes from racing well or setting a new PR.  They do it for those same benefits we do, regardless of our place in the pack, but their stakes are higher because their natural gift and hard work have opened the door for them to compete professionally. While it is the athlete’s choice to pursue such a career it is still an extremely hard existence for all but the very top tier.

In addition to cutting out funding to the elites, by buying up so many of the most prestigious races around the country (80+ and growing, according to their publicly available press kit) CGI has removed the potential for those communities to be exposed to elite level racing, thereby further reducing the exposure of these athletes to corporate sponsorship interest sufficient to motivate USATF to change its rules anytime soon. CGI could have taken a long term view and seen it as their responsibility as a vehicle for the sport to increase public excitement about professional running (essentially what they were aiming to do with their Grand Prix series) and thereby increase the corporate sponsorship of their events, leading to increased profits for them in the big picture and increased opportunities for the pro runners. Unfortunately, ownership by a private equity firm made them vulnerable to short term, profit-driven decisions such as this.

CGI’s decision is certainly surprising to most and was, no doubt, executed in poor taste. But is it emblematic of a wider decline of the sport on a professional level? Will it have a long-term impact on the health of the sport? I honestly do not think that we can predict that yet. It does, undoubtedly, reflect CGI and Calera’s belief that their money is better spent on the participants than on the professionals but beyond that I personally believe that it is just too soon to make any sweeping judgements. By butchering their prize purses over the past 5 years Competitor Group had already driven many of the elite runners towards other racing opportunities that offer better paydays. By now essentially eliminating all support of the top tier of runners optimists could argue that they’ve opened the door for other road races to step in and attract these runners to their events. CGI’s loss, hopefully, will only serve to be other races’ gain.

What are your thoughts on CGI and this recent announcement?

Extrovert. Unabashed fan of all things running. Mom/chauffeur/sidekick to a busy child who may be more eloquent than I am and wife to a husband who works so hard many people don't think he actually exists. Gymnast turned coxswain turned competitive runner hoping to become faster as a master.

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  1. For our readers who might not be up to speed on what happened, I’d recommend reading Toni Reavis’ post as it details the decision and puts it in historical context. http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/01/competitor-group-pulls-the-plug-on-elite-racing/

    THEN read Competitor Group’s response that he posted. http://tonireavis.com/2013/09/02/competitor-ceo-scott-dickey-responds/ It is ridiculous. According to them, Competitor Group (COMPETITOR!) is a “health and wellness company dedicated to promoting a healthy lifestyle.” Maybe they should change their name to Participant Group or Active Persons Group? They are moving the money from the COMPETITION to “entertainment, the experience … and efforts to increase participation.”

    I am all about getting people off the couch and I like that races can be a friendly place for the less athletic among our running family. Increasing participation at all levels is really great, but when your name is COMPETITOR GROUP and you’ve taken control of some of the best most COMPETITIVE races in the country and then *poof!* (to steal from Toni Reavis) remove all focus from the competitive athletic event to focusing completely on making RACES cushy entertainment is just ironic and sad.

    I could go on … and on … and on … 🙂

  2. What a joke. Thanks for this post and Salty’s response… both very informative! If I hadn’t already had zero interest in ever running one of their races (just seem to be way too corporate and also way oversold/too many participants), this would have confirmed it. I like to stick to local nonprofit races when possible!

  3. This is so sad. It’s so difficult to be a professional athlete and I feel like companies like CGI should be helping to support it. It just goes to show that when large companies take over anything, even running, it becomes more about profits than about the people.

  4. I say support your local road races. I may alienate some by suggesting this, but forget RnR and Disney. Find a local race where you can support your immunity and reap the benefits of an race where YOU matter. I still support the classics- Peachtree, Falmouth, Boston, NYC, etc. However, the new money making promo events are too much hype and too much $.

      1. That’s a really great point, Jason! A lot of local races also directly benefit charitable organizations in our local communities too. Running local indies is a great way to support your community AND get the lead out 🙂